Van Canto

Friday thoughts on innovation

Let’s dispel a myth right here and now: innovation is not a product of big budgets and information age technology.

In my experience, innovation comes from only one thing: Asking different questions to find different solutions.

And, innovation is almost always driven by scarcity. Some say, Necessity is the mother of invention. Others shorten that to Necessity is a mother. We get creative – we have to innovate – when solving problems using severely limited resources (time, money, manpower) or against constraints (rules, regulations, laws). These limitations force us to ask different questions. Questions such as: How can we get the result we need using our very limited budget? Rather then purchasing new software, how can we get better use out of what we have? How can we build social media presence without increasing the marketing budget? How can we get a good intern two weeks before the semester ends? 

But, asking different questions, challenging the way we always do it, seeking solutions that our outside of the proven/accepted/traditional/approved routes is not the path to popularity. Different questions create solutions which create different results. The challenge is, us humans usually want the different (better) results using the same questions and same solutions. So we try to “innovate” by doing more of the same things and just throwing more resources at it.

That’s a major reason why small startups tend to be more innovative than large and established companies. They have to solve problems differently. They have no choice. And they aren’t locked into legacy. They are ok with different.

Again: innovation comes from asking different questions to find different solutions.


*     *     *     *     *

You can stop reading right there. But I love music and it’s Friday and I wanted to share a quick music video highlighting of innovation driven be a lack of resources.

The first is from Van Canto, the world’s first (only?) a capella metal band. They do use a drummer but create all guitar and bass sounds solely with voice – very creative, innovative, and unique. (Clearly they were asking very different questions about what would make a great metal band.)

To make the video for the song Rebellion, the band posted a short clip on YouTube and asked their fans to: Listen to Rebellion loud, dress as Scottish People and film yourself headbanging and freaking around. You don’t have to sing, just have fun. If you can recruit some friends joining you – Great! The more, the better. 

No budget, no problem. They did far better without. The result is fun, creative, built relationships with the fans, and cost almost nothing to make. Much different than all the big budget videos that ask the same questions and get the same answers as every other big budget video (yawn!). [Bonus HR question: how could you create an onboarding video just as cool, fun, and inexpensive?]

Happy Friday!

what your business can learn from a 30 year old metal band

When is the last time that you – as a customer – were completely blown away by the unexpected value a business provided? I don’t mean that you were happy with the service or product. I mean that you were so delighted that you wouldn’t shut up about it. You told everyone in earshot, called up friends, emailed, posted it on Facebook. You went in expecting X and got X+10.

Now the tough question: when was the last time that you delivered that level of unexpected value to your customers?

Last week I came across a video on YouTube that caught me so off guard I’ve been annoying my friends with it, spending money on iTunes, and it has caused me to rethink my day job. I hesitate to share it because I realize that not everyone will, um, appreciate it as much as me, but even if you hate the video, the idea holds true.

Here’s the backstory: Grave Digger is a metal band from Germany founded in the early ‘80s. They never made it big in the US but were very successful in Europe. They were invited to play the 2010 Wacken Open Air Festival – an enormous 4-day event with 80,000 attendees, over 120 bands, and 6 stages. It’s kind of a big deal. They played on the main stage and chose to play their most popular album in its entirety.

That’s huge, but how do you stand out further? There’re a lot of other and bigger name bands, so what do you do to please your customer? You close with a crowd-favorite anthem about the Scottish rebellion (think Braveheart) AND you invite Van Canto, an A cappella metal band (don’t ask – it works for them) to open the song AND you invite the singer for Blind Guardian (another band barely known in the US and legendary in Europe) to sing with you AND you bring bagpipers on stage. It is so amazingly over the top, but I’m afraid that if, for some strange reason, one wasn’t into German heavy metal , the impact of it would be lost. The video link is at the bottom. Watch and enjoy if you want, but my point isn’t about music at all.

Maybe this will capture the impact: Imagine that you were a huge tech conference and excited about hearing Bill Gates speak. As he nears the end he surprises the crowd by bringing Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg out to offer their thoughts on the topic. That’s the kind of value it is for the customers. Would it have been a good show without all the others? Sure. But it wouldn’t have been you-must-see-this amazing.

My point? If you’re not surprising your customers, leaving them dumfounded, amazed, and dying to tell their friends about your products or services, you’re a commodity. I can get Italian food from dozens of restaurants; what makes your restaurant better? Realtor? Hundreds to choose from, why do I care about you? Car dealer? Yawn – there’re 17 others lined up right next to you. Competing on price? I’m a loyal customer until your competitor has a sale. C’mon. Do better.

What? The music festival story doesn’t work for your business. You’re lying to yourself. Try harder. It doesn’t have to be festival big. Little things make a huge difference. Do you greet every customer? Not the, “WelcometoblahblahblahI’monlysayingthisbecausemyjerkfacebossisforcingmeto.” that even mini-marts are doing. I mean a look-you-in-the-eye-shake-your-hand-sincerely-I’m-pleased-you’re-here hello. There are businesses that do it; a few of them. They really, really stand out. And it costs them NOTHING.

My favorite  Realtor in the whole world consistently amazed me with his uncanny in-depth knowledge of the market and area, connections to very high quality repairmen, and tons of little touches. After we sold our house he gave us a $50 gift card to our favorite restaurant. Pleased? Surprised? Thrilled? Absolutely. Small touch, big impact, class act.

My favorite motorcycle jacket is an Aerostitch. I didn’t know I was going to buy one, but I happened to see their shop from the highway one day when I happened to be in Duluth (who happens to be in Duluth?). I went in on a whim and after chatting for a few minutes with the clerk, he INSISTED that we take a tour of the factory. The jackets were assembled on-site and I got to see crashed jackets that were being repaired, meet the people sewing them together, and yes, I bought a jacket. And for days after I purchased it I kept finding new pockets and features that only a very serious motorcyclist would have thought to include. There are a lot of ways they could have cheaped out, but that wouldn’t have inspired me to make a $400 impulse purpose at a time when I was making about $7 an hour. And it wouldn’t have inspired me to brag on the company 15 years later.

This is a long post, but an important one. Are you offering as much delight and value as your competition? Yes? Then you are instantly replaceable. Do better.