The Limitations of Innovation
This piece is originally found on UNCVR
Innovation consists of two parts: the idea and the execution, and both are necessary to produce any sort of change. Everything starts with a good idea, but good ideas die without an effective plan of action. The entire process of innovating can be very challenging, but you don’t have to be a visionary like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to launch an groundbreaking initiative. Even the smallest of pursuits can lead to impactful results. I want to be some sort of an innovator in my lifetime. I enjoy disrupting traditional practices and finding ways to enhance things, and someday I hope to create something that people can find great value in, be it a product, brand, or company. Between the two elements of innovation, I feel that conceptualizing a good idea is easier than executing because there are so many external factors that can limit you when trying to get an idea off the ground.
Last year at my previous employer, I developed a business idea that revolved around the billion-dollar sneaker market. The company was facing serious challenges, so it sought out new ideas that could generate revenue, even if it steered away from its traditional publishing core. Since I was working with the company’s sports titles, I wanted to build an idea that revolved around Millennials and sports. Sneakers are extremely popular with this demographic, not to mention a cash machine, and the culture around it has influenced not only sports, but also fashion, music, and business. After thorough research and analysis, and with the help with a few colleagues, I crafted a plan for an online sneaker marketplace.
At my previous job, I was a bit of a disruptive renegade because I was motivated to help turn the business around. I had an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” mindset and this rubbed a couple of “traditional” senior managers the wrong way, but I could care less about them. The VPs who shared my drive respected my hustle and encouraged me to keep pushing the limits at work. One VP, who I respected, gave me a interesting metaphor: “The old, traditional era is a sinking ship. Those who are entrepreneurial and innovative will find a way to escape, while the old-timers will go down with the boat”. An external factor that can limit your innovative ambitions is the people around you. If you’re surrounded by doubters who are afraid of change, you’re going to have a really difficult time, but if you’re supported by like-minded folks, it can help make your ideas even better.
Companies need to innovate or else fall victim to the competition and changing business landscapes. However, not every organization is effective in cultivating ideas. I enjoyed working at my previous employer because it gave me the opportunity to freely come up with stuff, but after that, the process was slow. Granted, thorough due diligence is needed before investing in a new business idea, but decisions could’ve been made with more urgency. The sneaker market was met with hesitation or faint interest because those we pitched to didn’t understand it. It was hard convincing middle aged, not so hip individuals that sneakers is the current hot market. I’m not saying that my idea was going to return the company back to prominence, but it was the only legitimate idea floating around and you’re not going to even look through it? I’ll refrain from a Kanye-esque rant.
Over seven months, my team and I fleshed out the sneaker market proposal, adding more depth and detail, while gaining positive feedback from a few higher ups, but the entire vetting process to make it a serious endeavor continued to be slow. Innovation needs to be swift because hundreds of other people have the same exact idea and are actually plotting to execute. As the sneaker market idea stalled, I worked on other new projects that focused on e-sports (competitive gaming) and a Millennial focused digital content brand (both of which were met with the same lulled responses). I was even asked to join an internal corporate “innovation” group. Eventually, I left the company because our goals just didn’t align. This is why I’ve become so underwhelmed with large corporations. Maybe its due to the lengths of red tape, the bureaucratic cultures, or fear from older professionals, but innovation isn’t always acted upon in these environments, which is another limiting external factor. It’s hard to innovate if you’re not in the right environment with the ideal resources, opportunties, and processes.
After I left, my colleagues kept the momentum behind the sneaker market going because we committed too much effort to let it die without being seriously looked at. The idea was FINALLY presented at a Shark Tank event at the company four months after I left, and out of 50 ideas, it ranked #2. Oh, and #1 was rumored to be something involving e-sports (as mentioned earlier, I helped with an e-sports presentation last year that went over people’s head). You’re welcome. Well remember when I said that innovation needs to be swift? Last week, the founder of sneaker data site Campless, Josh Luber, and billionaire Dan Gilbert teamed up to launch StockX, an online marketplace where people can buy and sell sneakers, which is practically the same damn idea I had.
I’ve realized that if I want to be an innovator, I have to align with the right people and organizations, who could help me to get there. But ultimately, it’s on me to push forward and not allow my ambitions to be stopped. There are no limits if you want something bad enough.