By Dave Farber
As the year winds to a close, the time has come to take a closer look at some of the most innovative products and services that have sprung to life this year. Thousands of new products launch every year. According to recent data from Nielsen, 85% of those innovations fail, and 70% of sales come from just 20% of newly launched products.
Put simply, most success comes from a very small number of new products. So, who were this year’s big winners, and what makes them different?
This article looks at four products and services that launched this year with the potential to meaningfully impact their industries. In particular, it looks at how the Jobs to be Done concept — first popularized by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen — can explain why these four innovations have so much potential. Our Jobs to be Done framework looks at eight discrete parts of the market landscape, with each revealing just one piece of the puzzle.
Looking through the lens of four of the most innovative solutions to be launched this year, we’ll explore how the parts of the framework can be used to predict how consumers decide the fate of new products and services.
Innovators focus on jobs, not products
One of the first companies worth talking about is Thync — a company that makes a single product to either calm you or energize you. A typical, product-centric view of the market would never lead us down that path. Think about the products that wake you up and energize you. Typically, those products come in the form of consumables — coffee, energy drinks, and pharmaceuticals being the big ones. Solutions for calming you down tend to be more service oriented. While there are some relaxation-oriented consumables, we often think of things like yoga, meditation, or massages as the most common ways to de-stress. There’s relatively minimal overlap between the product categories, and there’s certainly no product that excels at satisfying both objectives.
A Jobs-based view of the market leads us in a very different direction. Regardless of whether consumers are buying a cup of coffee, an energy drink, or a set of yoga sessions, there are only a handful of jobs that they’re trying to get done, albeit in a fairly wide range of contexts. Maybe they’re trying to unwind after a stressful week or increase their productivity before a deadline. Once you understand what all of the jobs are that lead people to purchase these products, you begin to see that all of those jobs really relate to the same theme — mood alteration. From that perspective, it becomes much easier to understand how a single product can satisfy seemingly diverse needs. The only thing left is to figure out what type of solution best satisfies the jobs you want to focus on. For Thync, the answer was electric stimulation, with an app that lets you choose whether you want to stimulate in a way that makes you calm or energized. And the company’s innovation has paid off. While only time will allow us to see how well the product does in the market, we know that Thync already inspired confidence among investors. Thync raised $13 million to help launch its product.
Successful new solutions solve pain points without swimming against the behavioral tide. Understanding the jobs consumers are trying to get done is only part of the battle. After all, many people have already found ways to satisfy the most common jobs in their lives. The opportunity for innovation often lies within the pain points — those areas where people experience frustration or inefficiency while trying to accomplish a task. The key is to hone in on those areas where pain points prevent consumers from satisfying the jobs that are particularly important to them. Spotting those areas can sometimes be relatively easy, but they frequently create a bit of a trap for companies. We regularly see new products fail because organizations — from startups to large corporations — try to force solutions on consumers that compel them to change ingrained behaviors. And, in fairness, our behaviors — both on the individual level and at the societal level — do naturally evolve over time. But that change tends to happen gradually. Even those companies that we think of as being ultra innovative don’t just thrust new products on the world and hope everyone is ready for them. Those who are most successful carefully map how consumers behave today, understand which behaviors will or will not change quickly, and work to fit new solutions into the behavioral patterns of today’s consumers.
IKEA has long been known for making affordable furniture sets. The company is often cited as an example of Jobs to be Done thinking at work. Prior to IKEA really gaining traction in the U.S., there were a handful of jobs related to furnishing a home or apartment that were common, important, and under-satisfied. The experience was riddled with pain points. Most notably, buying a set of stable furniture that actually matched was both time-consuming and expensive. But that’s an old story. This year, IKEA continued its Jobs-based approach and really took things to a new level.
