Facebook, TikTok and the hack for innovation

In Om Malik’s recent post “Unicorns, Red Queen & Startup Reality” he talks about the kerfuffle regarding Facebook copying TikTok,

I was chatting with a friend about the increased frequency with which large technology companies copied their rivals. Microsoft was quick to imitate Slack with Teams. Instagram ripped off Snap Stories and even brazenly acknowledged it in its initial announcement. And today, Facebook-owned IG announced Reels, a competitor to the red hot creator platform, TikTok.

Of course, this is just one of the many times Facebook has copied its competitors. But more important is the broader waste of time spent bemoaning this mimicry when we really should be teaching it.

As Om notes, chefs in restaurants are constantly copying the latest craze, or even seasonal vegetables. I like the analogy to fashion crazes as it captures the fleeting nature of the opportunity and the relatively ephemeral nature of the appropriation. And cooking rarely involves patented techniques or products.

For the record, this is innovation. This is not another of the back-alley games played by amoral uber-geeks wielding their monopolistic power that we should be worried about.

Instagram copied FourSquare, then pivoted to copying hipstamatic, the camera filters app, finding their fortune in connecting those filter features to an easy means of posting to multiple social media platforms. Apple copied many of the Mac’s features from PARC’s Alto, and Microsoft copied those for Windows. Google borrowed the pay per click revenue model from GoTo.com. Don’t even get me started on music or movies (see Everything is a Remix).

If there’s a hack for innovation, it probably looks like “copy, save-as, open, edit.”

There are countless examples of copying in the early moments of what become long-standing products. It is how dominant designs and common standards emerge. Think of the automobile’s many features—four-wheel carriages, pneumatic tires, glass windshields, foot brakes, power-steering, electric starter motors, etc…

More noteworthy is the competitor who doesn’t copy the best parts of its rivals (i.e., the features those customers like best). Maybe that’s why we see so few of them surviving.

Reprising W+K’s 10 lessons for young designers

I recently ran across this list while reading about the challenges faced by John Maeda as he moved from software engineer and computer scientist to President of the Rhode Island School of Design. It reminded me that not all of design, in education and in work, can be neatly packaged and served to managers in a sound bite like ‘design thinking.’ I’m reprising here the list written by Wieden+Kennedy’s Executive Creative Director, John C. Jay of 10 lessons for young designers:

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What our leaders tell us about our selves

Steve Jobs died. The outpouring of sorrow and admiration is nothing short of stunning, and more than most heads of state would engender. Jobs deserves credit for so much that Apple (and Pixar) have wrought, and a tribute to his purely technological contributions would be plenty.  But there is something intensely personal—something that speaks to us more than the phones, or laptops, or iPads—that in passing shakes us to the core and asks what we want of our leaders and of ourselves.

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Problem-finding, by Tom Kelley of IDEO

Albert Szent-Gyorgi, who won the Nobel Prize in 1937 for discovering vitamin C, once said “Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.” 

When it comes to innovation, or its cousins invention and discovery, we tend to think of it as a process of discovering solutions.  In fact, it is more often a process of discovering the right problems. Tom Kelley, of IDEO, talks so eloquently here about the value of finding the right problem in talking about how IDEO's designers were able to discover a new problem in what was essentially an old and mature market, kid's toothbrushes.  

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CHE Article on teaching entrepreneurship

A brief post to mention an article out now in Chronicle of Higher Education in which I talk about the need to teach entrepreneurship broadly—and what needs to be taught:  

7 Ways to Make Students More Entrepreneurial 

The article is available for non-subscribers for 5 days here, then available to subscribers here

Automist, another student-driven design innovation

One of the perks of my job is to serving on the Advisory Board of Design London, a joint venture between Imperial College and the Royal College of Arts.  There, as in similar programs that bring together engineering, design, and business students, I get to see the exciting ideas and ventures that emerge from the mix.

