3 Strategies for Sparking an Innovative Idea

This morning I received an email from the all-too-common name in my address book: Amazon. They emailed to tell me my auto-delivery for my household necessities was getting ready to ship and would arrive in a few days. Then at lunch, I was looking for medicine at Target and wondered if I could get it at Amazon. So I pulled out my phone, I scanned the product using my camera and found it for a lower price on auto-delivery. This afternoon, I needed a headphone stand for my home office and found one with 4.5 stars and hundreds of ratings, that delivered in a day. The day of my writing this, Prime Day, is expected to be one of the biggest days for eCommerce in 2019. It’s no secret, Amazon has the lock on the holistic eCommerce experience. From the selection and reviews to the prices and speedy shipping, Amazon wins on just about every “logical” eCommerce need.

While Amazon may not be the main competitor for many eCommerce merchants, I have rarely seen a type of product that one can not buy on Amazon. Yet, it is possible to be successful in eCommerce without offering blazing fast shipping or AI to identify medicine bottles or chairs.

One great example is Away Travel. In 2015, Away launched with one thing—a coffee table book. Their dream to create stylish, functional, and easy-to-access luggage had been held up by production issues. They were trying to launch their first suitcase in time for the holiday season, yet they had no suitcases. So they decided to create a coffee table book that would include a gift card to redeem a suitcase. Stunningly, this coffee table book cost $225—the price of a suitcase. The team printed enough books for every suitcase they would have when they arrived.

The books were featured in Vogue magazine. Celebrities bought them. Suffice to say, the books were a massive hit. Most importantly, they sold out in three weeks.

Now, just shy of five years later, Away is worth $1.4B.

Innovation is Knocking

I know what you’re thinking. “I don’t have an innovative suitcase to sell. I can’t just make my product rose gold, put some USB outlets in it, and call it done. I don’t have anything innovative.” But you do.

You see, true innovation is simply adding value somewhere where it didn’t exist before. If you have a product that meets a unique need, however mundane, it is innovative in its own way. And it’s innovative to a certain set of people. Therein lies the key, it’s about the people!

You see, your customers have a very certain set of needs, wants, aspirations, and goals. Knowing them intimately helps you position your product to create real value and introduce innovative ways of doing, thinking, and living into their lives.

Away founders Jen Rubio and Steph Korey found, through personal experience, that people were desperate for a suitcase that was good looking, functional, durable, and convenient. Through that discovery, they combined their brand, marketing, and supply chain experience to create a suitcase that hit on all of those needs. Where they really excelled, however, was in their feedback and research process. Before they even designed the first bag, they interviewed 800 people to get an idea of what they needed and wanted.

Know Your People

That’s the key—getting to know the people who buy your product. This is what we call qualitative research. Having actual, real conversations with your customer are the capstone of discovering where you can add value.

Here are three great strategies to do qualitative research quickly and easily:

  1. The “I’ll Buy Your Coffee” – Perhaps the oldest trick in the book. Setup outside a coffee shop, and offer to pay for people’s coffee if they answer a few questions for you about your product, idea, company, etc.
  2. The “20% Off For Your Time” – Ask existing customers if they’d be willing to chat with you over the phone or via a web conference to give you feedback about products, services, or your company. This strategy typically works best if you offer a discount or other incentive.
  3. The “Guerilla Warfare” – Go to your nearest store where you can find products or services similar to yours. Ask people who are shopping what they think of the product or service. This strategy does require a certain level of extroversion and ability to strike up friendly conversations, so only attempt this if you are ready to potentially endure some awkward silences or stares.

The great thing is that no matter which strategy you go with, they aren’t expensive or time-consuming. Talking to a customer for thirty minutes can give you more ideas, inspiration, or problems to fix than you could possibly come up with during a corporate strategy session.

You Live & Learn

The important thing to remember is to actually use what you learn. If customers are looking for better photographs of the features of your product, invest in quality photography and video that is high resolution and styled appropriately for your audience. If they are lost in choosing a product, it might be a good idea to build or prototype a product selector and ask them to try it out to see if they can find what they’re looking for easily.

The reason that Away has been so successful is not because they make a great suitcase, though that is certainly part of it, but because they listened. They listened to their potential customers and said: “We can create a product that fills this need.”—and then they did. They created a digital brand experience that captures the product, the aura, and the lifestyle that their customers want. To this day, their website features high-resolution images and videos of their products within the context of their customer’s adventurous lives.  

All because they asked people “what are you looking for, and why?”

Away was recently featured on NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast. I highly recommend that any eCommerce professional give it a listen. You can find it here.