10 Professional Prototyping Tips from Shuya Gong of Ideo

Search YouTube for ‘Ideo shopping cart,’ and you will find a vintage 1990s ABC Nightline clip with over 1.3 million views. It doesn’t feature celebrities or world leaders, just a group of designers from the product development firm Ideo. The stars of the video are an eclectic mix of innovators, including an engineer, a linguist, a marketing expert, a psychologist, and individuals with MBA and biology degrees. They are working on a one-week assignment to imagine then prototype a next-generation shopping cart. The resulting design – complete with a scanner attached to the cart that would allow you to scan and bag your groceries while you shop – certainly looked odd in 1999. However, if you go into some grocery stores today, you are actually able to do just that, scanning your items using an app on your smartphone. 

With wild ideas bursting from a multidisciplinary team, the video shows an innovation process that was quite radical in the ‘90s but has since become normal and a proven way of success adopted by some of the brightest companies in the world, including Google and Apple. These days, Ideo is still innovating, although they have moved from product design to a full platform that includes an array of services. 

Shuya Gong works within the Ideo CoLab, a collaborative innovation platform focusing on human-centered design. From her experience creating prototypes for a variety of companies, she offers these professional prototyping tips and insights. 

10 Professional Prototyping Tips

1. You can prototype anything.

For those who think prototyping isn’t their ‘thing,’ Shuya stresses that prototyping is important for all entrepreneurs and business owners. “A prototype is a question made tangible,” says Shuya. “You can prototype anything. This includes experiences, products, stories, business plans, and proof of concepts.”

2. Get a great team and trust the process.

As mentioned before, the best innovation happens when you gather a multidisciplinary team where everyone can tackle the project from different angles to create truly unique concepts and prototypes. Of course, Shuya cautions that working on a team is hard; expect to go through a rollercoaster of divergence and convergence of ideas. Embrace the process and know that you’re going to come through at the end. 

3. Build your (and your team’s) creative confidence.

One of the top professional prototyping tips is to build creative confidence. This is the baseline to making creativity happen, and for allowing innovation to happen inside your business. To encourage more innovation, entrepreneurs and business owners should create a culture where wild ideas are embraced, and everyone is invited into the innovation process no matter their rank or background. “A designer is someone who makes stuff with the intent of usability,” remarks Shayo. Everyone within the organization can contribute to the design and prototyping process.

4. Design is a three-step process.

Design is a three-step process

“Think of design as a process. It goes from inspiration to ideation to implementation,” explains Shuya.

  • Inspiration: Get inspired about the problem you are trying to solve. Understand how to look at people, how to understand what they’re thinking, and how to have empathy. This part of the process involves observing as well as interviewing users.
  • Ideation: “Ideation is the part that gets really messy,” says Shuya. After you have gathered information from your target market, it’s time to put everything together and try to understand it. Based on their feedback, you start generating a lot of ideas—some even wild and bizarre—in the ideation step.
  • Implementation: Implementation is about taking the final ideas from the ideation step and executing them in order to create the prototype and bring your product or service to the market. For this most difficult step, Shuya recommends that you have a good COO.

5. Remember for whom you are designing.

Your client or customer is the most important part of the prototyping process because your aim is to make something desirable for them. To understand why you’re making something, gain insight into the pain points because you can’t fix something if you don’t know why or what is broken. Shuya recommends doing ‘design research’ which is different from ‘marketing research’ in that it is open-ended, exploratory, and aimed at discovering the main questions and problems (to which you will develop answers and solutions).

6. Engage in venture design.

Venture design is different from normal design because venture design is about creating the unseeable, creating something that when you put it out in the world, people look at it and say “Whoa! I need this right now! I can’t believe this doesn’t exist already!” As Shuya explains it, if you consider the world and everything that is real on one plane, the concrete plane, then everything above it is abstract. You want to be on that upper, abstract plane when you are venture designing. The goal is to find something that doesn’t exist yet but will make people’s lives much easier.

7. Gather inspiration from everywhere.

It is old school wisdom to carry a pen and paper around with you all the time to log your ideas. Shuya has a tip for the modern era—just get an Instagram account and take pictures of all the interesting things that you encounter so you can remember them. When you get stuck in a spot and don’t understand how to solve a problem, go back through your Instagram photos. “Probably you’ve taken a picture of something inspiring at some point in time that will trigger some great idea,” says Shuya.

8. Less talking, more doing.

Less talking, more doing image

When you get to the ideation stage, be very urgent and action-oriented about the task at hand. Don’t worry about making things perfect or thinking about what is ‘possible.’ Those details can be figured out later, but for now, it’s time to get every imperfect idea out for consideration.

9. Strong ideas, weakly held.

While it is good to be passionate about your ideas, it’s also important to be very open when you go out and get feedback on your prototype. If people don’t get it immediately, don’t try to explain it to them (as if it’s a perfect idea and they don’t get it because they’re stupid.) “That’s the complete opposite way of getting user feedback for a prototype,” says Shuya. It’s more important to know what people don’t like about your idea than what they do like about it. After all the feedback comes in, you can make sense of it by clustering groups of responses together and trying to understand themes. This will give you plenty of ideas for how you can improve the next version of your prototype.

10. Remember the art of storytelling.

When it comes time to pitch your idea and prototype, first take some time to figure out what your story is. What is the overarching narrative of your company and product/service? What is your mission? Why are you here in the world? Whose lives do you make easier? Telling a story about your venture will help people remember it better. While pitching will get you money, storytelling will make people develop a deeper emotional connection.


“You can prototype anything. This includes experiences, products, stories, business plans, and proof of concepts.”


Prototyping should be a fast-paced process that happens quickly…think of that new-age shopping cart developed by Ideo in one-week, with innovative ideas that were nearly a decade before their time. It’s action-oriented, it’s exhilarating, it’s rowdy, it’s inventive. There is no guarantee for a win either, so don’t be afraid to fail. “And when you do fail, just repeat, “It’s fine,” offers Shuya. “This is what innovative companies do all the time.” 

“This is my job,” says Shuya. “I go from zero to venture concept in one week, using technology-led design.” Using her professional prototyping tips, you can take your own inspiration and bizarre ideas, and rapidly prototype them into products and services that will change people’s lives.

7 Innovation Tips from the Theatre to the Executive Office

7 Innovation Tips from the Theatre to the Executive Office Featured Image
“As all good business deals happen, I was in a bar talking to another theatre professional, martinis in hand, and he said, ‘I think we should start a theatre company.’ I was like, ‘I’ve already got one—I don’t need another.’ And he looked at me so earnestly and just said ‘No, a company for us. We need to put this kind of work and our people and our faces in front of the city all of the time. This is how we break down barriers—by showing people our stories and our humanity.’ Two martinis in and I was crying. I’m like, ‘This is the greatest idea ever; we should do it.’ And we did.” That story from Dawn Simmons, a playwright, and director with dozens of successful projects in Boston theatres, came after she had just finished an all-black theatre show with an all-black cast. The conversation with Maurice Parent led to the creation of the Front Porch Arts Collective, a black-led theatre company located in Central Square, which aims to “break down boundaries by having theatre shaped by the diversity of the community it represents.”  Front Porch, as Dawn calls it for short, was created with hopes to inspire, empower, and create a platform for underrepresented artists in Boston and New England. As a trailblazer who has been fighting racism and encouraging diversity in Boston, Dawn shared with us several innovation tips and insights that she has learned in her career in theatre which are applicable to any industry and any entrepreneur. 

1. Immerse Yourself in Every Aspect of Your Business/Industry

Dawn studied playwriting at Boston University and got a job right away after school, even though she knew from early on that she wanted to run a company. “I took every opportunity that I could find within my field,” she says, “just so that I could learn more about the field I wanted to work in.” Like any business, theatre is complex, with many different moving parts and pieces. One time, Dawn took on the job of running crew on a play: running after actors, changing their clothes, handing them props, and changing the scenery. She also took a job as an administrative assistant, and positions in literary management and company management. All of these jobs gave Dawn a larger view of how a theatre business operates, and how each job has a specific function that contributes to the end result you see on stage. All budding business owners can do the same thing, learning as much as they can about their business or industry, so they understand how all parts work individually and how they work together as a whole.

2. Meet Everyone You Can

Meet Everyone You Can Image While Dawn was sampling all aspects of theatre to get an understanding of business and production as a whole, she was also focused on connecting with others in the industry. “Be in every room that you can, meet every person of importance that in the field that you can,” says Dawn. “There are so many people that I met when I was 25 that, right now in my mid-40s, have pushed me to be where I am or who just opened a door.” Dawn says she can’t say enough good things about professional organizations. The people she met gave her insight into the Boston theatre scene, and the network she built helped further her career. In fact, Front Porch Arts Collective is currently being funded by three Boston theatre companies (Lyric State Company, Central Square Theatre, and Greater Boston Stage) all thanks to the connections she and her business partner Maurice made throughout their careers.