At Design London, MBA students from Imperial College Business School,
engineers from Imperial College of Engineering, and Design students from the RCA come together to design, engineer, and grow new businesses.  In addition to teaching an interdisciplinary design program, it also advances the role of design-led innovation for London’s many small and medium-sized enterprises, and houses a business incubator that helps launch new ventures.

The New York Times “Year in Ideas” issue just featured one such company (Kitchen Sink), which formed when two design students recognized how a solution in one corner of firefighting could be used in another:

Yusuf Muhammad and Paul Thomas,
industrial-design students at London’s Royal College of Art, learned
this after a school assignment prompted a conversation with members of
the Chelsea Fire Station. The firefighters mentioned water mist, a
firefighting technology used on oil rigs and cruise ships because of
its advantages in a confined space. After picking the brains of
specialists at the conference of the International Water Mist
Association, the duo began prototyping a low-cost means of taking water
mist into the family kitchen.

Their patent-pending product, Automist,
consists of a ceiling-mounted heat detector that triggers a pump under
the sink that sends water to a special unit at the base of the kitchen

There, six high-pressure nozzles emit jets of
mist that rapidly turn to steam, creating an inert atmosphere that
starves the fire of oxygen and reduces the heat of the room. “It’s
almost like being in a wet sauna,” Muhammad says.

The team had previously won the James Dyson Award, where you can read more about the idea and company.


Breaking through

What makes a breakthrough product?  What’s the secret sauce that anoints one version of an idea while ignoring others?

Charles Wilson has a couple of nice posts on the Kindle (Kindle Up; breakthrough devices) and a great find in a link to The Kindle vs. the Gadget Hall of Fame, which compares Kindle’s first year sales to other “breakthrough” products like the iPod, Blackberry, Palm Pilot, and Razr… and begs the question.

So what makes a breakthrough?


// enter up to 3 domains, separated by a space
var sites = [‘amazon.com’];
var opts = {
width: 380, // width in pixels (max 400)
height: 300, // height in pixels (max 300)
type: ‘r’, // “r” Reach, “n” Rank, “p” Page Views
range: ‘6m’, // “7d”, “1m”, “3m”, “6m”, “1y”, “3y”, “5y”, “max”
bgcolor: ‘e6f3fc’ // hex value without “#” char (usually “e6f3fc”)
AGraphManager.add( new AGraph(sites, opts) );


// enter up to 3 domains, separated by a space
var sites = [‘amazon.com’];
var opts = {
width: 380, // width in pixels (max 400)
height: 300, // height in pixels (max 300)
type: ‘r’, // “r” Reach, “n” Rank, “p” Page Views
range: ‘6m’, // “7d”, “1m”, “3m”, “6m”, “1y”, “3y”, “5y”, “max”
bgcolor: ‘e6f3fc’ // hex value without “#” char (usually “e6f3fc”)
AGraphManager.add( new AGraph(sites, opts) );


This is no idle question.  Palm Pilot was not the first personal digital assistant; At least thirteen mp3 players had a headstart on the iPod; and now Sony’s E-reader (and some also-rans) are watching as Amazon’s Kindle breaks through.  It does no good to be first on the market if someone else can easily pass you by.

I suspect most designophiles (and I must count myself among them) would take this opportunity to point out how it’s the little details that differentiate one product from the next–a better screen, longer battery life, slimmer packaging.

But the Kindle offers us another lesson: ITNS (Like it’s cousin, KISS) It’s The Network, Stupid.

Kindle may or may not be a better product, but if you had a product that owned the Amazon.com home page–how many would you be able to sell.  According to Alexa, Amazon has a daily traffic ranking for the past 6 months that puts it in the top 20 – 30 sites visited, and is–daily–reaching 2-3% of the visitors to the web (disclaimer: as I understand Alexa’s terminology).

Don’t get me wrong–great design sells products.  But if I had to choose between a great design and mediocre distribution partners or a mediocre design but great distribution partners, I would go for the latter.  If it was good enough for Bill Gates…

So when it comes to breakthrough products, let’s give credit where credit’s due.  Lest we want to celebrate great designers and chase great design when the real advantage comes from the (usually backstage) network builders who make those designs succeed in the market.

