Cheer up. You don’t have to be Einstein to disrupt paradigms. Well, actually, you do — Einstein himself said that his greatest asset was his imagination, not his knowledge. The point is, if you can think, you can innovate. If you can ask “why?” you can change the world. Let other people do the hard work of figuring out how to make an airplane fly and a TV screen thinner. You can be the one who figures out that putting the TV in everyone’s airplane seatback could make for a great new airline. Here are a few examples where a simple twist on an existing paradigm changed everything — often in complicated technological businesses.
The trouble with electric cars is that their range is limited, right? You can’t drive cross-country without stopping every 200 miles to recharge the battery — which takes a lot longer than filling a car with gas. Shai Agassi, the Israeli entrepreneur who founded Better Place (profiled by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their great book, Start-Up Nation), asked, “Why recharge the battery? Why not replace it at a swapping station?” The facility looks like a gas station. But instead of pulling in and filling up, you pull in and a robot swaps out your drained battery for a fully charged one. You don’t own a battery, you just rent one every 200 miles. Brilliant. And I predict that the innovation will make the electric car the car of the future. But it would never stand a chance without Shai Agassi’s idea.
Cold Stone Creamery understood that people like custom-made treats. So their business model is give you exactly what you want. An employee asks you what ice cream flavor and toppings you want, painstakingly measures and scoops everything out, mixes it all together, and then tallies up the cost of everything you selected. It takes five minutes. That means long, discouraging lines. And at $10 an hour for labor, the process adds $1.25 to the cost of the treat. Menchie’s Yogurt, now the world’s largest self-serve frozen yogurt retailer, asked, “Why not let the customer do all the work?” So when you walk in, you see eight yogurt machines, each with two different flavors. You fill your own cup with as much or as little as you want of as few or as many as 16 flavors of yogurt. You then add your own toppings. The cashier simply puts your cup on a scale, and you’re charged by the weight. It’s fast. Swipe your credit card, and you’re out of there, enjoying your own custom-made dessert. Bye-bye, traditional yogurt retail.
You know Zipcar, right? They asked, Why should people who need a car have to travel to huge lots miles away to rent one? Why not let people become members and pop cars all over town? Members simply locate a Zipcar nearby, activate the door opening with a smartphone app, and go. No agent involved. Now several enterprising start-ups, like Hubway in Boston, have done the same thing with bicycles. And it’s not exactly like bicycles were a new technology. With a $70 annual membership, you get a key. Just swipe it at one of the bike stations around town, grab a bike, and you’re off. You can even rent a helmet. You return the bike to any station you choose. No on-site employees involved.
When Steve Jobs saw multi-touch technology, his first reaction was, “My God, this could be a phone.” He didn’t design the technology. He just recognized that a multi-touch screen could create an infinite number of user interfaces for an infinite number of applications, instead of the one user interface to which traditional phones were limited. So long, plastic buttons.
The Feature-Length Cartoon
Walt Disney didn’t invent the cartoon. But he did ask, “Why are cartoons always only three minutes long?” He realized that with the right story, you could engage an audience with animation for just as long as you could with live actors. The feature animation business was born.
The Upside-Down Ketchup Bottle.
Heinz didn’t invent upside down. Upside-down had been around for a while. But someone there finally asked, “Why do we let the ketchup rest in the bottle at the farthest point from the opening? Why not flip the design, so people don’t have to break a blood vessel getting the damned stuff out.” Voilà. Upside-down packaging everywhere.
So, welcome back to the 21st-century economy. If you can ask “Why?” in an industry where everyone else is too busy or distracted to bother, you can build a great business, no matter how complex the underlying technology — and maybe change the world in the process.
You can be the one who asks “Why?” You can hire people to figure out the how.
What are some of the unasked “Why?” questions that you’ve noticed in the world today?