3. Dare to Be Different

Before starting Front Porch, Dawn started another theatre company called New Exhibition Room, which focused on things that were different, exploratory, and often covering subjects regarding interpersonal and socioeconomic politics. This sort of theatre was not really being done in Boston at the time, which gave the company a unique position. Dawn remembers doing berserk things like staging a zombie apocalypse and doing promenade theatre in Boston Commons with artists in costumes and pop-up performances everywhere. “There was nobody to tell us what we couldn’t do,” reflects Dawn. “We just sort of had ideas and threw them at the wall to see what people were interested in.” With both New Exhibition Room and Front Porch Arts Collective, Dawn has always been interested in looking at things from a different perspective, in telling stories in a different way, and with a different cast of characters, such as when she staged Men on Boats with an all-female cast, including a transgender male and three people who were gender non-conforming.  She is also planning to direct The Three Musketeers with an all-black cast. “That sort of swashbuckling, restoration-like hero trope is not the place that you always see us,” says Dawn. “So we get to now insert ourselves into the story, because we were there all along, and we get to think about how we are going to tell it, and how we can make this more of our story.”

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail image One of the top innovation tips you need to know is that innovation requires that you do something different, which is exactly what Dawn aims for in her theatre productions, and what all business owners should strive for in their companies. But that doesn’t mean everything you try will work. In fact, Dawn says that the Men on Boats show that was mentioned above was a failure. Dawn assembled a unique cast and chose a unique vision for the story that was loved by all those who were working behind the scenes, including the actors and the parent company. Everyone was happy with the production, but for some reason, it didn’t resonate with audiences. “It was hard to watch people go out on stage every night, and do this thing that we loved and that we believed in…you could hear people in the audience that were like, ‘I don’t get it.’” recalls Dawn. “The thing that we learned was that every night you still have to go out there, you still have to do it.” Accepting failure means saying, “We’ve tried this and nobody wanted it, and that’s okay.” Dawn is perhaps a bit more resilient than others because theatre, and improvisation specifically, teaches you that it is okay to get uncomfortable, even in front of a group of people. “The ability to look foolish gives you the ability to try anything,” says Dawn. That attitude – and a thick skin – is helpful for any business owner or entrepreneur who wants to explore big, innovative ideas.

5. Find Business Partners Who Complement You

As Dawn reflects on her journey, she contemplates the people she partnered with along the way and how they helped her to become successful individually and as a company. For example, before starting the New Exhibition Room, Dawn thought that she didn’t want to start a company of her own but rather wanted to run someone else’s company. A friend came to her and convinced her that they should start the New Exhibition Room together. “I have that person, that number two, who has the vision, and I know that I’m a person who can execute that vision,” she says. Further, Dawn and Front Porch cofounder Maurice also complement each other. “One person who’s always shooting for the stars, and one person who’s like ‘let’s just hold back a little bit,’ has worked really well for me in all of the companies and all of the work that I have done,” says Dawn. “It’s just a good balance of dreaming and caution.” Business owners and entrepreneurs can also find a complementary partner to help inside the business. How do you find the right person? Dawn says, “Every chance you get, find that person who pushes you, who scares you, who says that thing where you are like ‘we can’t possibly do that.’”

6. Capture Every Idea

The idea generation process is of ultimate importance in innovation, which makes it one of her top innovation tips on the list. Dawn’s process is to capture every idea that comes to mind by writing it down and keeping journals. “If you come into my home, there are post-it notes of every idea I have, for stories I want to tell, things I want to write, things I want to try.” Her ideas are kept present and visible, so they are never far from mind. Dawn also advocates having a group of friends to talk to and hash out ideas. She says that every once in a while there is an idea that just won’t let her sleep, so she gets friends together, gathers them in the room, and tries to hash the idea out. Using fun improv exercises, she can see where her friends take the idea. What they show in actions and dialogues gives her ideas that she can translate into her writing. Idea generation can be a solo activity or a group activity, but make sure that it is action-oriented and aimed at pushing those ideas further.

7. Know-How to Learn From and Lead Your Team

“So how would I categorize my leadership style? Collaborative. Possibly collaborative to a fault,” says Dawn. “I don’t think I’m the most innovative person, but I know folks who are. I know folks who are more creative than me.” Dawn loves to hear the creative ideas of her team, and she tries to give them space so they can do their best work.  

 “I think for us, the ability to humanize ourselves in story form is what has really worked.”


Being humble and learning from your team is a great strategy for any entrepreneur, in the same vein of the phrase ‘never be the smartest person in the room.’ However, the other side of managing a team is knowing when to take over and lead them. As all the ideas are flowing in, the leader has to be the one to take those ideas, see how they are coalescing, and decide what it will look like when it all comes together. Collaboration is an excellent model for leadership, but there always has to be someone steering the ship—another tip from Dawn that budding entrepreneurs should keep in mind. In the end, for any business owner or entrepreneur, innovation is only as strong as the fuel behind it. For Dawn, that fuel is her higher goal of making sure that there is a space for artists of color to get work, that more stories of people of color are told, and that audiences are integrated so they can get a better understanding as they watch these stories together. There are many ways to reach Dawn’s goal of combating racism. “I think for us, the ability to humanize ourselves in story form is what has really worked.” While these innovation tips were all acquired from Dawn’s theatre work and business, they surely apply inside any corporate firms and business setups. 

David Graham: Pioneering Civic Innovation in San Diego, CA

“When I was a kid, my dad had a secret stash of magazines I wasn’t supposed to know about, hidden in the garage, buried in a box. But I knew where they were, so I’d sneak into the garage and leaf through the pages of those sexy Popular Science magazines because I wanted to know what the future would look like.”

Flash forward and David Graham, formerly the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Smart and Sustainable Communities in San Diego and currently the Chief Innovation Officer for the neighboring city of Carlsbad, would find himself in the position of creating the cities of the future. Here is a look at his work pioneering civic innovation in San Diego. 

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse image

The concept of ‘smart cities’ means bringing technological advances to a city that will improve its operations and the quality of life for its citizens. “But I’m going to admit something to you right now,” he says. “Most of our cities are incredibly dumb.” Why? Because there are some major challenges holding them back.

“We have these great technological advances to create things like cleaner mobility,” says David, “but the fundamental building blocks of our cities are still flawed.” When thinking about the challenges that cities face, he likes to think of them as ‘the four horsemen of the metro apocalypse.’

1. Rapid Urbanization

We know that by 2030, a third of the world will live in cities of 500,000 or more. Rapid urbanization means cramming more people into less space.

2. Aging Infrastructure

Around the US, $4 trillion dollars of investment is necessary just to catch up with the underfunded infrastructure investments.

3. Climate Change

Climate change is something that is affecting the entire world. While there are still deniers, even corporate America has come on board. When banks and rating agencies for bonds look and ask about your city, they ask whether the city has sustainability officers, because climate change is a real and specific threat.

4. Cyber Security

The city of San Diego got a million attacks a month on their network, many from known malicious addresses and over a hundred thousand that are verified to be specific attacks on the city. “This is probably our number one threat that we’re facing in cities today, and the one that we are least ready to deal with,” David adds. 

Civic Innovation Is the Solution

Civic Innovation Is the Solution image

The solution to these problems is found in civic innovation, says David. Broadly defined, it’s the process of co-creating with outside parties in order to strategically use technology and data to solve city problems. To look at it more specifically, we can examine several components and key ideas within the philosophy and process of civic innovation.

Gathering Data

Gathering data is the key to figuring out what’s going on in your city. To do this, San Diego made use of the most mundane of urban objects—the streetlight. 

The streetlight is a fundamental piece of infrastructure that people walk by every day but rarely notice. It helps illuminate the night, thus providing safety and security for citizens. But the fact that streetlights are everywhere and are the perfect height to ‘look down’ on the streets and sidewalks below means that they can contribute so much more to the city than just light.

In San Diego, they decided to replace 14,000 streetlights with not only improved lighting but also a cellular network and sensors, thereby creating the largest municipal internet of things platform ever. Cameras, microphones, environmental sensors, all in one neat package. “The humble street light is now one of the most powerful sensing devices for civic learning that has ever existed,” says David. Some of the many uses are traffic congestion management, improving pedestrian safety, and parking optimization. 

Gathering data is important for civic innovation because it allows city officials to make data-empowered decisions. Data tells the city where it should invest money and can validate whether past money was invested properly.

