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Opinion | Innovation is not enough to sell a product, timing matters as well

To create a hit product, an innovator can either create a need or build an ecosystem for it

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Who’s the father then? There’s another saying that success has many fathers. Who, of the several fathers of invention, is the “real" one then? If a successful invention is defined as one which is commercialized (read innovation), and rightly so, the one significant father of successful invention would be timing.

What really clicks

Did you know that the first electric car was invented in 1830s? What then makes Tesla and its founder, Elon Musk, so special (and valuable)? It’s Tesla’s ability to put a viable ecosystem around the two centuries-old invention, and make it viable at scale. He made the timing right, the necessity always existed.

Interestingly, Apple had produced the iPad alongside the successful iPod in 2001, but didn’t commercialize it until 2011. Reason: What would you, as a consumer, do with a standalone iPad? Without pervasive Wi-Fi, content, payment gateways, inter-operability, and the entire “ecosystem", the standalone piece of genius is of limited value. Steve Jobs waited for an entire decade for the periphery to develop and the space to have complementary players before launching the product and made profits.

The key is not how much of a necessity exists in the market and for how long, the important condition is the preparedness of the elements that make the solution possible. That’s the reason teleportation and autonomous vehicles (in India), would still have to wait.

The choices we make

Innovation is an invention commercialized, and while necessity can trigger an invention, the invention sees the light of the day only when the enablers come along. So much so that, as demonstrated by Apple over and over again, innovation need not stem from a stated or unstated customer necessity, or even some dissatisfaction, but can certainly be “pushed", provided the components are ready. Apple managed the timing, and impregnated necessity.

With necessity being the (surrogate) mother of invention, and timings (read ecosystem) being the father, what choice does the potential innovator have? Two, actually. Create the need, or build the ecosystem, in no particular order.

The old saying of Henry Ford is instructive here: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Of course, Ford would have made some money selling faster horse carts, but certainly he won’t have made history. He went against the stated necessity and served his audience with a desire. Once again, his innovation, the assembly line, and the resulting Model T, impregnated the demand.

Almost all technology-forward innovations, including transistors, the internet, global positioning system (GPS), addressed some latent necessities with a better approach, that of computation, communication, and navigation, respectively. Creating a need is a risky, costly deed. A more doable one is to foster the ecosystem for an unmet necessity and encash from being an early mover, or by being suitably positioned in the ecosystem.

The case of Paytm in India is interesting in this regard. Some deem that the 2016 demonetization was key to the company’s wild success, but the same people fail to answer the question—why Paytm and not any other mobile wallet. There were several wanting to get a piece of the action in the then nascent mobile payments space, why did then Paytm made it so big? Apart from the intuitive and sticky app design, the genius was in the way Paytm created an ecosystem with hundreds of thousands of merchants and vendors across the country. This rather invisible investment, coupled with the catchy commercials and sponsoring of cricket series, helped the company lap up the opportunity better than any other player.

Both creating the necessity and meeting one with creation of an ecosystem calls for planning, investment, and, of course, risk taking. Most spoils, however, go to the one who creates the ecosystem and commands a central position. Intel did that with the USB drive in the 1990s, Google is doing so with Android, and so is Oyo in the hospitality industry. They are all accelerating the necessity getting realized. Hence, the power of ecosystem and the acceleration of innovation by managing time to market is the father, besides the often latent mother, called necessity.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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