Innovation: the pathway to extraordinary outcomes

Bill Gross at Innovation Summit Pasadena

The first Innovation Summit Pasadena on Oct. 10 gathered over 350 entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and tech industry innovators in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and design to “deepen participants’ understanding of innovation as the pathway to extraordinary outcomes.” The idea for Innovation Summit sparked when ISP founder and Pasadena Magazine co-publisher Rebecca Haussling designed a multi-faceted business plan for a summit as part of her dissertation. “We’ve got unique startups and incubators and really innovative businesses. We really just need to get the message out to greater LA that we’re here,” said Haussling on the city of Pasadena.

ISP keynote speakers included Bill Gross, founder/CEO of Idealab. When Gross launched Idealab in 1996, he thought the unorthodox company would only last a year. “We raised $3.5 million from some people who really believed in me. Maybe that’s part of the point. You start things and you build up relationships and trust, and when you have a new idea, people are willing to back you,” said Gross, who has founded companies in various economic climates since he was in high school. “Now is definitely the best time to start a company.”

Gross describes innovation as rewarding, but challenging – rewarding because today startups are understood, failure is seen as a sign of growth, and reaching a global audience has never been easier; challenging because although it’s easier to start a company, it’s just as hard to build a great company that changes people’s lives and sells a product at scale.

The lifelong entrepreneur shared the top 10 biggest lessons he has learned:

1. Pursue your passion.

Working on something that you’re absolutely passionate about is the only way to make it through those tough times. When I look back on some of the ideas that we worked on that did succeed, some of them were ideas that we thought were really good businesses with interesting business models, but even the founder themselves were not that passionate. When times got tough, there wasn't the stamina to fight and innovate through a solution. There is almost no opportunistic way to success.

2. The more disruptive, the better.

A small idea takes almost as much work, if not as much or more, than a big idea. You may as well work on something a little more challenging because it’s going to have the same obstacles along the way. I say that from the perspective of looking back on some things that we tried that we thought would be easier, and they really weren’t.

3. Don't spend ahead of success/traction.

It is so easy to get caught up in both your own hype and needs, hiring people before you need them, thinking that you need to raise to market. Find a way to pretend like you only have a little bit of money in the bank when you actually have more.

4. Timing matters- a lot!

Sometimes you really just have to have the right rate of adoption to make your ideas succeed, and you could be just a little too early. I urge you to always consider timing with your idea. Not that you don’t do an idea. You want to be ahead of other people, but you don’t want to be way too early. Way too early is just as bad as being too late.

5. Timing matters, but execution matters even more.

Don’t overvalue the idea when you’re pitching to other people. Think about all the things you need to do to make the execution work even more than just having a good foundational idea.

6. Survive until the market is ready.

On a forerunner company to YouTube that was started by Idealab in 2000 with $10 million in funding raised, Gross said: We were really scaling as quickly as we could and if we had survived a little longer [when 50 percent of the market was able to use the company’s services], we could have been a much bigger company. At least we wouldn't have run out of business. If your idea has some semblance of traction, make sure you survive until the market is really ready for your idea.

7. Recognize your strengths and build a proper team.

I learned over time that my own skills are limited. Figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Build a complementary team around you who can balance your strengths. No company can succeed on one person.

8. Teamwork matters!

You can’t just have complementary skills. You have to have trust and respect for those complementary skills. You have to find people you really develop trust with. You only develop trust with time and earning it. Whipping together a founding team can work, but it really is a crapshoot.

9. Listen and iterate.

Find a way to listen to your customer in faster cycles and implement what your customers say at a faster rate than your competitor. This is something that a small company actually has an advantage over a big company. You can’t know in advance the ultimate way your customers are going to adopt what you've made. Listening and iterating is the most powerful thing about innovation. If there’s any lesson I can pass along, I would say this one could make such a big difference in the success of a company. Try to find some way to work in those rapid iteration cycles into your innovation process.

10. Harness your users' passion.

In the world of connected customers, you must create automated ways for your customers to bring you new ones. You have to be in the game of getting users to help you, otherwise you won’t be able to compete against other people who are doing that. That’s a big lesson I've learned in the last 10 years. I try to design that in the company at the outset as a part of the design and functionality of the product.