Changing Bureaucracy from the Inside

Bureaucracy is not known for risk-taking. In fact, it is more known for regulations, restrictions, and lockdowns that prevent innovation. David mentions that to really change our cities, we have to shake that up, and that means “we have to change things from the inside.”

Getting help from outside innovation partners allows the city government to get ideas that they may not have (and possibly would never have) thought up on their own, for these outside partners are the true disrupters, not those within the bureaucracy itself. But truly embracing and implementing the ideas of disrupters means that the bureaucratic mindset has to change—departments and city officials have to be okay with taking risks and even accept the possibility that certain pilots will fail.

“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David. This requires a mindset shift and also a different way of viewing and operating the city.

Co-Creating With Outside Partners

As mentioned above, civic innovation requires the city to partner with individuals and entities that are true disrupters. “They’re the ones that are willing to push the hardest and the furthest, the ones that are willing to try new things and put themselves out there,” says David. While civic innovation happens within the bureaucracy, it must happen in collaboration with startups, academics, and others who have different visions of what a future city may look like. 

For example, David reflects on the changes that have come in the “last mile” transit within San Diego. Light rail and buses take people downtown, but how do these people get to their end destination? Bike share programs were once popular—first docked bikes, then dockless bikes. Now many of these bikes are gone because e-bikes and scooters showed up and have become popular with citizens. The government did not think of these last-mile mobility solutions—the private sector did. However, by embracing these solutions from startups and creative companies, a crucial urban mobility challenge is solved, and the city also reaps benefits such as less pollution and congestion.


“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David.


Another example of partnering with outside parties has to do with solar panels. David recalls that the system for getting a solar panel permit used to be clunky and time-consuming. To improve this, San Diego decided to take a big risk and eliminate the front-end process, essentially relying on the private sector and engineers themselves to self-certify. By taking the government out of the process and “letting industry do what industry does best” solar panel permits skyrocketed, and the city has been able to benefit from less fossil fuel usage and less pollution. 

Co-creation with innovative partners—coupled with the bureaucracy’s shift to becoming more accepting of risk—helps civic innovation flourish.

Engaging the Community

For civic innovation to happen, citizens, themselves must also be part of the process. Younger generations have higher expectations regarding technology and the efficient delivery of services, expectations which are pushing the city to come up with solutions and make the city a more convenient place to live. But successful implementation and adoption require buy-in from the community, and so San Diego has tried many strategies.

One is their open data policy, where all data sets are out there for people to view and play with. Another is transparency. The city seeks to be transparent about what they’re deploying, so citizens understand not only what is happening but also why. For example, before installing sensors on the streetlights, San Diego sought fun and engaging way to bring the community into the conversation. Instead of doing a boring survey, they held a block party. “Basically, we told people to come co-create with us,” says David.

Another example is an app the city created called Get It Done, and which David says “harnesses the awesome power of grumpy people.” The app allows residents to report problems they see in the city, including broken parking meters, potholes, abandoned vehicles and even poop on the sidewalk. How it works is that the request comes into the department, the person who reported the problem gets a message back acknowledging the request and giving a window of time for it to be fixed, then after the problem is fixed, the resident gets a message that it has been fixed, along with a photo proving it. David says that this app increased civic engagement and creates positive interactions with the city. It also saves money and helps residents feel that they have a more responsive and agile government.

Moonshot Ideas 

David says that although San Diego is focused on “doing practical, pragmatic civic innovation” the city also goes for moonshot ideas. “Cities are piloting some of the most amazing ideas that are moonshot,” he says. 

What does David mean by moonshot? As he explains it:

“What do the CAT scan, baby formula, dust buster, computer mouse, memory foam, headphones, selfie stick, and digital camera all have to do with each other? They would not have existed without the space program. All of those things, the fundamental technology for them, came from our desire to go into space and go to the moon. So when you talk about a moonshot, these are the types of things that can come when you set your sights high and then see what innovation can follow.”

San Diego’s moonshot ideas are tied to their climate action plan, which includes 100% renewable energy, 90% diversion of waste from landfills, and 50% of single-vehicle trips changed to walking, biking or alternative modes of transportation. 

“This is really our moonshot,” says David. “And it’s driving a lot of our work. Ambitious big goals that are going to change the way we end up living.”

“What we’re doing in cities is life-changing,” adds David, as he reflects on the civic innovation work being done in San Diego and in other cities around the globe. “LIFE because of quality of life and the way we live. We’re not accepting the same old dirty, polluted, annoying, terrible way of living in our cities. And CHANGING because innovation is powering the next version of what our communities are and can be.”

3 Ugly Truths about Innovation, from John Warner, Head of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry

“He creeped me out,” John Warner recalled, as he recounted his first encounter with Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation and one of the greatest inventors in U.S. history at the time. 

It was 1986 and Edwin had just phoned to request a meeting with John Warner, one of the world’s brightest medicinal chemists. “John, I’ve been following your career,” said Edwin over the phone. “I remember when you were at the National Academy. I remember you on the cover of Celebrity Magazine. Let’s have lunch.”

“I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a stalker,’” said John. “I told six people where I was going and when I’d get back.”

“So I go and have lunch with this guy, and at lunch, he offers me a job to head exploratory research at Polaroid. I’m 24 years old. I say ‘Dude, I’m a medicinal chemist.’ I had two academic appointments already. He told me how much he wanted to pay me, and I said, ‘When do I start?’”

This is just one of the many big moves John has made in his fascinating career as an innovative chemist pioneering the concept of green chemistry across the globe—and the lesson for budding entrepreneurs is that you too cannot be afraid to pivot at the right time.

A musician turned chemist, John worked on cutting-edge pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the lab at Princeton, spent 10 years doing exploratory research for Polaroid, then 10 years as a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts, and finally left that position to form the Warner Babcock Institute, an invention factory where he and his 25 colleagues put green chemistry principles to work to create new molecules, substances, and technologies that are better for human health and the environment. 

Together John and his team have made breakthroughs in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals and oncology to material science and consumer products. In the process, John has uncovered some interesting realities about the process of innovation. If you too are looking to make an impact on the world with your great ideas, here are three things to keep in mind.

3 Ugly Truths about Innovation

Check your preconceived notions about innovation at the door. With these lessons, John gives us insight into the ugly truths of innovation.

Lesson 1: Innovation Can Seem Obvious

Innovation Can Seem Obvious Image

“Lying in bed the night of his funeral, I’m asking myself, ‘I wonder if something I touched in the lab caused my son’s disease?’” John’s son, who was two years old, had just passed away from biliary atresia, a rare birth defect with an unknown cause. 

“At this point, I’ve probably synthesized over 2,500 new molecules, and I realized I have never been taught what makes a molecule toxic. I’ve never been taught what makes a molecule a hazard. For years of undergraduate, three and a half years of graduate school, I had never had a discussion, never had a seminar, never had a class, never had anything to talk about how you anticipate negative impacts of chemistry on human health and the environment.”

This eureka moment, plus a chance encounter with Paul Onassis, an old friend who now worked for the EPA, led Paul and John to write the revolutionary book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. Except John admits that the book wasn’t radical at all. “Anyone could have written this book; there’s nothing amazing about this book,” he says. “You’re waiting for something that should say ‘Wow, this is something!’ but it’s just so obvious. Sometimes it’s the obvious things that escape the attention.”

The ugly truth is that innovation can actually seem pretty basic and obvious. The things we take for granted and which escape our questioning eye are those that show the greatest potential for innovation.

Lesson 2: There’s Nothing New Out There

“Where do products come from?” muses John. “We take molecules. We turn them into materials. We call that basic research. We turn materials into components. We call that applied research. We turn components into devices. We call that development. When we do a lot of that, we call it manufacturing. To do this well, what does any organization have to focus on? Performance. Cost. Hey, wait a minute, that was my definition of green chemistry! There is nothing new here. There’s nothing new to the business. It’s just that now we’ve put the environment in the middle.”

Once again, John is humble to say that his cutting-edge ideas on green chemistry are obvious and ‘nothing new.’ But another ugly truth about innovation is that it does not require you to completely start from scratch. The building blocks for inventive ideas are all around you; it’s simply up to you to decide how to arrange them and from what angle they should be viewed.

Lesson 3: Innovation Happens in the Periphery

Innovation Happens in the Periphery image

The projects completed and underway at the Warner Babcock Institute involve everything from life-saving drugs to new materials for construction and paving to an alternative to hair dying that works with your natural ‘hair print.’ John and his team have been able to innovate in so many diverse ways because, as John puts it, “I don’t believe invention happens at the focal point. It happens in the periphery.”

