What names come to mind when you think of the automotive industry? Perhaps established manufacturers like Ford, Toyota, and Honda—or maybe flashy brands like Tesla.
Only a few years after Elon Musk launched Tesla, Jeff Rogers jumped into the automotive game. He created Local Motors in 2007. In the over $1 trillion industry, it’s hard to imagine making room for another auto maker, but Local Motors is changing the game.
Local Motors is gaining traction by disrupting the traditional automotive manufacturing model. Two years after inception, the business entered the illustrious Guinness Book of Work Records. The record-breaking design was the Rally Fighter, a post-apocalyptic-looking, street-legal rally car.
Neat, but so what?
Interestingly, the vehicle itself isn’t what landed Local Motors the accolades; it was the method with which it was built. The Rally Fighter is the world’s first co-created car—a vehicle based on different design features within the business’s ‘community.’ The car is the result of between 160 and 200 different contributors.
Despite being a low-volume manufacturer, Local Motors is a success story in the industry because it can identify problems and solve them quickly—much faster and less expensively than a traditional automotive giant. And because it's able to turn custom-built vehicles around so fast, it has carved out a unique niche in the highly competitive automotive market.
Innovation is key to success
One eye-opening way to look at success is to compare Fortune 500 lists.
Remarkably, a mere 52 businesses which made the first list in 1955 remain there today. That means more than 89% lost that coveted spot over the last 64 years. Of course, changes due to mergers, acquisitions, or bankruptcies happen, and some may have gone private. But of the 1,800 that have spent time on the list, many have simply disappeared.
It no longer suffices to just be good at what you do; you now need to stay on the razor’s edge of innovation. As founder and chairman of HCL Technology, Shiv Nadar, once explained,
Adaptability and constant innovation is key to the survival of any company operating in a competitive market.
Nadar knows exactly what he’s talking about. His IT company reinvented itself multiple times, growing from a garage-based business making calculators to an $8.6 billion SaaS (Software as a Service) provider.
Innovation in today’s increasingly competitive landscape
Intuit and Ford are two prime examples of businesses that have adapted as their customers' needs have changed over the years.
Intuit: Innovation culture
Intuit Inc. is an American financial software company. It develops and sells financial, accounting, and tax preparation software and services for small businesses, accountants, and individuals.
Entrepreneurial spirit and the culture of innovation are second nature to Intuit. Co-founder Scott Cook spoke of Intuit as a science lab, where anything can be tested and proven incorrect.
"When you have only one test, you don't have entrepreneurs; you have politicians. When you have lots of ideas you have entrepreneurs," said Cook.
As part of its innovation practice, Intuit boldly entered into the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI). The company now applies machine learning, knowledge engineering, and natural language processing to many aspects of the business.
For example, Intuit’s QuickBooks Self-Employed financial software uses AI and machine learning technology “to automate time-consuming processes.” This includes expense tracking, profit and earnings forecasts, and estimated tax calculations.
Intuit CEO and Fortune 500 leader Sasan Goodarzi recently attended the 2019 Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference. There, he shared how the business has “reimagined and disrupted itself multiple times on the way to becoming the AI-driven expert platform” it is today.
Goodarzi predicted after electricity and the Internet, AI is the next big technological advance that will “fundamentally change the world.” He pointed out the importance of applying innovative new technologies, explaining how Intuit is using AI to “help put more money in customers’ pockets.”
With AI, said Goodarzi, Intuit is making good on its mission to help small businesses get paid faster.
Ford: Innovation via Crowdsourcing
New digital technologies such as telematics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are causing rapid change in the automotive sector, ushering in disruptive innovations. Ford Motor Company is trying a new direction by using crowdsourcing and open innovation communities to generate new ideas.
With an innovation accelerator to engage employees, Ford supports a variety of creative projects, such as the Intersection Priority Management System. This connected system enables vehicles on the road to share trajectory data so they can move through intersections safely.
