Customer Driven Innovation

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Richard Lee (2)Earlier this year, I was at CES to support the unveiling of Panasonic’s 4K tablet and took a few moments to check out the latest and greatest technology on display.  I have to say, there were some pretty cool innovations on the show floor.  But, what was more interesting was the response, or lack of a clear response, when I asked, “what market is this product designed to address?”  Most met that question with some generally ambiguous description that boiled down to, “It’s for everyone.”  Huh, Okay.  Well, I believe that a product “designed for everyone” is really a product designed for none.

I have spoken with many entrepreneurs over the years and you would be surprised how many of them rush to be first to market with a great idea, saying, “I had a light bulb moment and built this revolutionary product.”  Well, that’s great, but who is it intended for?  More importantly, who would actually buy it (as in, pay money for it)?  Is this a solution to a problem or is this a solution looking for a problem?

What’s typical with many startups is their desire to build a solution for a problem they believe exists or in some cases, to a problem they don’t even know exists.  They figure it must be out there somewhere.    This isn’t necessarily wrong because after all, it’s hard to be on the bleeding edge of technology if you did nothing but solve known problems, right?  Let me add another layer to this dilemma. Even if you identify a problem to solve, how do you know it actually needs to be solved?

At Bluebeam, we started with a problem and built a solution to solve it for aerospace engineers, allowing them to easily create high quality PDFs from CAD files so they could quickly share designs electronically.  We threw that solution out into that industry and continued to develop related solutions for other technical professionals, like architects and engineers.  What happened next has defined who we are as a company. The adoption rate from architects was an order of magnitude greater than aerospace engineers.  Why?

Maybe it’s possible the equation of innovation is more than solving problems.  Maybe the equation is solving problems for the right customer with the implied variable of the right time.  Aerospace engineers had a problem they wanted solved, but did not believe it needed to be solved (need here is equated to value).  On the other hand, architects had a similar problem. They saw the value of a solution, and were willing to pay for it.  So, I would argue that innovation is less about what and more about whom.

Now, answering the question about who to solve a problem for is also perplexing.  When you interview customers or conduct focus groups most people put themselves in the shoes of the inventor, stepping out of their own shoes and proceeding to tell you what they would do if they were you.  Others manage to stay in their shoes, but provide a laundry list of everything they would like without prioritization or relative value.  Frankly, who really has time to take a thousand ideas and prioritize them with relative value to an overall system?  I’ll leave that question for the product managers of the world.

At Bluebeam, we look at context – the workflow, the user, the problem to measure the value of a solution within a system.  We do our best to understand the context of the user, who they are and what they do with a simple goal to help them do what they do better.  This is not rocket science, but has worked quite well for us over the last decade.  After all, solving the “what” question will only get you so far if you don’t know who will benefit from it.  Bottom line – know your customer.

Remember – Anything IS Possible

-Rich

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