Take, for example, the Alzheimer’s drug that the team has been working on for years in order to reduce the effective dose to minimal quantities. The knowledge gained from that project then led to a breakthrough in asphalt paving. They may seem like two different areas, but to John, they are quite similar – both are organic polymers wrapped around inorganic particles. “A molecule doesn’t know what industry it’s in. If we use the tools of chemistry, we can work on almost any problem, and that’s the magic.”


“It’s the highest intellectual challenge for the human race—to invent the things we need without impacting human health and the environment.” 


One of the ugly truths about innovation is that it rarely happens when you put your face down and focus exclusively on that innovation. Cutting edge invention happens when you are constantly learning from the world around you and applying that knowledge to seemingly unrelated areas.

“Today, in 2017, I would argue over 65 percent of technologies haven’t been invented yet,” says John. “This isn’t an epic battle between good and evil. This isn’t industry hoarding nasty technologies because they are so profitable. There is a fundamental disconnect in the ability to solve these problems.”

Over the years, society has become more vocal in demanding safer, sustainable technologies, which means that just about every industry is ripe for innovation to achieve this global goal. “It’s the highest intellectual challenge for the human race—to invent the things we need without impacting human health and the environment.” 

John has uncovered the ugly truths of innovation, which has lead him and his team of scientists to countless breakthroughs—and you can use those same understandings to make innovative developments happen in your industry too. Are you ignoring the obvious? Trying to reinvent the wheel? Reacting to problems instead of coming up with new solutions? There is a better way to construct the future and to illustrate that, John leaves us with this hypothetical scenario: “A big tanker truck is barreling through Cambridge, and it tips over. You can either go get body bags, or you could get a broom. Which would you rather?”

5 Lessons on Entrepreneurship from Victoria Montgomery Brown of Big Think

5 Lessons on Entrepreneurship Featured Image

“His nickname is Roger, so I figured it must be something with Roger in it,” said Victoria Montgomery Brown, who cleverly decoded Richard Branson’s email address in order to pitch him her big idea. In the end, her hunch was correct, and Branson agreed to be one of the first interviews for Big Think, a video knowledge platform that would feature elite experts sharing their wisdom with people who would not normally have access to those experts. 

Big Think was an idea that, until that time, had been scoffed at by others, but after Branson came on board, everything changed. One by one, they all started to fall like dominoes. 

Recruiting elite experts suddenly became simple when you could add the line, “Well, Richard Branson has done this.” And the same concept worked with investors. “The first five investors were pretty notable people,” says Victoria. “We had the notion that if we could get any one of them to invest, somebody else would invest alongside them. It was just like a chess game.” 

Believe in the momentum of your business is the lesson here, and from this wild journey, Victoria has plenty of other lessons on entrepreneurship to share with budding entrepreneurs who have big ideas and are ready to bring them to life.

5 Lessons for Turning Your Entrepreneurial Dream into Reality

Big Think is an online platform that offers short-form video content aimed at sharing ideas and expertise from some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers across disciplines with an audience that typically would not have access to those experts. From an initial idea in 2005 to a popular learning portal today (with 3,000 experts, a public-facing website that reaches 60 million people per month, and a corporate subscription program called Edge), Victoria has over a decade of experience in starting and running her own business. Here are five of her best tips for entrepreneurs who are just starting to work on their great idea too.

Lesson 1: Opportunity Is Sometimes Disguised

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When Victoria graduated, the economy was down. She contemplated going into banking for a year or two then starting a company, but the jobs were hard to come by. She ended up working for Charlie Rose, which was an excellent experience, but it was not what she wanted to be doing after graduating from Harvard Business School.

“When things seem bad, it can often be an opportunity,” says Victoria. What seemed like a failure at the time actually boosted her to move more quickly upon the path of entrepreneurship. Before making the move though, she suggests you start with two crucial elements—come up with a brilliant idea, and identify the people you want to work with. “Finding a business partner and a mission that can sustain even the worst times is the thing that defines Big Think the most.”

Lesson 2: Know How to Network

One of the first people to invest in Big Think was a connection that Victoria had from Harvard Business School. Getting money is tough initially because no one wants to be the first to put in. Having a connection who was willing to take a huge risk helped other investors feel safer to throw their money into the pool too.

However, Victoria cautions that you have to know the right way to network. This, for here, is one of the most important lessons on entrepreneurship. “I’m of the firm belief that you should be in touch with people that have helped you or that you can help on an ongoing basis, not just when you need something.” People can tell when you are just using them, so be pure of heart in the way you approach people. 

Lesson 3: Ask More from Your Investors

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With Big Think, Victoria says they chose individual investors with the expectation that they were not just going to give money but we’re also going to share their time, advice and expertise. They studied the passions of investors and pitched only to those who had the same core values and beliefs. Assembling the right group of investors has been invaluable to Victoria and her company. Throughout the years these investors have been the best mentors and have coached her through the rough times. 

Lesson 4: Listen to Your Audience

Big Think video interviews are structured to boost engagement, with the expert facing the camera (talking directly to the audience) and the interviewer not shown on camera. They were designed to be engaging on any mobile device, knowing that people use a range of devices to access the internet in the modern era, not just the traditional desktop computer. Most videos are between 2-3 minutes long as well because Victoria and her team found that people have shorter attention spans and so longer content was not as useful. 

Being receptive to the audience is also an important aspect of the Edge subscription within Big Think. These B2B subscriptions are meant for big companies, so when pitching the product, they learn what the objectives of the company are so they can tailor the content to the company’s needs. When organizations express an interest in topics like design thinking, diversity, inclusion and millennials, Victoria’s team looks to expand the video library in those areas. By listening to customers wants and understanding their behaviors, Big Think has been able to provide value that is greater than what you find on YouTube and other competitor websites. 

Lesson 5: The Norm May Not Work for Your Business

When Big Think first launched its Edge subscription program, the norm in the industry was to base the pricing on the number of users who would view the content. However, this means that the more people who use it, the pricing model ‘penalizes’ the company. About two months in, Victoria says they changed the pricing strategy because it was not in accordance with their values. “We believe that as many people in an organization as possible should have access to the content,” says Victoria. The new pricing structure charges based on the amount of content rather than the number of users.


“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m somebody who’s passionate about ideas and knowledge,” says Victoria.


“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m somebody who’s passionate about ideas and knowledge,” says Victoria. A firm belief in her mission to “provide people with knowledge that they can apply to their own work or life to make it better” has propelled Big Think from a big idea with many naysayers to a platform visited by millions each month and used by large corporations to provide ongoing learning in the workplace. Network connections, investors, audience, opportunities and company mission are all part of the secret sauce of success. Take advantage of these golden lessons on entrepreneurship, and you too could bring your entrepreneurial dream to life.

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company from Formlabs Cofounder Maxim Lobovsky

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“On the patio, Legal Sea Foods Cambridge, overheard two entrepreneurs pitching low-end 3D printing to VC,” read the tweet. It was sent out by a certain @mkapor, which happened to be Mitch Kapor, a notable angel investor and the founder of Lotus Software. Maxim Labovsky and cofounder David Cranor heard about the tweet that evening, after arriving home feeling discouraged about their 60th failed pitch attempt. Yes, Mitch Kapor was tweeting about them, and their big idea—Formlabs, a technology company with the mission of making 3D printing accessible for mass professional usage.

“We were pretty surprised,” says Maxim. “We laughed about it. Being my skeptical self, I said ‘You know, that’s funny!’ And David said, ‘No, let’s email him.’”

Somehow David found Mitch’s email address and sent him a message which asked “Did you hear anything you like?” Mitch responded within a few hours, and they quickly arranged a meeting. A month or two later, after showing Mitch their technology and ideas, he agreed to invest in the company. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, also became excited about the company, and shortly after everything just fell into place, with Formlabs receiving $1.8 million in funding.

As Maxim explains, the lesson for other entrepreneurs is that “you’ve got to put yourself out there and keep trying” no matter how many rejections come your way. This is just one of many lessons Maxim has gathered in his experience of growing Formlabs from an interesting concept into a profitable business of 350 employees worldwide. If you are looking to start your own business too, check out his advice below.

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company

Using fascinating examples from the Formlabs journey, Maxim Lobovsky shares these five lessons for all budding entrepreneurs who are dreaming of building a profitable tech company.

Lesson 1: Find the Gaps in Your Industry

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Eight or 9 years ago there were only a few thousand 3D printers in the world. They were as big as refrigerators, incredibly expensive, and only used in labs of large companies and universities. Then MakerBot emerged on the scene, offering a desktop version marketed to hobbyists and sold at a fraction of the price. What Maxim noticed, though, is that there was still a huge gap in the market.

The desktop machines, although more affordable, were really only for hobbyists; they otherwise didn’t have any professional uses. Seeing this gap, Formlabs set out to build something in between—a best-of-both-worlds 3D printer that was affordable, accessible and could be used in professional applications.

