Innovation by ideology - what's new is the story

Back when I (too briefly) worked for Bruce Golden at Accel, he'd look at one of the companies I brought in and ask: what's the significant invention or innovation here? The question bugged me at the time and I wasn't sure why. Bruce encouraged arguing from first principles and frequently the stuff I liked wasn't fundamentally new, so we wouldn't proceed. There was no "better mousetrap."

It's the worldview of engineers and (many) business people. Make something ten times better and the world will flock to your door. You corner the mousetrap market by building a more effective trap. 

But many of the companies that I had seen succeed didn't do that at all. They did something slightly different, sometimes somewhat better in one dimension, and significantly worse in another. And it wasn't like the better dimension was 100x better - this wasn't an innovator's dilemma thing. 

What these companies did instead was change the conversation. They hit upon the zeitgeist or mainstreamed some subculture in an important way. To keep with the analogy of the mousetrap, today that consumer market (in Europe) is dominated by humane designs. There has been a silent but significant revolution in how we think about the sentience of animals and the primacy of humans in nature over the last 50 years. And the guys who started building non-fatal mousetraps tapped right into that - perhaps not even consciously but because it was the *right* thing to do.

I've gotten more conscious about this kind of ideological or cultural innovation over time. You can see it everywhere around us. It's human progress enabling commerce enabling progress. I'm a big fan of that cycle. And I nowadays recommend it frequently to founders.

Want to build a car subscription company? Why not make it just for electric cars. Want to build a digital FMCG? Start by removing all paraffins, perfumes, and animal testing. 

And so the world gets better, one small company at a time.

Image source: Bodha, Come Back to Yourself, a DTC aromatherapy company from LA (not in our portfolio)