Guy Kawasaki on Innovation and the Myth of Lightning-Bolt Inspiration

Power Twitter user, former Mac evangelist, and Alltop cofounder Guy Kawasaki knows a thing or two about innovation. But, he says, that doesn't make it easy.

Guy Kawasaki is busy. He's a founding partner of seed-stage and early-stage venture capital fund Garage Technology Ventures, co-founder of "online magazine rack" Alltop, and author of nine books, including Reality Check and Rules for Revolutionaries. And if you follow him on Twitter (and more than 19,000 people do), you will probably realize the truth of his words—that he's discovered a way to use Twitter as a weapon.

Clearly this is someone who has something to say about innovation, and we wanted to hear what that was. In a frank discussion with CIO.com (via e-mail), Kawasaki discusses the difficulty of prioritizing innovation when you are worried about financial survival, why we can't know whether Twitter and other social networks gave Obama the win, and how anyone can be an innovator.

Guy Kawasaki
"The most beautiful trend in innovation is that...two [people] in a garage using MySQL, PHP, Rails, and Wordpress can do a lot of damage now—indeed, this puts large companies at risk. " -Guy Kawasaki

First off, how would you define innovation?

Innovation is creating something before people know they need it. The process involves building upon the work of others—a.k.a., "copying," grinding it out, and deleting what doesn't work to jump to the next curve.

Innovation isn't a lightning bolt of inspiration in the middle of a muse. More often than not, it's a process of grinding, cogitating, and doubting. There truly is no shortcut to innovation. Over the course of a career, you come up with dozens, if not hundreds of ideas, and reject most, try some, and you are lucky if handful succeed.

You cofounded Alltop, which has an interesting origin. How might those beginnings illustrate an innovation lesson to others?

There's a very good lesson in the origin of Alltop: We created it because we noticed that Popurls, a site that aggregates business and tech feeds, generated as much traffic as Google for another site that we owned. Because of this, we got curious about Popurls and decided to copy what it was doing. The lesson here is watch what others do that succeeds and don't be proud about what inspires your innovation. I also believe Alltop itself can help foster innovation because it helps people keep tabs on what others are doing and showcases inspiring ideas, especially at http://innovation.alltop.com/ and http://enterprise.alltop.com.

What about innovation today? In this recession, many companies may decide innovation is an extra. They're just trying to stay afloat, people are getting laid off, and each employee is likely doing the work of two or three employees; the idea of putting time into innovation may seem like fluff. What are your thoughts on such an attitude—in other words, how important is innovation during a recession?

This falls into the category of "it's easy for me to say." That is, it is easy for me to say that innovation is the key to survival and now more necessary than ever. Intellectually, I—and probably your readers—know this is right, but when you're bleeding cash, it's tough to keep innovating. Frankly, it's tough to do anything right now because of the economic times. Still, if you only innovate when things are going good, you won't innovate enough.

On that subject—companies who are still interested in innovating, even during these tough times—what would you recommend? How can they create a culture of innovation when fear is rampant?

Again, at an intellectual level, no company laid off its way to success. On the other hand, it's easy for "experts" to say that one must keep innovating when your company is running out of cash since it's not their necks on the line. There are no magic bullets. It's just a tough time.

That said, one assumption that companies should not make is that money equals innovation. That is, two guys/gals in the lab might create the great innovation. It doesn't have to be the $10 million budget line item for R and D. I could make the case that money can't buy innovation—if it did, then large companies would get larger and startups would never innovate.

Speaking of startups, do you think there are lessons that traditional companies can learn from startups, especially those in Silicon Valley?

Honestly, instead of trying to learn from Silicon Valley startups or any other companies, companies should simply start prototyping. This isn't rocket science for crying out loud. Tell your engineers to create great stuff and get out of their way. Just remember: If you don't create the products that kill your products, guys in a garage are going to.

But what if you're stuck at a company that doesn't want to innovate? In this economy where jobs are scarce, do you have any advice to guide a person in such a situation?

In this economy or even if the economy is booming, I'd say use open-source tools to build your prototype at night and on the weekends. Ship it. Make sure that the dogs eat the dog food, and then quit.

The most beautiful trend in innovation is that it's getting cheaper to innovate for many types of products. Two gals in a garage using MySQL, PHP, Rails, and Wordpress can do a lot of damage now—indeed, this puts large companies at risk. A second beautiful trend is that you can deploy innovation faster and cheaper now with Web-based products and services compared to the old days when you physically shipped out upgrade kits and manuals.

With more than 19,000 updates, it's safe to say you're a Twitter power user (and one of the most followed people on Twitter). Do you think Twitter and other forms of social networking play a role in innovation?

For most CIOs, it's hard to imagine that social networking or Twitter plays big role in the process of innovation. Both can play a large role in the marketing and selling of innovation, but much as I love this stuff, I don't think they "cause" innovation. The innovation comes first, and then you use social networking to spread the word about it.

Barack Obama is also on Twitter (and the site's most-followed user, with more than 322,000 followers). Many people noted Obama's use of Twitter and other social networking activity during his presidential campaign and thought it played an important role in his win. What do you think?

Obama's use of social networking proves that if you have a fundamentally good product, many people will claim that they know why it's successful. The test is not whether social networking won the election for Obama. The test is whether social networking could have won the election for McCain and Palin. That would prove something.

Which individuals or companies stand out to you right now for their innovation?

I haven't worked for Apple for more than 10 years so it's not self-referential, but Apple and Steve Jobs impress me. Apple I, Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone—notice that I left out the failures—are a remarkable track record. Most companies would be fortunate to have done one of these.

As you said, you haven't worked for Apple for 10 years, but what did your time there teach you about innovation?

I used to think that if you built a better mouse(-based computer)trap, people would beat a path to it. But the most important lesson that Apple taught me about innovation is that the most innovative product doesn't necessarily win. There are many other factors that are as important—including luck and good timing.

What about Apple's continued growth since you left the company?

Apple's continued growth has taught me that some subset of people do appreciate better ways of doing things. It might not be "everybody," but there are enough of them so that least-common denominator product development isn't necessary or even wise.

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