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Looking for new ways to innovate? The good news is: you don’t need to be harboring a secret technological breakthrough in order to do so.
Consider Peloton, the at-home exercise company whose sales grew 232% as of November, far beyond the company’s (or anyone’s) expectations. Intense cycling workouts are nothing new (see, e.g., Soul Cycle), and neither is breaking a sweat in the comfort of home. But combining the two during a pandemic, when millions were newly homebound and desperate for endorphins, and you get an exercise phenomenon—and that’s despite the bad press Peloton got at the end of 2019. In the wake of what some called a “tone-deaf” holiday promo, their stock instantly dropped 9%. Ouch. But it’s safe to say they’ve bounced back.
Of course, there was some streaming technology involved, but the real kicker was timing and a massive demographic change. According to Harvard Business Review author Peter F. Drucker, a demographic change is one of several surprising places where entrepreneurs can look for their next big idea. Here, a closer look at some of those areas, including one that led to my company JotForm’s latest product release.
A population experiencing a notable change — for example, suddenly WFH — can be a quick win for generating innovative ideas. Writes Drucker, “Indeed, the innovation opportunities made possible by changes in the numbers of people—and in their age distribution, education, occupations, and geographic location — are among the most rewarding and least risky of entrepreneurial pursuits.”
Because along with those changes come new desires and needs and, of course, opportunities to meet them, without investing a ton in developing new technology. Take the urban flight we’ve seen since the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the New York Times, New York City residents were fleeing to the country and the suburbs in 2020. One Hudson Valley house had 14 showings on its first day and received four all-cash bids that same day. Other properties even got offers, site-unseen.
Now consider the potential for opportunities: services or products that these former urbanites might need on their journey — to find a new rental or purchase property, or to adjust to their new rural lifestyle. I’ll let you do the brainstorming but the opportunities are abounding.
Demographic changes always create moments for innovation.
2.Changes in perception
If you notice an area in which people’s perceptions have shifted, then you’re likely looking at another place for innovation. Continuing with the previous example, young professionals used to flock to cities, seeing their proximity to industry hubs and financial centers as key to advancing in their careers. But if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that for many people, an urban zip code is no longer essential to a thriving career. Many, in fact, have started focusing on the downsides of living in expensive, more densely populated cities.
Companies like Slack, Zoom and Trello have been able to capitalize on these shifting perceptions by enabling people to work from anywhere. (A new favorite of mine for working remotely, especially when my two young children are home, is Brain.fm — a music tool that uses scientific data to create “strong neural phase-locking” — music that essentially helps you do whatever you need to do.)
Or, consider the healthcare industry. Today, we’re living longer than ever, but the quest for health and wellness seems to be just beginning. As Drucker observes, “Rather than rejoicing in great improvements in health, Americans seem to be emphasizing how far away they still are from immortality.” Every day, it seems like there’s a new innovation claiming to help us live better: from plant-based meat alternatives and gut-friendly elixirs to CBD snacks and infrared light therapy. Living longer is no longer enough.
Be on the lookout for perception shifts from a glass half empty to full, or vice versa, and you might find a new way to innovate.
Sometimes, we get so used to the old way of doing things that we fail to notice pain points, like when something is harder or slower than it has to be.
For example, originally, online shoe shopping seemed to give customers an easier buying option: they could skip the drive to the mall, the lines at the store, etc. But the concept was slow to gain momentum. As GQ explains:
“At the time, Amazon was successfully hawking books—but moving a one-size-fits-all product is a lot different than trying to persuade customers to buy something much more subjective, like shoes.”
But the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh came up with a simple yet innovative idea that took the industry (and his company) to the next level: offering free shipping and free returns. Hseih eliminated the online shopping drawbacks that other shoe and apparel companies had taken for granted.
Related: The New Rules of Brainstorming
Or, take spreadsheets — almost every entrepreneur uses them daily. They might make business easier, but for a long time, they were more cumbersome than they had to be—especially when it came to sharing non-numerical information, like names, dates, file attachments, and more. You had to use another software to share the kind of data that doesn’t fit into neat columns. That’s why my team spent three years developing JotForm Tables — to collect all different types of info collected from online forms and organize them in one workspace.
The old way may work fine, but there might be a better way yet. Search for pain points that your company or the industry may be avoiding or overlooking.
4.Unexpected failures and successes
By now, you may have heard the origin story of Wrigley’s: initially, the Chicago-based company sold soap and baking soda, only to discover that the free packs of chewing gum that came with were even more popular than their actual products. They pivoted their entire business in response to this unexpected success.
As Drucker writes: “Unexpected successes and failures are such productive sources of innovation opportunities because most businesses dismiss them, disregard them, and even resent them.”
If, instead of dismissing unanticipated events, we dig deeper to figure out the underlying causes, we might discover a way to innovate that differs from our original vision — but is exactly what our users need, and that, I’d argue, is an entrepreneur’s number one concern.