Identifying the gap in the market helped Formlabs raise initial funding, and when they later put the product on Kick Starter, they found there was a huge demand. Identifying a similar in-demand gap in your market could be your ticket to a profitable company.

Lesson 2: Plan Your Company Vision

“You’ll hear a lot of times in startups that you should expect to evolve, pivot, and go through many iterations,” says Maxim. “My view on this ‘pivot and move fast’ thing is that you need to be prepared to do that, but it’s not actually something to strive for.”

As Maxim looks back at his initial pitch deck, he points out that the core of what Formlabs is doing today is essentially the exact same thing they laid out six years ago before they had even built anything. Their sales pitch from those earlier years pointed out that same gap in the market, it discussed the same applications for their 3D printer that are still the major applications today, and it talked about selling the printer to many of the same companies that are Formlabs key customers today. “I’m definitely a fan of slowing things down and really being convinced about your plan rather than just going all in.”

Lesson 3: Buckle Up, It’s a Rollercoaster

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In September 2012 Maxim and his co-founders decided to put their product on Kickstarter and as he recollects, “we quickly exceeded even our most optimistic expectations.” Even though Kickstarter was historically more consumer-oriented and lower-price-oriented than their company, they ended up locking $450,000 in pre-orders on the first day, and by the end of the month, they had raised $3 million. Thousands of inquiries were pouring in from potential customers, and the biggest tech media caught wind and started to write about them.

Four to 6 weeks after the Kickstarter experience, things swung in the entirely opposite direction. “We were still recovering,” says Maxim, “then this happened: we got sued by the largest 3D printing company in the world, 3D Systems. The company was suing Formlabs (in a lawsuit that was literally only based on their Kickstarter video) for infringement. 

“People talk about the rollercoaster of startups, that there are emotional highs and lows. I think we had that times ten with that whole series of events,” says Maxim. Becoming an entrepreneur and launching your own company can be unpredictable. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to experience both wins and losses.

Lesson 4: Don’t Let “Advice” Hold You Back

Advisors and investors had a gloomy outlook for the company because of the lawsuit. Maxim and his co-founders were told that they can’t really do a lot when people are afraid about the future of the company. They were told that they couldn’t raise money, hire key people, and acquire more customers because all parties would be worried that the company may go out of business. 

“The advice from all sides was ‘You have to settle immediately. You can’t fight this. You don’t have the money and resources to win,’” says Maxim. The Formlabs founders didn’t like that option because it felt like 3D Systems was essentially telling them to go away or to be acquired for no money. That was not what they were looking to get out of their entrepreneurial venture, so they decided to handle it differently. While the lawsuit was going on, they kept moving forward as if it was business as usual. They sold a lot of machines, hired a lot of people, and even raised a large amount of funding by the end of 2013.

In the end, they won the lawsuit because 3D Systems did not have rights to the stereolithography technology used in the Form 1 3D printer made by Formlabs. The company’s success today can, in part, be attributed to the founders NOT taking the advice of the ‘experts.’

Lesson 5: If You See Opportunities, Jump on Them

At the beginning of 2013, Formlabs made an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an annual event where several hundred thousand people come to learn about new consumer electronics. At CES that year there happened to be a documentary crew that was walking around and had decided to focus on 3D printing. There were a lot of 3D printing companies at the event, and for some reason, the documentary crew found Formlabs and wanted to film them. After the event was over, they asked if they could continue filming.

“We were very close to telling the documentary crew to go away because we were busy building our thing,” says Maxim. However, they agreed to let the documentary crew come to the office to spend more time with them. Over the course of the next year, the documentary crew filmed countless hours of footage of 3D printing companies including Formlabs, 3D Systems, and MakerBot. 


“You’ve got to have a good amount of confidence in what you’re doing and yourself because so many people are going to tell you different things, and you’re going to feel a lot of different things as you go.” 


The documentary, titled Print the Legend, came out in 2014 and got a coveted first-page spot on Netflix. Suddenly thousands of people interested in 3D printing became aware of Formlabs, a lesser-known company competing against giants. As Maxim calculates, it would have cost $2 million in Google ads to drive the amount of traffic to their website that came from those who saw the documentary. Although some may say this was just luck, Maxim says that they learned a valuable lesson: “If you see opportunities, jump on them.”

Maxim admits that there were a few times when he thinks the company could have accelerated faster than it did, but he wouldn’t really change anything that happened in the process of creating Formlabs. He adds that “You’ve got to have a good amount of confidence in what you’re doing and yourself because so many people are going to tell you different things, and you’re going to feel a lot of different things as you go.” 

By sticking to the company vision, seizing opportunities, and listening to instinct, Maxim and his co-founders have built a profitable business in one of the hottest areas of modern technology. Follow his advice and you could start building a profitable tech company, too—just make sure to buckle up and hold on for the ride.

The Gamino Guide: 4 Tips on Achieving Ambitious Innovation Goals from New York City CTO Miguel Gamino

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“When I was in San Francisco, we did a big public Wi-Fi project called SFWiFi, and we were at an event talking about it, a big community town hall event at a library,” recalls Miguel Gamino, the former Chief Technology Officer in New York City. “A mother came up to me afterwards, and she thanked me, and she was almost in tears. She thanked me for not just building the Wi-Fi network, but for choosing to leave it on after the library closed.” 

“I think she envisioned this bank of light switches and when we closed the library, we shut them all off and we chose to leave the internet on. It wasn’t really a conscious decision though. The Wi-Fi was just always on.”

“I was confused, so I asked, “Help me understand what you are talking about?” She said that her son would sit on the steps of the library after it closed each night to finish his homework.”

“When I tell the story, I still get chills, remembering her emotion. In that very moment, I was proud and ashamed at the same time because at least we had given them an option, but really? San Francisco, the innovation capital of the world. That was as good as we could do? To expect a student to sit on the steps of a public library just to do his homework?”

“We can do more. So when I get really passionate about this broadband thing, its encounters like that really make it sink in.”

Working as CTO under Mayor Bill de Blasio, Miguel (who, in past lives, founded two tech companies and worked as CIO for El Paso and San Francisco) now strives to understand the challenges and struggles of New York City residents so he can apply technological solutions that improve the way they interact with the city. Several initiatives are taking place, in all departments throughout the city, as Miguel also works to achieve an ambitious and important goal: to fight socio-economic inequality by bringing high-speed broadband internet service to every individual in the city—all 8.5 million of them.

With a city budget of almost $90 billion, and 400,000 city workers, the environment is huge, and achieving innovation goals doesn’t always come easy—but Miguel’s experience is proof that it can be done. If you are currently struggling to push innovation in your company or industry, perhaps it is time to take a page from Miguel’s playbook. 

The Gamino Guide: 4 Tips for Achieving Innovation Goals

Entrepreneurs in any market can apply Miguel’s winning innovation strategy to achieve cutting-edge breakthroughs in products and services. Here are four of his top tips to reach your company’s innovation goals.

1. State Your Values

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Miguel was looking to move away from his government position in San Francisco when he was approached by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who communicated his desire to use technology as a tool to help improve equity and prosperity for New Yorkers. He was looking to dive into full-scale projects instead of pilots, and willing to fail fast and recover versus going slow. It was an exciting but risky venture, and one of the main reasons Miguel decided to come on board as CTO.

What Miguel discovered was that there was actually a lot of planning that they had put into their digital and smart city movement. The huge city plan was then boiled down into four value statements that are used as a guiding light for technology projects. “Every single one of those things is just as relevant, or maybe even more relevant today than they were four years ago,” says Miguel.

Stating personal, company or city values is the best way to create a roadmap for all future endeavors—guiding principles that are applied to any new project and are the thrust behind any forward momentum. Write them down, and they will be a constant reminder of who you are and what you stand for as you embark upon the path of innovation.

2. Be Bold

A bold spirit is what has lead New York City to achieve such great things in the area of technology innovation. Having not lived there before, this is something Miguel witnessed firsthand within the first year he took the position of CTO. New York has a history of doing big things, and ambition is the norm. That boldness allows Miguel and his colleagues to think big and have conversations that might night happen in other cities. 

When Miguel explains his goal of universal broadband access for all New York City residents, he admits that sometimes people look at him like he is crazy. That is when he reminds them that many years ago, someone had the idea to dig into the ground, set up rails, put an oversized aluminum can inside and then bury it. We call it the subway system today, and in New York City you likely take it for granted, but you can’t imagine the city functioning without it. 

Bold ideas may take time and money to implement, but Miguel hopes that one day universal broadband access will also become commonplace. To achieve great things, you have to think big and act big. Boldness is a requirement in achieving innovation goals.