As smartphones have grown increasingly intertwined with our everyday lives, we have more highly pronounced jobs related to staying informed and connected. Unfortunately, the better phones get at satisfying those jobs, the worse they get at doing it for long periods of time. More powerful apps mean more battery drain. One of the reasons we know the dead battery pain point offers room for innovation is that even where it’s currently being solved for, the workarounds are awkward and insufficient — things like swapping out batteries halfway through the day or carrying around portable charging units. In the grand scheme of things, having to carry a charger from room to room isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s a nuisance that we’re not prepared to endure. IKEA’s Jyssen platform alleviates the need for these workarounds. Sitting at your desk doing work? Your desk lamp will charge your phone. Making breakfast in the kitchen? Your counter can have a built-in charger. Going to bed? Take advantage of the charger integrated into your nightstand. By creating furniture lines that allow for built-in wireless chargers or add-on chargers, IKEA lets you live in a world free of dead batteries without having to change your behavior at all. That’s great from the consumer’s perspective, but it’s also smart for the business. It gives IKEA a way to differentiate its core products (furniture), and it also creates a new revenue stream (charging accessories) from people who want the Jyssen advantages but aren’t yet ready to upgrade their furniture.
Innovators know how to fight the obstacles to adopting and using new products
While it shouldn’t be surprising that something from Google made our top innovations list, you might be surprised at what made the list. Last year, Google introduced Cardboard — a virtual reality platform that enables third parties to create cheap mobile phone mounts that allow individuals to consume VR content without paying for expensive VR devices. This year, Google expanded on that initiative by rolling out Jump. Jump is a type of VR ecosystem, offering a camera rig and video stitching software that collectively let others create and share immersive VR content. The GoPro Odyssey, for example, mounts 16 GoPro cameras into the Jump rig, allowing industry professionals to capture high-resolution 360-degree videos.
So why has Google been on a two-year campaign to just give away the designs for its VR innovations? In part, it’s because Google recognizes that the creation of a new VR market requires defeating the obstacles to consumer adoption. Much like how grocery stores offer free samples to get you to try — and later purchase and repurchase — new products, Google is setting itself up for success down the road. But it won’t be successful later without making some investments today. The VR market has received a fair amount of press attention, but it hasn’t really caught on with consumers yet. There are too many obstacles. VR viewers are expensive, and even if you spend the money on them, there’s simply not much content to consume. With Cardboard and Jump, Google is giving you a cheap way to start experiencing what little VR content is out there, while simultaneously making it easier for others to create and share more content. In the not-too-distant future consumers will be ready for VR media. When that day comes, Google will be ready to start profiting, such as by collecting fees from developers who sell content in the Google Play app store.
A Jobs-based lens allows for asymmetric competition
The final piece of the Jobs to be Done framework that we’ll touch on is competition. Companies routinely make the mistake of defining their competition too narrowly. Borders, for example, defined itself as a bookseller. When times got tough, it doubled down on selling more of what its customers happened to be buying — namely books, CDs, and DVDs. As profits disappeared, the company was forced to liquidate. By contrast, Barnes & Noble did a better job of finding a diverse number of ways to satisfy key jobs around learning new things, seeking entertainment, and obtaining information on the go. In addition to its sales of traditional media, it invested in building out its textbook business, promoting educational toys and games, and developing its own e-reader. While not all of its investments were successful, its portfolio of options helped it to stay afloat even as the world went digital. The company’s focus on consumers’ jobs to be done allowed it to re-define the playing field to one where it stands a chance.
Although we often talk about the impact Amazon has on brick-and-mortar retailers, the company launched a new storefront this year that’s a good reminder of how Amazon is being threatened as well. Amazon Launchpad is a new addition to the site that “curate[s] the cutting-edge so you can discover unexpected and fresh new products from today’s brightest startups.” Amazon works with startups — largely through VCs, accelerators, and crowdfunding sites — to get new products in front of consumers. By addressing extremely under-satisfied jobs for startups around marketing and distribution, Amazon is competing more broadly and continuing to move beyond the traditional definition of a retailer. In doing so, it’s bringing dollars back to its site that might otherwise have been spent on crowdfunding sites or other platforms that support startups and small businesses.
Innovation is hard. Most new products fail, yet companies tend to have little appetite for failure. In part, these failures occur because companies launch new products based on a backward-looking view of the market — they design new products based on what consumers have typically bought in the past and what new features their close competitors have recently added. The Jobs to be Done framework provides a different way to evaluate markets. It offers a framework for fully understanding consumers and the ecosystem in which they’re making decisions. By using Jobs-based research upfront to understand the challenges, the keys to success, and how a solution fits your business needs, you drastically reduce the risks associated with failure. Put another way, you ensure that you’re designing the products that consumers actually want.
Dave Farber is a strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth. He is a co-author of the award-winning book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.