Innovate Less

This is the second installment in my Mistakes Were Made series. Read the first part here.

Back in 2002, I was working for a company called Wildseed. We were making a truly innovative product: some people smarter than me would later describe it as the iPhone before its day. It had threaded text messaging before any other phone. It had lights on the top of the handset you could wave to print a message in the air to someone. Remember when cell phones had faceplates? Ours had an embedded smart chip that would also skin the phone’s UI and deliver games and applications. It was the first cell phone certified and released in the US that used Linux as its OS. And we had this in 2002.

Why haven’t you heard about this magical new phone? Perhaps because it looked like this:

I know phones with an exposed antenna and  12-button keypads look weird to anyone today. In case you don’t remember anything before the iPhone and Lady Gaga, trust me: phones did not look like this. The keypad was generally on the bottom. They weren’t shaped like a banana.

To be fair, these choices weren’t just aesthetic: there were some actual form factor decisions that went into making this phone the way it looked. Whether they were good decisions, I suppose history has answered that question. Unless you’ve been in the Seattle startup community a long time, you’ve probably not heard of Wildseed or our phone. It may have been magical, but that magic has been lost. The company itself was sold to AOL in 2005, where we made a media player that, rather than being ahead of its time, was late for its time.

It didn’t have to be this way. What might have happened had we focused not on building a banana phone, but on a regularly shaped phone that showcased just awesome software and apps? It may have been easier selling a more normal-looking device into the early cell phone industry — a stodgy, risk-averse industry where no VP got fired for stocking their shelves with Nokia. But how much was our sales hurt by the fact that the design was too expensive? That there were no comparable phones in the market? What is just too different?

Today, the mobile market is faster than ever, and despite the uncountable number of photo sharing apps, more innovation happens in a single year than happened in the four or five years we were building this phone. Today, it’s even more important to only innovate where it counts: where you provide unique value, where you are doing something no one else is doing, or doing it better than anyone else.

Sometimes, in order to innovate well, you need to innovate less.

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