Google, Amazon, and Apple have become iconic because each of these companies completely disrupted an entire industry. And then they dominated it. And now Amazon and Apple will soon be the first companies on the planet ever valued at a trillion dollars.
Before there was Google, there was search. Before the iPod, there were plenty of MP3 players on the market. And e-commerce existed before Amazon. But each of these companies took an existing idea to the next level by doing it better through the hard work of execution.
That’s because true innovation is hard. You can’t just start creating things and then hope your widget will solve a market-moving problem. Sure, Steve Jobs had a knack for knowing what customers “needed” even before they did—but he’s the exception, not the rule.
More often than not, you need to hold your idea up to critique and make sure it’s durable. You have to be relentless in search of data to disprove your hypothesis and if your idea survives, you may be onto something.
Too often, we fall in love with our ideas and take shortcuts in our path to market. For example, perhaps we do some, but not all, of the data collection and essential planning needed before diving head first into pitching our idea to others. Or, worse, maybe we just decide to go to market quickly in the service of “failing fast” or “creating buzz.” This is definitely one path. But the risks of these shortcuts are obvious—and there are ways to minimize these risks before jumping in.
Regardless of the industry, converting an idea into a successful product depends on four things:
- Really understand your customer’s pain points
- Hold your idea up to critique, early and often
- Conceptualize the simplest solution possible to eliminate the pain points
- Eat the Frog First
If your idea emerges from this gauntlet with strength, you’ve probably saved yourself (and your investors) A LOT of time and money.
But identifying a worthy “problem” and relentlessly refining it is more of a challenge than most people think. It’s hard to know how many failed business ideas could have prospered with more work on the front end to get it right, or to better understand their customer.
Why did Facebook beat out MySpace when MySpace was there first? How did Amazon turn e-commerce into something no one else could envision, despite the same “raw materials” available to others back in 1994? How did Netflix come out of nowhere to unseat Blockbuster? The winners in each category better understood their customers’ needs, were open to rethinking the original market “solution,” could envision how technology would evolve to support their vision, and then executed against a plan that took them to the next level.
In order to do the same, here are the steps you need to take as an innovator:
1. Look for the pain points, and you’ll find the opportunities
I’ve always been interested in industries that have a direct, positive and enduring impact on health.
At Good Start Genetics, we wanted to bring new delivery methods to genetic testing. At the time, online tests in most categories were transactional in nature: need a test, order a test, pay for it—and the company moves onto the next customer. We wanted to do more and do it in a way that best approximated the kind of care and support you’d receive at the doctor in a traditional environment.
Our main business was genetic testing services for fertility clinic patients. We helped couples understand whether they were carriers of certain genetic mutations that might be passed onto offspring. Our services were sold in the traditional way, with salespeople visiting clinicians and setting up accounts that we would service through orders from brick-and-mortar clients.
The questions we asked ourselves, and the pain points we searched for, ranged from: wondering how many couples were not getting screened, to how many weren’t aware of their genetic testing options to begin with. From there, we asked how many could actually afford these services, and if there was a way for us to help democratize this kind of testing, and do so in a way that went beyond the transactional nature of other testing services on the market at the time.
2. Hold your idea up to critique, early and often
In order to ensure our ideas had merit, we discussed them often with clinical advisors, fertility doctors, investors, and market research analysts.
We presented our hypotheses to everyone who would listen and asked about the flaws in our thinking: where could we go wrong, how do we best ensure patient care, how might our online consumer business fit with our clinical business and whether one might cannibalize the other? Throughout this process, we learned that key areas of our plan would need to be reworked before launch, and we took the time to rethink and restructure accordingly.
For example, we learned that offering genetic counseling online to only those patients who were positive on a test was not going to be received well by the medical community. Instead, we built a model where we offered genetic counseling to everyone who received a test. We learned that complete transparency of offering and simplicity of pricing were what consumers craved. Their in-clinic experience with insurance payments, co-pays and deductibles was often confusing and created barriers to adoption and consumer excellence. So, we worked to simplify these steps at every turn.
Ease-of-use and customer convenience became our ethos.
In addition, we sought out a relationship with Amazon to be the first genetic carrier screening testing company online with a complete care environment of the kind we were envisioning. We sent our test kits to brand managers at Amazon in Seattle to gain feedback on our process from beginning to end. We didn’t want to just put test kits online. We wanted to get Amazon’s feedback on what they liked and what they didn’t—and they were brutally honest with us (which is exactly what we needed).
They liked that we offered testing in a “care environment” with physician ordering, counseling, and clear, understandable pricing. But they also told us that our reports to patients were too complicated. We were used to reporting to fertility clinics and physicians. To succeed in the online world to consumers, Amazon told us we had to completely overhaul our reports to make them consumer-friendly. And overhaul we did.
It took time and a lot of effort but was essential to our success. In other words, we held ourselves up to critique in every way we could think of BEFORE we started the path to broad execution.
3. Once you’ve surveyed the landscape, start looking for the simplest solution
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to be disruptive.
Once we took a hard look at the other offerings for testing online, we knew we could do better and go far beyond transactional online health. We knew our best shot at achieving this goal was to see the world through the eyes of our customer—not through the eyes of our technology platform alone.
In our case, the opportunity to deliver better health online meant going beyond just the genetic testing piece. For those who don’t know, the online testing world is a bit of the “Wild West.” Many companies offer broad panels of tests in a lot of areas of human health in a “one-size-fits-all” approach, regardless of what medical guidelines may recommend. Many do this without the care of a physician and without pre- and post-test counseling. In other words, consumers are left to figure things out for themselves, in a digital environment of “transactional care.”
But why should consumers receive a different standard of care online than they get at the doctor’s office? The opportunity for disruption here was obvious and long overdue.
Unfortunately, finding the simplest solution to your customers’ problems is actually the hardest part of creating a successful disruption.
Steve Jobs once said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Once you get the simple solution defined, then you then have to do the hard work of converting your plans into a successful path in order to move those mountains—and fifty different management teams will approach the same set of facts in fifty different ways.
Which teams get things right depends on the depth of planning on the front end. And it also depends on which teams understand their customers best and deliver on the tough execution needed to succeed.
4. We have a saying among our management team at Atlas Genetics: “Eat the Frog First”
We didn’t invent the phrase, but we love it and we live it.
It means doing the hardest thing that needs to be done in the day, first. If you’re willing to eat a frog first thing in the morning, everything after that is going to be easier.
It means sitting down and creating a business plan before booking the flight for your next conference. It means doing the things that may take the hardest introspection and detailed work, but are essential to getting your idea to one day become disruptive.
Unfortunately, a lot of people avoid the frogs in business. They start with, “I think I have a great idea. How do I get this to market quickly before someone does it first?” Ask the founders of MySpace, Blockbuster, or Nokia if being “first” was the most important thing. Planning is everything.
Success is 99% execution.