Wednesday, November 16, 2011

a failing minority in the democracy of ideas.

i've been noticing a trend that has always existed, and will likely always continue to exist (that doesn't mean i have to like it):

businesses cater to massive trends, and seem to rarely be incentivized to innovate, and create better products/services for people who would consume them.

to be clear - i'm not saying companies don't innovate, i'm just saying their method of doing so is often slow-moving, and not always rewarded/prioritized.

let me give you 3 not-so-quick examples:

#1. UPS
i buy a LOT of stuff online. comic books, electronics, clothing, and most recently a pretty awesome winter coat. Amazon is my ecommerce venue of choice, so many of these items are shipped UPS, which as you know, often requires a signature. as i no longer work from home, i often do the yellow-paper dance with which we are all undoubtedly familiar. 

there's a yellow slip of paper on your front door saying you missed the delivery. you can either pick it up directly from UPS (which i do in the case of expensive electronics or other awesome toys), or sign a sheet of paper to leave it at your front door. 

first, how ridiculous is it that i order something to ship to me, but i am willing to go pick it up?  in most cases, i sign the sheet of paper, and the package arrives the next day. hooray for a stupid one-day delay! 

i've often wondered WHY, when ordering my goods, i can't just tell UPS in advance that they have my authorization to just leave it at my door. it certainly would save them from having to make the extra trip, and i'd get my package of awesomeness sooner.

so, yesterday i got an email from Amazon (yay) saying my new winter coat had shipped. sweet. i checked the tracking # online, and saw it would be arriving the next day. on the UPS website, i also noticed some callouts for "UPS My Choice." sounds interesting, a service that allows me to receive alerts and tell UPS to just leave the box at my door (no dance needed!)

after a confusing sign-up process (and i'm a digital geek, so you know the user experience sucked) where i gave my entire family history to UPS, i found out i had to PAY a premium to opt into the desired no-dance service of them just leaving the damned box. no way, i already just bought an expensive coat, and have an Amazon prime account. 

instead, this morning i decided to be coy, and left a note for UPS on my door with my name, my signature, and my authorization to leave the package (including the shipper AND tracking #). alas, i arrived home to a yellow slip which i signed as i shed a tear. 

honestly, i'm tempted to call/email UPS and tell them about my consumer frustration. why isn't their service free? why isn't a letter i post (or potentially even a form letter i can print from their website) good enough? i'm ceding their liability of a lost package! and it saves them money from having to make an extra trip! 

honestly, i work at a major corporation, so i have some idea for why nothing is changing. "enough people haven't complained about it," "it's not a big enough opportunity." at the end of the day it would make consumers happy, and frankly, give them a key innovation/point of differentiation. every day they DON'T do something is a day someone else can figure it out (eg, Amazon).

next example.

#2: Google Reader
this one is of a recent heartbreak (as i always have, and only now still kinda do, heart Google). 

do you use Gmail? it's great isn't it? those guys at Google sure are swell. one of the best known secrets about Google has always been Google Reader (you used to be able to click the "Reader" link at the top of your gmail to be able to discover it). VS constantly going to 20 million sites for information, you can have it all ported to you, on-demand, DVR style. that's basically how RSS works

but somehow the geeks at Google found a way to make it EVEN BETTER. just when this whole "social networking" thing was really taking off (back in the stone age, like 2007), they added their own "social features." if you used Google Reader, and say your gChat buddy Lindsay did too, man were you in for a treat. as Lindsay read to her heart's content on Google Reader, she could clicked "share" at the bottom of an article she read on say, "NY/Paris apartment design." this would add to a growing list of selected articles that Lindsay had read (and deemed share-worthy), that all her friends could see. 

so now, every morning i would go read my geeky Tech blog, my nerdy comic book blog (sharing articles i thought were cool along the way so my friends could see them), and THEN, see an ultra-cool list of curated content from my friend Lindsay, who is totally in the know about hip cool stuff i normally could not be bothered with. over time, this became my favorite part of Google Reader. learning about things via curated content from my diverse friends, and sharing my personal geekeries with them (to be clear, we're all geeks about something, this just allowed us to learn more about what our friends were geeks about).

