Innovation starts with needs but it doesn’t end there

Businesses, either new or “me-too’s”, set out to fulfill a need in the marketplace. Whoever fills this need in a better way, usually is rewarded with profits for a long time. But, profits does not a sustainable company make. Though this particular story I’m about to tell you doesn’t talk about billions of dollars in revenue being evaporated, it does touch on the illusion of customer loyalty.

About 5 years ago, I started advising and then joined a celebrity baby clothing startup called Tuni&G which has a new line of newborn baby clothes for a boy.

With taglines such as “Don’t you wish your mommy was hot like mine” that would adorn the front of a onesie, this startup was pure marketing. But, it did fulfilled a need for those mothers that wanted to feel cool with their baby. Moms could buy the matching mom and baby kits, or they could purchase separate pieces. The clothes were a big hit with celebrity moms. Tori Spelling and Halle Berry became regular clients, and were photographed with their babies while out and about.

Having celebrity moms, like them, on board got us instant attention on the celebrity press. At one point, we almost made it to Oprah!

This was a time when social media was barely getting talked about, Twitter was about a year old and Facebook was barely starting their business push through pages. Blogger outreach, community activation were our go-to tactics, and worked quite well.

But, even though we had national attention, all through word of mouth, and made it to retail stores like Nordstroms and Blooming Dale’s, that wasn’t enough to keep the ride going. We had to close down because of, among other things, debt.

We had a cool product, tons of press and the advocacy of celebrity moms. What happened?

To succeed, we became dependent on sudden surges of buzz whenever a celebrity was caught wearing one of our clothes. Which would mean those photos would show up on magazines such as People and OK! That would trigger awareness and demand in our cute clothes.

I think that becoming dependent on getting “celebrity buzz” (which at one point we could get on a daily basis), and the using that as leverage to get into retail stores was an obvious strategy, but quite flawed. It assumed that “everyone will buy because of celebrities”. Which wasn’t true.

I think we were always missing that special something of going beyond the “obvious needs”. I constantly asked myself: why do our customers really care about us? It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

This was the second startup I was a part of. And, just like the first one, I couldn’t come up with a “significant” answer. For me, much like most businesses, we were in business to make money. We were playing to not lose.

It’s not just about selling. Selling is just the outcome from being significant.

And, that is the point I want to bring up in this post. I’m wired to care. So, for me, purpose matters. There has to be more to it than just “a good product or service” that fills needs. You have to make a connection with customers that goes beyond aesthetics and functionality.

In other words: Are you significant to the people you are selling to?

Of course, this is a challenge for most businesses since they follow the “for profit mindset” of a business plan. Some businesses I’ve talked to over the years like the idea of connecting with their customers, but only because it may result in more money. As you can imagine, it is mostly lip service. It is not a commitment, it is a tactic.

Most businesses are really afraid to become “indispensable” to their customers. And by the way, it isn’t just about branding, it is about doing. This takes us to another question ambitious companies must ask themselves: If your business disappeared tomorrow, who would care?

Again, tough question.

Back at Tuni&G, I certainly didn’t believe our celebrity customers cared if we disappeared. And, I was right.

Innovation certainly starts with fulfilling a need. But it doesn’t end there. Needs, at a certain degree, are superficial. Once someone starts, anyone can spot them. And they usually do. Some company may come up with a different approach than the market pioneer. Which then is followed by some predictable copying and pasting. And from there, we all know what happens.

Bottom line: Look beyond the obvious, aim to make a “dent in the universe” by really caring about improving lives. Not just selling.

Also published on Medium.