3. Collaborate

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One technology initiative in New York City is known as NYCX, which revolves around the notion that the government can do better to engage with industry. As Miguel explains it, “At its core, what this is really about is changing the conversations that we have and the relationships that we have between city government, the community at large, and the technology industry.”

Take the example of autonomous vehicles. Companies spend years working to develop this technology. When it is finally ready for production, they become impatient because they want the tech to hit the streets, but cities aren’t ready for that tech. The way Miguel sees it, the sooner the city can be involved (in a way that the industry sees as beneficial), the smoother the process will be, and the more benefits that will come to all involved.

In New York City they have set up an Advisory Council that is made up of CEOs of giant tech companies as well as community leaders—and these community spokespeople play an important role. To date, no one has been able to successfully get community folks at the same table, in the same rank, as powerful governmental and industry players. Collaboration with the community means that the government can hear the challenges and ideas of everyday residents, and companies can potentially make better products that help solve those problems.

Brainstorming and implementing innovative solutions requires all stakeholders to be at the table. Making sure that everyone is included is one key to successful collaboration.

4. Learn from the Customer

A single mother living in New York City may qualify for a range of programs, including affordable housing, food, and transportation. Having to manage kids and two hourly jobs, plus navigating public transportation and city hall, means it can be quite difficult for her access the services that she qualifies for.

A family living in Brownsville, which has the largest density of public housing of any neighborhood, struggles with the issue of safety. The area is dangerous, particularly at nighttime, and there are no safe common spaces outside. For them, what you see in the movies is reality—you do not go outside after dark.


“The digital revolution is upon us,” says Miguel. “The reality is that the world is changing faster than it ever has before. We really need to lean into it. We can’t just sit back and watch it happen.”


These are just two examples where Miguel stresses that we must learn about the problems that citizens are facing so we can understand and develop adequate solutions. This should not come from guesses or assumptions but from actually talking to the people.

Returning to the issue of universal broadband access, Miguel acknowledges that, “Many of the people that are making these decisions are people who have the luxury of having it.” Since they have a different experience with broadband access, they don’t understand how important it is or what life would be like without it. 

Where are you getting your inspiration for innovation? In-house, or are you actually talking to the customers who will be buying and using your product or service? The best solutions will always come from listening to and learning from the customer.

“The digital revolution is upon us,” says Miguel. “The reality is that the world is changing faster than it ever has before. We really need to lean into it. We can’t just sit back and watch it happen.” When it comes to innovation, this advice is as relevant for companies and entrepreneurs as it is for governments and city officials. Take a page out of the Gamino Guide, and you can push innovation further and achieve even your most ambitious innovation goals.

     

Tommy Francois from Ubisoft Shares a 5-Step System for Finding Creative Inspiration

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“The people who are in the community, you know, the cars, they love us,” says Tyrone “Baybe Champ” Stevenson Jr., aka the Scraper Bike King. “They honk their horns, you know, they get out the way, they respect us. We’ve been doing this for a long time, a long time.” 

When Tommy Francois, the VP Editorial at Ubisoft, was on location in San Francisco, he was fortunate to witness the stunning view of a city street lined with colorful, personalized, decorated bicycles, those which Tyrone was referring to in the interview above. On that visit, Tommy and his team learned about scraper bikes, a cultural phenomenon in the San Francisco area that uniquely captures the spirit of the city. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, scraper bikes are bicycles that are custom modified with decorated spokes made from duct tape and paint, making them more than just bicycles but rather works of art. They have a growing presence in the San Francisco area and have become a local movement that has positively impacted the city’s youth. 

The Ubisoft team was sent to San Francisco to gather research for the video game Watch Dogs, which is about hacking and is set in San Francisco. While there, they decided to interview not only tech people but locals as well. So why would the billion-dollar gaming company waste time and money on such seemingly inconsequential interviews?  As Tommy explains, it is all part of Ubisoft’s revolutionary system for finding creative inspiration. 

Authentic creation of a video game environment requires a deep level of understanding because the details bring the setting to life and allow gamers to truly experience that environment. The lesson learned on location is that San Francisco is more than just historical landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is an amalgamation of all the sights, cultures, people and objects within it…and that includes scraper bikes. 

Creativity is an important component of any product in any industry, and as Tommy’s story demonstrates, creativity is found in the details . Ubisoft has fine-tuned its process and has developed countless hit games, including Assassins Creed, Tom Clancy, Rainbow 6, Splinter Cell, Just Dance, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry. Want to learn how to make innovation happen in a huge market where it seems like everything ‘has been done before’? Read on as Tommy shares Ubisoft’s revolutionary system for unlocking creativity that will help you outshine the competition.  

5 Steps to Finding Creative Inspiration

Ubisoft uses the following system for designing popular video games, but any entrepreneur or business owner looking for creative inspiration for their next big product or service can use it too.

1. Leave Your Pre-Conceived Notions Behind

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Many Ubisoft games are non-linear; they do not follow a straight storyline and instead present the gamer with a 3D environment that they can explore in their own unique ways. Although the environments are sometimes fictional, many take place in real cities or are based on actual locations.

As someone who grew up near New York City, Tommy thought he was primed and ready to help create The Division, a Tom Clancy video game that takes place in NYC. However, in the process, he was shocked by how little he actually knew. 

Going back to the city with a different point of view made him realize how wrong some of his assumptions and thoughts were. Leaving the pre-conceived notions behind allowed Tommy and his team to unlock a deeper and truer picture of the city they thought they knew. “What you need to understand in the process of finding creative inspiration is how to be humble, how to not know anything,” says Tommy. “If you think you know it, you won’t see it.”

2. Don’t Copy, Create

If the creative process should not start with pre-conceived notions and assumptions about what we think we know about the world around us, then it must have to start with research of some sort. However, Tommy warns that you should be careful where you find your research-based inspiration. 

When creating worlds for video games, it might seem simple because there are so many examples out there. Creating a fantasy brand? Learn from Lord of the Rings! Want to do something new in sci-fi? Turn to Star Wars for ideas! 

Not so fast. While these are stellar examples of each genre, Tommy says it’s a danger and a trap because (a) it’s someone else’s work and (b) 90 percent of the examples out there are not even good enough to be worthy of copying. 

Tommy says that, unfortunately, the video game industry has become one where “we’re not thinking, we’re reproducing,” and in truth, this happens in a lot of markets. The best video games, products, and services are not copies or reproductions of others, but ones where creativity is unleashed and new flavor is brought in to delight customers and users.

3. Go on Location

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Instead of looking at the interpretations of others for finding creative inspiration, the Ubisoft method is to get firsthand experience and observational data by going on location. This method was first used when creating a sequel in the Far Cry series, which is set in the fictional world of Karot but inspired by Tibet and Nepal. When teams were sent to these regions to get a first-hand view, they were shocked at how much they got wrong in the earlier versions of the video game. “Dude, we built the Disneyland version of what Nepal is!” exclaimed one team member. Everything from the houses to the feel of the design had to be revamped to make it more authentic and fresh.

Ubisoft has since sent many team members to video gaming locations, including New York City for Tom Clancy’s The Division, San Francisco for Watch Dogs, Florida for The Crew, and Panama for the upcoming Avatar video game. “When you spend time on the location you have to un-learn everything that you thought you knew because it’s very different, and it’s a wonderful pool of inspiration for us,” says Tommy. From the buildings and the natural environment to the signage and culture, there is an exponential inspiration to pull from when you objectively take in the world around you.

4. Talk to the People

When exploring a new or even familiar environment, it is also crucial that you talk to the people who live and experience that environment on a daily basis. Ubisoft does this by interviewing all sorts of people at each location and then logging the stories and images in a database where teams can get inspiration as they are creating new video games. 

“We’ve interviewed everyone from a street preacher to a master of martial arts,” Tommy says, reflecting on the trip to New York City. “Everyone has their opinion of what New York is, and if its inspiration for me, it’s gold.” Similarly, personal interviews with racing and engine-lovers in Florida were used to shift the focus in a sequel of The Crew. While the team originally thought ‘innovation’ would mean a horizontal expansion to Europe, the interviews made them realize that they could expand vertically by staying in the United States but adding more ‘toys’ to the game and nailing the culture they heard reflected in the interviews, which is about the love of racing, engines, and families.

5. Check Your Ego at the Door

Ubisoft video games are created by teams that range from dozens to hundreds of members, and many other entrepreneurs and businesses also use collective creation to design and innovate their products and services. However, while more ideas can mean a better final product and a more efficient system, it can also mean disagreements where each team member loves their ideas so much that they fight to keep them.


“We still need to listen to stories, meet people’s faces, listen to people,” says Tommy. “Go smell the grass, listen to people. You won’t believe where inspiration comes from.”