Evolving metaphors

Mike at Life on the Road has carried the conversation about MySpace in an interesting direction (see his post as well as his comments to my previous post). One of his central arguments is that social networking sites are not all that different from most other “destination” sites: places where people come to connect with similar people.

I agree with this line…in it’s extreme, social networking sites are just another kind of chum to draw users in (to sell them ads, goods, and services). It’s a particularly convenient kind of chum, as the users develop it for you.

Prodigy, as one of the first ISPs, started life thinking they were part mall and part newspaper–meaning they thought they were going to make money by selling ads and getting commissions on third party internet sales. Instead, users flocked to their message boards and email and, in so many words, used it as a social networking site. Prodigy’s response was to begin charging by the email and by the hour for their message boards. Users left, and Prodigy never got them back.

One of the reasons to question MySpace’s metaphor is to better understand what business they’re in–what value they’re in the business of creating–and what business they want to be in. Are they the new Viper Room, the new Mickey Mouse Club or the new NBC?

Google, as Mike notes, has done a very good job of not allowing its original metaphor (an index on steroids) to become fixed in its users’ minds. Instead, their continual introduction of new tools has forced users to continually revise their assumptions about what Google is and does. More so than any one feature (like mail or calendar or maps) this series of new tools ensures that Google remains a living and evolving business concept. And its users never pigeon-hole them.

It’s up to MySpace to think past the initial metaphors (their own and their users’), use the current traffic to shape a new form that is more defensible and adaptable than the current one.

Designing Innovation: Something old, something new

Apple’s new iTunes music store feature, iTV, is an attempt to revolutionize the video distribution world in the same way that iTunes disrupted the music industry (and created podcasting). And Apple did it in a beautiful and–as to be expected–customer centric way.

The danger with all radical innovations is that customers’ understandings rarely change as fast as the technologies do: Natura non facit saltum (nature does not make leaps)–and this rule applies for human nature as well.

Apple’s designers have developed (or at least borrowed) a beautiful web interface for presenting consumers, used to buying their DVDs from Walmart, with a look and feel that mimics the familiar experience of roaming the store shelves (pictured above). It’s a beautifully analog display disguising the digitization of the product. As you move the scroll bar, each new video takes center stage, just like it was in your hand.

Yellowlees Douglas and I wrote about this (Robust Design) in describing Edison’s efforts to domesticate the electric light by making it as similar to the incumbent gas lighting as possible. From the street, one positive New York newspaper reviewer write, the electric bulb was indistinguishable from a gas lamp. The same must be done for any drastically new technology–not set it apart from what’s already there but the opposite, make it look as similar as possible.

7 things every environmental entrepreneur should know

A lot is happening at the intersection of environmentalism and entrepreneurship these days, and it’s creating a hybrid form: the environmental entrepreneur. Some are coming from the entrepreneurial community. Many more are environmentally driven and, realizing that “commerce is the engine of change,” are starting new ventures. Here’s some quick advice based on having a front row seat at the intersection for the past few years.