"but Raman," you say, "you can already do that on Facebook/Google+/Twitter!" ahh yes and no, my dear reader (no pun intended). when you share something on Facebook, it goes into an immediate stream of thought (e.g, broadcast TV). when you would share something on Google Reader, it would gointo a nice little organized pile of content, organized by person. so if i'm not feeling like looking up hip urban stuff Lindsay has to share, i don't have to (though let's be honest, i'll eventually want to). instead i can go about reading my comic book blogs, OR even go read the best articles about hacking/MMORPGs from my buddy Josh (sorry, it just wasn't feeling like a Lindsay day). it was "on demand curated content" - enabled/discovered by social relationships. it's like a DVR. and we all love our DVRs, don't we?

so why am i harping on about something i love? if you can't already tell by my above use of the past tense, i'll break your heart now. Google decided to recently KILL the social features of Google Reader. now we are left with a simple RSS reader where your "shares" are not put into a nice little organized pile for your friends to read, but rather pushed out into a never-ending stream of content on, you guessed it, Google+. as you can imagine, there was a vocal minority of folks up in arms as this happened (i was one of them, i even emailed a # of my buddies at the big G). but Google stayed the course as they couldn't be bothered. i get it, i really do, that's what typical businesses do. but i always loved the fact that Google liked to "think different." but alas, as they pursue (one of) their clearly spoken agenda(s) to beat Facebook, they begin to slowly lose what was their edge, their inherent Googliness (eg, don't be evil)

my point is not just to whine about Google (well it is, a little), but to illustrate the broader idea here. it's not usually in the best interest for a company to (maintain) relevant innovation they might see from small groups of people (which is often an indicator of a moving trend), but rather to cater to the masses, and be vanilla like everyone else.

my final example is from an area for which i have an interesting, unique perspective. i'll keep it quick.

if you're an American, i bet you like, or have at least heard of Greek yogurt. it's all the rage. one of the fastest growing food segments in decades (ie, it's not just a trend). the big players in the battle for global yogurt domination, self-admittedly, missed the early window to get in on the action - and a handful of upstart companies beat them to the punch, taking the lunch money of the incumbents along the way. how did the big guys miss this? the amount of people using the product were too small. 

in my time spent amongst the world of delicious dairy snacks, i have easily seen 2-3 key opportunities/markets that are being missed. why are they not being addressed? the opportunity is too small. there aren't enough people buying there. chicken or the egg, i say. for all we know, it could be tomorrow's Greek.

knowing is half the (losing) battle.
i realize that big companies can't go chasing everything. you have to have focus. but perhaps it would behoove them to FOCUS a small (but significant) amount of their energies (resources, cash, etc) on keeping their ears to the ground to identify opportunities for innovation - especially sourced in the minorities - to ultimately "surprise and delight" the majorities. i used to work at a company that did this.

you know who also has consistently done this sort of thing well in recent decades? Apple. i know it's cliche to say (but cliches exist for a reason). you know why? 

because there was one guy in the minority, who had a majority share of voice.

i really wanna be that guy, but...



  1. Not entirely the same, but Livingsocial's decision to delete all of my book reviews from the last 4.5 years to focus on being Groupon-lite. I'm not sure how much they saved from the server space, but it seems completely irresponsible to the potential consumers it was generating a lot of information on.

  2. Mr.Belvedere-

    1. is way better for storing book reviews

    2. keeping data with ANY cloud-based service poses these risks (i sometimes keep this kind of info in a Google doc, but yes, i realize that's also a Google-owned cloud-based service, which is why i TRY to export key docs from there regularly)

    3. did LivingSocial ever offer you the ability to export your data? most "good" cloud players say you will alwys have the ability to own/save/export your data.

  3. Raman,

    This is exactly what the book the "Innovator's Dilemma" speaks on. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list. Essentially companies get bogged down in the way they do things and how they make money, that you can't change your fundamental DNA. I also heard an interview recently from the CEO of Method soaps in the Stanford Entrepreneur series podcast and he talks about how they've become so successful because they didn't build a business model for detergents that had anything to do with high dosing (i.e. we expect consumers to way over use our products for us to make money). He didn't see it as a sustainable business both ethically and environmentally. You should check it out.

    Good writeup


  4. Raman, Living Social gave a 30 day notice that is was going away. During that time you could export your data to Good Reads. Of course, it took me 45 days to read another book and I missed that period entirely.

    Several running weblogs have gone under, but when they do most of their users use them at least a few times a week, they give users more than 30 days notice, and they usually are dead as a business after (i.e. no need to worry about burning potential customers).

    Dylan, Innovator's Dilemma is a great book and I'd highly recommend it. My company invited the author to talk to our Research Departments about the time the sequel Innovator's Solution came out.

    It did pain me to hear everything we did labeled a "disruptive innovation" regardless of if it actually was.


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