“When I see creatives fight, I’m sad because it means that their egos are fighting instead of serving the greater purpose,” says Tommy. It’s not about pushing your own ideas; it is about creating a product that your customers and users will love, so try to understand the bigger purpose of what you’re doing. 

“Ego is dangerous when it comes to creating things for other people, for obvious reasons,” says Tommy. To avoid pitting ego against ego, Ubisoft teams often go on walks instead of sitting down at meetings. Not facing one another creates a less competitive environment and one where people are growing and moving forward together, both physically and mentally.

Letting go of preconceived notions and instead gathering experiences and observations from real environments and the people in them are key techniques that Ubisoft uses to innovate and succeed in the crowded video game industry. This hands-on and eyes-open approach in finding creative inspiration can be applied to any other industry or market too. “We still need to listen to stories, meet people’s faces, listen to people,” says Tommy. “Go smell the grass, listen to people. You won’t believe where inspiration comes from.”

Thinking Outside the Box: How Joe Colopy of Bronto Software Blazed a Trail to a $200M Business

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$10,000, two people and a dream.

These were the humble roots of Bronto Software, Inc., an email marketing platform that was developed in 2002 then sold in 2016 to NetSuite for $200 million. According to founder and CEO Joe Colopy, the key to success is a hustle. His journey demonstrates that several of the things you think you know about entrepreneurship are actually just myths.

This quick reality check is meant to teach budding entrepreneurs that thinking out of the box can be the key to growing a profitable startup.

5 Myths about the Entrepreneurial Journey

Myth #1: If You Build It, They Will Come

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With so many startup companies popping up today, the life of the entrepreneur is often romanticized. You have a great idea, you build the product, and then voila! The world will beat a path to your door, and you’ll rake in the money.

As Joe explains, nothing could be farther than the truth. The flashy headlines may scream that Bronto Software was an ‘overnight success,’ but it took 15 years to build the company; the true story is in those 15 years, not the $200 million negotiations that caught people’s attention. The journey is tough and not always linear. You may often feel like you are taking two steps ahead and then one back. Grit, persistence, and hustle are what you need to make it through the long and difficult journey.

Myth #2: The Best Business Mentors Are 100 Steps Ahead of You on the Journey

A lot of work goes into getting a startup off the ground, and although it can sometimes make you feel socially isolated, every entrepreneur should reach out to mentors for advice and guidance. When selecting a mentor, it is often thought that you should find someone who has already achieved abundant success in their business – someone who is 10 or even 100 steps ahead of you on their journey. Joe says that this is a myth, and his strategy may help you refine your definition of a good mentor.

Joe says that he did seek out mentors as he was building Bronto. Although there wasn’t a formal board of directors, he had several advisors whom he would bounce ideas around with over coffee or lunch. However, he found that often times the most valuable mentor was the person who was just a couple steps ahead of him. These mentors are more attuned to your particular point in the journey and, having experienced the same challenges recently, their advice will be more relevant, detailed and helpful.

Myth #3: The Key to Success Is to Have Big Goals

“If your goal is to build a billion-dollar company, you’re not going to do it,” says Joe. “Your goal should be to build a one-dollar company. And then for the one-dollar company to be a ten-dollar company, and a hundred-dollar company, and a thousand. If you have that, and you work really hard and focused for a long period of time, then you start getting to some very interesting places.”

Joe started his business because he was simply interested in creating software. After coding it, he realized the product was too broad, so he narrowed in on just the email marketing aspect. In 2002, co-founder Chaz Felix came on board, and they operated out of Joe’s house. Later, a few interns joined the team and they all worked out of a small windowless office. When they became a 10-person team, the company moved to a renovated tobacco warehouse in North Carolina, at which point they were making about one million dollars in revenue. By the time the company was sold to NetSuite, it had blossomed into a business with a team of 300 employees and an annual revenue of $50 million. The key to getting to that point with your own startup is to focus on smaller, incremental progress, and make sure you keep moving forward.

Myth #4: You Need Funding to Build a Business

business funding OG

There is an implication in the business world that you need funding from venture capitalists to build a company; in fact, many people still believe the myth that this is the only path to success. However, in Joe’s experience, you do not necessarily need funding to grow a startup. In fact, Bronto started with just $10,000 in personal funding, $5,000 from each of the two co-founders, most of which was spent on a computer and some basic office equipment.

Joe says that bootstrapping is tough, but it can work. It is an iterative process of trying to figure out how to survive another day, week or month. There are also benefits to bootstrapping. When you are given money, you aren’t as close to the details and as focused on finding a cost-effective approach. “When it’s tight, you’re brutally focused on the details, and you don’t mess around—there is no time for it. You stay insanely focused on what you need to do.” In addition, not taking funding also gives you more control over the business and the speed at which it grows.

Myth #5: Building a Successful Company Is about Creating a Great Product

Sometimes entrepreneurs get so obsessed with their ideas that they fail to understand that it takes more than just an excellent product to build a thriving business. Joe says that building a great company is about your relationships with the people, both customers, and employees.


“When you ask people to join your startup, you’re asking them to join the adventure.”


From the very start, the Bronto Software business model had an intense focus on over-serving the customer. Joe also understood the importance of team and building a positive organizational culture. “When you ask people to join your startup, you’re asking them to join the adventure.” It’s not all about the money—you’re actually helping people to build their careers and their lives. In turn, they come together, rally around your cause, and help to build your business.   

For Bronto, the focus on people has brought unexpected benefits. For one, in an incident Joe refers to as ‘the May Massacre’ the company released a new version of the software that was re-coded but it was rampant with errors and bugs. They offered the product for free for one month so they could work out the issues, and because they had been serving the customers so well to that point, many stayed despite the hiccups in the software. Further, after Joe sold Bronto, he eventually formed a new a company called PeopleLove.IO. His first team members were some of the old Bronto employees.

Setting lofty goals, wanting to obtain VC funding, feeling the need to focus on the product…saying that these are ‘myths’ doesn’t mean that they are completely untrue. Some companies will follow these ‘traditional’ paths and find success, but that is not the only way to build a profitable startup. Joe opted to think outside of the box and choose a different route. This strategy made Bronto Software successful, and it could be the key to growing your startup too.

Innovation Biographer Walter Isaacson Reveals 5 Important Traits of Successful Innovators

Innovation Biographer Walter Isaacson Reveals 5 Important Traits of Successful Innovators og

“When I first started working with Steve Jobs, I had done the biography of Ben Franklin and the biography of Einstein. And I got a call from him, and he said, “Do me next.” And my first reaction was, ‘Yeah, okay. Franklin, Einstein, you, you arrogant little—.’ I said, “I’ll wait 30 years until you retire, and then maybe we’ll do it then.” And then I got a call from his wife who said, “If you’re going to do Steve, you’ve got to do him now.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t know he’d been diagnosed with cancer.” She said, “Yeah. He’s been keeping it a secret, but he feels the biography should be written.” And I realized that this would be a chance for somebody like myself to get really up close to a true innovator, somebody who had changed dozens of fields starting with the personal computer, then the cell phone, the publishing industry, the notion of retail stores, the music industry—both the way we buy music and consume music—and even digital animation in movies.” 

That biography was eventually written by Walter Isaacson and officially published on October 24, 2011, just 19 days after Steve Jobs died at 56, of pancreatic cancer. The book is part of a collection of biographies about successful innovators, including Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and an upcoming book on Jennifer Doudna, who discovered the use of CRISPR technology to edit the human gene. 

After having held positions at the Aspen Institute, CNN, and Time, Walter is currently a University Professor of History at Tulane University. He is fascinated by successful innovators and what fuels them—what traits they possess that give them the ability to imagine—and create—the world of tomorrow. Although many people use words such as passion, focus, curiosity, and persistence to describe what makes innovators great, Walter gives us a deeper look into what it really means to be an innovator.

Innovators Blend Science/Technology and Art

creative people image

Walter attended Harvard in 1974 and eventually went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics. As he reflects upon his classmates, he notes “There were so many smart people in my class, and most of them didn’t amount to anything. The people who really amounted to something were the creative people, the people who were imaginative and innovative, and that came from crossing disciplines.” From his work, Walter has found that the ability to connect the arts and sciences is a key trait of successful innovators.

For example, one might think of Steve Jobs as a ‘tech’ guy, but Walter learned that the importance of design, beauty, and aesthetics was instilled in Jobs at an early age.

“When we started working together, he made me take walks with him in the neighborhood where he grew up. There was a fence around the back of his house, and he said, “When my dad and I were building this fence I was only six years old, but my dad told me we had to make the back of this fence as beautiful as the front of the fence. And Steve had said, “Why? Nobody’s ever going to see it; nobody’s ever going to know.” And his father said, “Yes, but you will know.” He said, “If you really have a passion for a product, whatever you’re making, even if it’s a chest of drawers that’s going up against the wall, you put a really nice piece of wood in the back.” 

