Two approaches to innovative thinking in startup cultures

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By Brent Warwick

More than 40 years ago, a San Francisco Bay-area teacher named Jacqueline Leventhal sought to connect with challenging students through creative ways.

One day, while searching through her school’s basement, she stumbled upon a rubber vulcanizer and had the idea of using that vulcanizer to make rubber stamps of her designs and then to use those stamps with her students. As she shared the ensuing stories with her family and friends, word began to slowly spread beyond that small circle, and others began asking her if they too could buy her stamps and inquire about new designs.

So was born the pioneering wooden stamp company known as Hero Arts, which is sold via independent shops and big-box retailers like Michael’s and JOANN Fabric and Crafts. Through the experience of serving others, Leventhal gained firsthand knowledge of a particular need and then extended that knowledge to create an innovative solution.

A few short years ago, another warm-hearted woman was serving in a women’s ministry at her church, making cards by the hundreds. Iliana Myska, eventual founder of My Sweet Petunia, become frustrated with errors and inconsistencies while using stamps in making her cards. With some remarkable ingenuity, and after several trips to a hardware store, she developed what is now known as the MISTI (the Most Incredible Stamp Tool Invented).

Thousands upon thousands of stampers will tell you that her tool completely revolutionized the stamping world in a way not seen since the founding days of Hero Arts. Similar to Leventhal, Myska was simply serving others and realized her own need in that experience. Plus, she realized that need she felt extended to the experience of others.

In these examples, both women were doing something in a realm that they knew well. They had an innovative wisdom born from their own experience. Theirs is an experiential innovation that stands in contrast with much of the aspirational innovation that preoccupies the thinking and dreaming in today’s startup culture.

Aspirational Innovation

Aspirational innovation is largely characterized by the desire to innovate without an obvious need that is being addressed. It’s a solution in search of a problem. Often, this is commonly seen in business school students in search of practical ways to put their education in practice, aspiring entrepreneurs looking to find their niche, or even researchers and product developers looking to fulfill their responsibilities within their company.

Although there are always exceptions to such broad characterizations (the origin story of prescription eyeglasses retailer Warby Parker being a well-known outlier), this sort of aspirational innovation is the result of some other motivating factor that competes with the desire to find a useful solution to solve a problem. In other words, the point of origin for aspirational innovation is not necessarily just finding a useful solution to a problem.

Business students are often looking to boost their prospective career, whether that be as an entrepreneur or just to be more attractive to potential employers. The aim of many entrepreneurs is autonomy, or financial independence. And many product developers are looking to sustain their current employment.

With each of these example groups, they may very well be earnestly seeking to find a solution to a need, and the ultimate results of their quest may be truly innovative regardless of their motivations. But their motivations can be a significant hurdle to their success and sometimes can outright prevent it.

For example, if I am an aspiring entrepreneur, one of my first objectives is to identify a niche in a market or industry that is either not served or underserved. That, in and of itself, is a tricky proposition. It’s difficult to be objective in evaluating opportunities when it takes time and your desire to be autonomous is waiting on the outcome of your evaluation. I may see “opportunities” where they do not truly exist or where the challenges to those opportunities greatly outweigh the relative value of pursuing them.

Many aspiring entrepreneurs have crashed against the rocks of reality due to their situational blindness. A quick look at the statistics for startup businesses proves how profoundly our motivations affect our judgment in assessing opportunities.

There’s also another unintended side effect to aspirational innovation. Because there are competing motivations in the pursuit, the resulting innovation may be heavily influenced beyond the identified need.

This one point probably demands its own exploration, but suffice to say for now, there are countless products (and services) that are the result of a compromise where one of those competing motivations made the innovation less useful then it could have been were it not for the desire for inordinate profit, superfluous recognition, or power within an organization.

Experiential Innovation

The alternative, experiential innovation, shouldn’t be seen as moralistically ideal, per se. However, the pursuit of a solution largely for the solution’s sake (simply to meet an existing real-world need) usually produces a truly useful product, service, or process.

Unencumbered by the tug of other prime motivators, innovators like Leventhal and Myska channeled their own experiences into a solution that tangibly met their needs and the needs of others.

These weren’t the conjured “needs” of an aspiring entrepreneur trying to find a niche to fill. Rather, they were real needs whose solution benefited others through being truly useful. And it’s this sort of innovation that time and again leads to the flourishing of individuals and communities.

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