When I was a kid, I was a fan of a Belgian comic series called Tintin. One of the characters, called Professor Tournesol, excelled at creating pointless inventions, like these engine-powered roller skates. A few years after that, I was gifted my first iPod (by the amazing Taylor family!) which, unlike Tournesol’s roller skates, felt like an amazing innovation.

All these memories came back to me recently, as I was talking with a friend about Tesla. He made the following point: “electric cars have been invented a long time ago, so why is everybody calling Tesla an innovative company?”

This point is legitimate. So legitimate that some variant of it keeps coming back every time innovation happens, like it just did this week with The Verge listing what the iPhone X borrowed from the Palm Pre.

When BlackBerry released their first email phone, people said that sending emails on your phone was doable 10 years back. When the iPhone came out, people said that touch-screen phones were not new. And now that Tesla is releasing electric cars, people say that electric cars have been around for a while.

Such statements are true, in the sense that none of these companies invented the technology it is famous for. Yet, they fail to recognize the key point: merely inventing something is not being innovative. Innovations have an extra component that inventions lack: they are popular. In other words, an innovation is an invention that has spread enough to affect the behavior of many. To convince yourself, just head to the closest fair. You will see tons of pointless Tournesol-minded inventions – AC-shoes, shoe-umbrellas, hands-free potato peeler… whatever, you name it. It will be obvious that none of them is an innovation.

So innovative companies are not necessarily the ones that invent stuff. They are the ones that bring inventions’ characteristics closer to the mainstream demand’s expectations. And when that happens, the invention goes from the innovators public, to the early adopters public. That’s the genuine “innovation moment“.

When you look back at each of the examples mentioned above, it becomes obvious that innovators succeed thanks to their ability to extend the customer demand beyond the innovators bit by making existing technologies convenient enough to be suitable for the general public:

  • Yes, it was possible to send emails using your phone before BlackBerry. Yet, the process was so painful that only a tiny niche of users bothered doing so. BlackBerry made that process way easier, and got a wide audience of people to start doing it.
  • Yes, it was possible to download, burn, store and listen to MP3 files on mobile players before the iPod. But it was too complicated for most people to give up their old habit of using CDs. Apple’s iTunes, coupled with the iPod gave people a one-stop shop for doing it all, enabling the general public to switch.
  • Similarly, yes, electric cars existed before Tesla. But unless you were a die-hard ecologist, bad design coupled with uncertainty about convenience (eg. charging) made most people look the other way. Tesla brought good-looking cars and made people feel confident about the charging part, which is what was needed for early adopters to do the big leap.

In all of these cases, it’s not raw engineering power that made these companies successful. They did spend a lot on R&D (though not necessarily so much compared to their competitors), but it’s their razor thin understanding of the demand characteristics that allowed them to succeed. They knew how to tweak the offering in a way that would make it more convenient and appealing. And that’s what the innovation process is all about: understanding what holds early adopters back and fixing it. More of a marketing function than anything else if you ask me.

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