  1. Solve the right problem first.
    That problem has to be the customer’s. Your project will, by definition, benefit the environment and coming generations (you’re an environmental entrepreneur, right?). But if it doesn’t also benefit the people who have to pay for it in the first place, it will die. If the first slide in your presentation doesn’t clearly describe a living customer and a real pain they are feeling now (and you could solve), then you’re not ready. Don’t lead with global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, or wetland protection unless you’re talking to the people who feel this pain directly (like foundations and policy makers). Instead, talk about how your solution will help the customer–help grow market share, reduce costs, improve quality, increase margins, reduce weight, grow hair, or get their kids into Princeton. Solving the customer’s problem first focuses you on the here and now, forcing you to be the one person who understands better than even your customers, what they need.
  2. Always solve more than 1 problem.
    Good ideas solve someone’s problem. Great ideas solve more than one problem. Don’t waste your time pushing one-dimensional solutions, the successful ventures, green or otherwise, that you hear about solve multiple problems at once. That means solving the problems of suppliers, distributors, retailers, and regulators, and investors. Powerlight developed a solar panel system that clicks together, has a layer of insulation underneath, doesn’t require penetrating the existing roof, and is durable enough to walk on. This reduces the efficiency of their panels (as they don’t tilt toward the sun) but it makes installation easy, and installers recommend them. Whose cooperation do you need? What do they get out of the deal? Run the numbers. If everyone doesn’t win, go back to the drawing board until you find a solution where everyone does.
  3. Embrace style.
    Somewhere along the way, style became the antithesis of substance. Nearly 100 years of Madison Avenue advertising has made style a cheap substitute for substance (just look at the US auto industry). But you can’t blame them. Consumption is as much about identity as it is about performance. Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, and Chevy all sell identity as much as the products their names are on. The Prius was helped by images of celebrities filling the gas tank; Willy Nelson’s name scored style points for biodeisel among truckers; even Gore is revamping his style to great effect. Think about your new venture: Style has a substance all its own. What’s yours? What’s your company’s identity and who wants to share it with you?
  4. Don’t make leaps.
    Most environmental entrepreneurs have visions of fixing entire systems–after all, that’s what’s broken–and design solutions that promise wholly new technologies enabling (and requiring) wholly new behaviors. Think hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which require innovations in fuel cells, fuel, fueling stations, fuel companies, and fuel distributors, to mention just a few. But that’s where most promising ideas fail. Innovations succeed when they offer evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in behavior. Create a design that provides small steps, easy changes, for your customers. Edison designed his electric light to look and act just like the gas lighting existing customers were used to. Only later did people start using electricity for other uses. Natura non facit saltum: Nature does not make leaps. Neither will customers.
  5. Know when good enough is good enough.
    You will always have two choices: keep working on the product or get it into the hands of customers and see what happens. Hundreds of millions have been poured into perfecting the Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, all based on what people think the automobile industry will want in 15-20 years. Jadoo Power Systems, on the other hand, found a way to put hydrogen fuel cells into the hands of customers today. How? By taking the technology that exists today and designing products that people need now. Jadoo sells power solutions to video crews, rescue workers, and the military–all of whom will pay right now for something than provides the same power for less weight. And by doing so, they are learning dramatically (doubling performance while halfing costs). Get to the market as soon as you can–there is no substitute for learning what people will pay for, and how they’ll actually use it.
  6. Forget the better mousetrap.
    Emerson had it wrong. Build a better mousetrap and the world will not beat a path to your door. The better mousetrap–or whatever your solution–is the beginning, not the end. Once you have that, you need to market it. You need to get the word out to your customers quickly and effectively by building a website, sending out a press release, writing an editorial (or better yet, an article describing the problem, the market, and the opportunity better than anyone else has yet). Who needs to know about your product? How are they going to hear about it? How can they reach you? The light bulb was 40 years old by the time Edison started marketing his version. The steam engine was over 100 years old before James Watt found the investors, distribution channels, and manufacturing partners to bring it to the mass market. We remember Edison and Watt because they built successful business around existing mousetraps.
  7. Remember, success makes you the new problem.
    Careful what you wish for–you just might get it. Any company that succeeds grows, and any company that grows needs to worry about managing cash-flow, making payroll, paying creditors, and staying around in the long-term. Compromises start to creep in, waste starts to add up, and pretty soon you’re part of the problem. For environmental companies, this is especially challenging. A world filled with electric cars would be a world littered with lead-acid batteries and darkened by coal-burning power plants. Look to companies who, like Patagonia in the last decade or Hewlett-Packard in the 1950s, turned away from growth in order to remain the companies they wanted to be in the first place. Just remember, when you succeed, why you started in the first place.