Is there a market in your gap?

The problem with innovators is they search for solutions before they identify the problem

One of the highlights of last year is judging the entries into the Innovator Awards. This time around we attracted a record 300 entries – testament not just to the popularity of the programme, which has grown 10-fold in just four years, but also to the love affair New Zealand has with innovation.

The range of entries was incredibly broad, representing all industries and sizes, from the classic Kiwi backyard inventor to industry-wide collaborations. The quality of the winners was truly impressive. (Our cover feature has stories on all the successful entrants).

If you don’t come away from these awards with a spring in your step then you’ve clearly been reading The Listener for too long. So I feel churlish finding fault. But there’s a massive one and it needs to be said. Clawing my way through the entries late one night I was struck how many were “solutions looking for a problem”. So many of the entries failed on the marketing front: they didn't articulate exactly why anyone would want this new medical device/iPad app/novelty shirt/agricultural widget. Or why it’s better than the nearest competitor. And how it will find its way to the customer. Through which channel? And for what price? And then how this would be ramped up through a sales strategy?

The disturbing thing is that so many of the entries were well funded, collecting millions from universities and Callaghan Innovation. And yet in many cases the thinking about marketing was naïve at best and shockingly lazy at worst. Simply stating that the global market for this kind of product is in the billions is not a go-to-market strategy.

This is more problematic than you might first think. We have an arse-about-face view of innovation in New Zealand. It comes from our affection for the man-alone; the inventor toiling in his garage who defies the odds to create a breakthrough product and dumbfound his wealthy corporate competitors. Think motorbike wizards John Britten and Burt Munro or disposable syringe supremo Colin Murdoch, or even rocket man Peter Beck.

We love these stories but they’re a romanticised view of innovation. A mate of mine summed it up nicely when he was asked to help launch a vegetarian nightclub (yes, you read that right). “There’s a gap in the market,” said the soon-to-be-poor entrepreneur. “Yes but is there a market in the gap?” my mate replied. I think we know the answer.

Two other events this month reinforced my growing sense of foreboding about the approach to innovation of too many of our companies. The Morgo conference is an annual knees up for the hi-tech sector, organised by the indefatigable venture capitalist Jenny Morel. It’s an invigorating occasion, where the likes of Rod Drury from Xero and Wendy Pye from Sunshine Books describe the scale of their success with sales charts that look like one side of the southern alps.

Yes, there’s always talk of product development, R&D and start-ups, but these hardnosed folk have a single measure of success: sales. If customers don’t want their products then they have no business, no matter how “breakthrough” their idea is. The difference between the wannabe innovators and the Morgo success stories is the determination to not just invent, but to sell their products and services.

The second event to boost my suspicions was the flying visit to Auckland made by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington. The Huff is an enigma. Starting out as a poor arts graduate with literary ambitions, her career has seen her as a Republican Party campaigner, essayist, right-wing radio commentator, founder of the Democrat-leaning Huffington Post, loud critic of neo-conservatives and high-profile supporter of left-wing comedian John Stewart. She once hired 150 buses to transport an audience to one of his events.

Her current book Thrive is a new-age self-help manual telling people to tune out and switch off – the very things she’s never managed to do. She’s changed her tune to suit the market. That may seem like she’s sold her soul, but it’s worked for her.

What’s this got to do with innovators? If Huffington’s career was a product, you’d say that it was highly innovative; she’s pivoted to meet the market, seemingly changing political allegiances and philosophies to give people what they want. I’m not saying she’s a better person for it (I barely know the lady) but she’s a better business person for it.

Toiling away at the same old sore is what academics and hobbyists do. Business innovators change their tune to meet the market, because in the end the real measure of your innovation is simple: will anyone buy it.×