Ford wanted to speed up its innovation engine, and identified electronics and software as a strategic area of focus. In particular, it set sights on developing smart mobility solutions for Ford drivers. To help develop those solutions, Ford created its own developer community, backed by an open-source software and hardware platform.
There's no recipe for innovation
As with many things in business, there's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to innovation. However, we can learn from past mistakes. Running from innovation makes a business vulnerable to disruption. Instead, businesses must enable innovation, making space for it in their practices and operations.
Here are 7 innovation-stifling business moves to avoid:
- Ignoring the competition.
A business should tout its uniqueness, but others will aim to duplicate any success, and possibly surpass it. A growing business has to constantly watch what competitors are doing and make sure they don’t fall behind.
- Failing to keep up with trends.
No matter the industry, businesses generate customers by filling a need. Yet, the marketplace is constantly evolving. Businesses have to innovate to address developments.
- Refusing to invest in new technology to improve products.
Another way Local Motors is keeping itself in the automotive limelight is by creating vehicles with 3D printing. When the business was first created, 3D printing was still in its infancy. However, as the concept evolved, the automotive manufacturer invested in the technology. During the International Manufacturing Technology Show, Local Motors demonstrated the ability to ‘print’ a car in just 44 hours.
- Neglecting to keep up with digital disruptions.
A long list of companies made this mistake and disappeared altogether or faded into the background. Consider BlackBerry, dropping from the highest levels of success in 1998 to an outright retreat from smartphone manufacturing in 2017.
- Maintaining a flawed business model.
Even Google isn't immune to this problem. Every quarter, Google reports a drop in revenues per click, and has for years. Although it manages to outpace the loss by selling more ads in more places, it still raises the question of whether this is a sustainable business model.
- Refusing to change.
After many years of success with its car radios, Motorola launched the world’s first mobile phone. In 2003, its Razr was the most popular phone in the industry. However, Motorola didn’t acknowledge customers wanted smartphones that could handle large amounts of data and e-mail. Competitors such as Apple and Samsung jumped in and suddenly, Motorola’s phones were left behind.
- Ignoring the importance of taking risks...
or the fear of making the wrong choices. Businesses that fail often missed opportunities because the perceived risk was too high. Microsoft, while still a success, could probably be even larger had it taken an early chance on concepts like e-books and smartphones.
Failing to innovate
Innovation, according to Wikipedia, is "a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method. Innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, in-articulated needs, or existing market needs.”
How is failing to innovate different from the seven listed mistakes? It’s the most crucial one. You could make any of the other mistakes and recover if you took appropriate, timely action. But a persistent lack of innovation can actually kill a business. The dangers of being complacent or too comfortable with the status quo are intensifying as innovation becomes more widely adopted.
Disruption or innovation?
Interestingly enough, the historical meaning of the word innovation is different from our current understanding. According to Wikipedia, “From the 1400s through the 1600s, prior to early American settlement, ‘innovation’ had a negative connotation. It was an early modern synonym for rebellion, revolt and heresy.” But isn’t that what we say about ‘world-leading’ or ‘best-in-class’ businesses? The leaders tend to be the ones that revolutionize, or disrupt, an industry.
Speed to market is also becoming a crucial differentiator, driving the adoption of rapid and agile go-to-market approaches. Shortening the steps of the process enables you to test ideas before investing too much time or resources.
Accelerating the time to market tends to lower development costs, deliver greater forecasting accuracy, and create the chance to secure a greater market share.
The industries which suffer most from disruption are those which have no real differentiation or are disadvantaged.
Ride-sharing disrupted the taxi industry because GPS systems and smartphone technologies stripped away the taxis competitive advantage. More people in New York City now use Uber than Yellow Cabs. By Q1 2018, ride-hailing had grabbed 70.5% of the market, with rental cars getting 23.5%, and taxis just 6%.
Businesses that consistently innovate and have the agility to make changes, will stay ahead of disruption. The rate of change is accelerating, adding complexity and raising the stakes. Businesses must adopt innovation as a practice, versus a one-time event, in response.