The blend of art and technology in Steve’s work can be seen as far back as the original Macintosh computer. As he told Walter, when he saw the machine he loved it…but when he looked at the circuit board, he was dissatisfied because it was not beautiful. After explaining the story of the fence to his team of engineers, they decided to hold up shipping for about three months so they could arrange the chips in a beautiful line. When it was done, “Steve made every single one of them, all 29 engineers on the Mac team, sign their name on a whiteboard, and then he put ‘Stephen P. Jobs’ all in lower-case right in the middle, the way he signed his name. And they engraved it on the inside of the Macintosh case, because, he said, ‘Real artists sign their work.’”

As Walter contemplates it, this blending of art and technology is what made Steve Jobs and Apple stand out from the competition. “Bill Gates is actually, in many ways, much smarter than Steve Jobs, but he doesn’t care about the intersection of art and technology. While Steve was taking calligraphy and dance and music at Reed College, Bill took only applied math when he was at Harvard. And when he came to make a music player, unlike Steve who made the iPod, Bill Gates made the Zune, which looks like it had been designed in Uzbekistan by people who lived in a basement, because he didn’t have the passion for music or the passion for beauty.”

Innovators Understand Collaboration

“We, biographers like myself, have a dirty little secret, which is that we distort history a little bit,” says Walter. “We make it seem like some guy, or some gal goes to a garage and they have a lightbulb moment and innovation happens. I am sure you’ve learned this in class; I’m sure you’ve seen it around you. That’s not the way innovation works.”

For his book The Innovators:  How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter explored the history of the most important modern technological advances, including the computer and the internet. “The three greatest inventions of the digital era—the  microchip, the computer, the internet—you don’t really know who invented any of them because they were all invented by teams in a very collaborative way.”

For example, he explains that although the Mark I computer at Harvard is credited to Howard Aiken, it was actually developed by an entire team of computer scientists. “It was built by a whole bunch of people from IBM and from Harvard,” says Walter. “They also had six great women mathematicians to do the programming because, back then, you know, the boys with their toys thought the hardware was the important thing and delegated the software. They didn’t realize that the people who wrote the software—such as COBOL or whatever—that would be much more important than the hardware. And so Grace Copper led the team that created the operating system software for the Mark I.”

“Innovation works in a collaborative fashion by getting a great team,” remarks Walter, and this sentiment was not lost on Steve Jobs either. When Walter asked him what the best thing was that he ever made, Jobs replied, “Making a product—a good product—is hard, but making a team that can collaborate and continues to make good products, that’s the really difficult thing. The best I ever did at Apple was put together the team at Apple, from Jony Ive to Phil Schiller—the type of people who can continue to put together great products.”

Innovators Are Motivated by Pure Curiosity

pure curiosity male

One of the main traits of successful innovators is curiosity, but as Walter explains “It’s pure curiosity. It is a curiosity about the most basic things.” This pure and basic curiosity was demonstrated time and time again in most of the innovators Walter has studied, especially Leonardo da Vinci. 

“When you look at Leonardo’s notebooks, you see every week the list of questions he asked himself. Some of them are odd like, “Why do fish swim faster in water than birds can fly in the air when water is heavy?” Some are somewhat practical, like “Describe how light forms luster when it hits a shiny surface?” Others are just out of pure curiosity, like “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” That’s in his notebook when he’s 29 years old, “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” I don’t even know. I mean, why would you wake up one morning and say, I need to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you find out? I mean you have to get a woodpecker to open his mouth. It’s not easy, but that was pure curiosity.”

Questioning the mundane is a thread Walter has seen through his research on innovators. In fact, the simple question of “Why is the sky blue?” was found not only in da Vinci’s notebooks but also in those of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. 

Walter noticed this same pure curiosity when he was interviewing Jennifer Doudna for an upcoming biography, the Berkeley biochemist who discovered the use of CRISPR technology to edit the human gene. “I was just with her yesterday and asking her, “How did it all start?” And she said, “Well people just looking at bacteria and sequencing it and seeing all these weird sequences in the genes.” And I said, “Well what did they think they wanted to do with it?” She said “Nothing, we were just curious. We just wanted to know.” 

The good thing is that Walter says curiosity can be trained. For one, he says we can train ourselves to stop and ask questions. “I have trained myself to, especially after watching Leonardo da Vinci do it in his notebooks, just pause on every walk I take and to ask myself a question about mundane things we see every day, and we quit asking questions about… I’m almost late for anything because I walk across the yard and try to figure out my college biology, why the leaf is changing color and why another might not be changing color, why the ripples or whatever may be… That ‘woodpecker’s tongue’ curiosity has deeply started to affect me.” 

We can also encourage curiosity by putting ourselves out of our comfort zone on certain disciplines. “If you love Hamlet and can understand Hamlet, then you could understand calculus, but we don’t push ourselves sometimes into our different comfort zones. In life, you can always push yourself to say I’m going to learn something different.”

Innovators Push the Limits of Feasibility

Most people don’t achieve great things because they stop themselves at what they believe is ‘possible.’ Innovators, on the other hand, push those boundaries and end up achieving the unimaginable. In terms of Steve Jobs, this is often described as the “reality distortion field”—the ability to convince himself and others that almost anything is possible.

For example, Walter tells the story of a pre-Apple Steve Jobs, who was working at Atari and decided to make a game called Breakout with coworker Steve Wozniak. “Steve said to Wozniak, “You got to be able to code this by Friday because we have to go back to the apple farm.” They were working on an apple farm, hence the name of the company they create. And Woz said, “Hey Steve, you don’t know how to code very well. That’s ridiculous. I can’t do it by Friday. And Steve stares without blinking at Woz and says “Don’t be afraid. You can do it.” and he kept staring at Woz and saying that. Woz said he got so freaked out, he went back to the workbench, stayed up three nights in a row, and coded the game Breakout.”

Pushing the limits of feasibility (or ‘reality distortion field’) also helped the Apple team shave 36 seconds off the boot time of the original Mac, and convince the CEO of Corning that the company could deliver gorilla glass in time for an October shipment of the original iPhone. As Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, recalls, “It was amazing. The guy just sat right in front of me and stared at me without blinking and said “Don’t’ be afraid. You can do it.” Weeks used the same tactic to convince his production plant manager to switch over to gorilla glass right away, and as a result, every piece of glass on every iPhone has been made by Corning. 

Of course, there is a fine line between pushing the limits of feasibility and setting unrealistic expectations. “Vision without execution is just hallucination, so you got to tie the two together,” says Walter. Knowledge gives you a check on feasibility, which is why Einstein’s knowledge of the laws of physics allowed him to come up with the theory of relativity, and Job’s knowledge of circuitry, physics and design allowed him to create Apple. 


“Sometimes you got to push the bounds of the impossible,” says Walter.  “You have to try when you’re young to do a project that you’re not sure you’re going to be able to succeed at. Your reach has got to exceed your grasp every now and then.”


Innovators Connect Their Passion to Something Larger

Everybody says innovation is about passion, but Walter explains that it’s something more than that. “It’s actually not about your silly little passion,” he says. “It’s about being able to connect your passion to something larger than yourself. By the end of the journey, you’ll say, “Oh I get it. Somehow or another, my passion connected to something a little bit larger.” 

Steve Jobs put it in a different way. In his discussions with Walter, he mused, “For most of my life, I thought life was like a river, and the cool thing about life is how much you get to take out of the river that people before you would put in, like great products, things they had made, ideas they had, knowledge they had discovered. If you’re lucky, you take a lot out of the river. But now that I’m dying, I realize that it’s not about how much you get to take out of the river. It’s what you got to put into the river.”

Walter says that connecting to something larger—adding to the river versus just taking from it—is what makes innovation so fulfilling. “I think being able to say ‘I invented something, something cool, some product that made our life a little bit better, and people are now using it,’…I can’t imagine a much bigger thrill than that, other than pure scientific discovery. 

Walter has contemplated this concept of connecting to something larger throughout his own career too. “I did not set out when I left this campus and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to Time magazine, and do this, that, or the other.’ Things just came along. But each step of the way, I kept pausing and saying ‘Am I doing this for me, or am I doing this because I’m connecting to something larger?”

Although Walter has connected to something larger throughout his journey, he says he is not an innovator himself. “I know that I’m not a great innovator. My role in life is to write about successful innovators, and those of us who do that don’t confuse ourselves with the people we write about.” That said, through researching and storytelling he has been able to add to the river—giving us detailed insight on what it takes to be an innovator, and what it takes to change the world.