I recently shared FastCompany’s most innovative companies to watch in 2014, and along with that, there are some lessons learned that these companies have shared. Many of these you’ve heard me talk about in the past, and as I work with clients I am continually finding new ways to hone these lessons for the specific goals each company has. Here is that list, but you’ll definitely want to go back to FastCompany to get the full context:
EXCEPTIONAL IS EXPECTED
The No. 1 company on our list, Google, did not land there for the range of its activities–despite the 29 achievements we list. In fact, today’s smartest businesses tend to laser-focus on just a few goals; broad ambition can distract from the nitty-gritty required to turn goals into reality. Yet from Google Fiber to Google Glass to investing in new health technologies, Google executes at a high level repeatedly. That’s why it tops the list.
INNOVATION IS EPISODIC
Only a handful of companies on our list repeat year after year. That’s not because companies suddenly lose their edge; it’s because innovation ebbs and flows. As editor-at-large Jon Gertner explains in his eye-opening guide to breakthrough change at Philips (No. 50), development of LED lighting has been under way there for 50 years–but a specific 11-month deadline provided the essential innovative exclamation point.
MAKING MONEY MATTERS
Great ideas are captivating, but great businesses are self-sustaining. Dropbox (No. 4) and Airbnb (No. 6) are darlings of the venture set, but they also charge real customers real money for a product with real value. Unlike the many web-based companies launched pre-2008 whose business models rely on advertising for revenue (Facebook, Twitter, et al.), these enterprises are transaction based–and are reaping the rewards.
SUSTAINABILITY HAS FOUND A NEW GEAR
Remember when operating a “green” business was either a gimmick or a promise (or both)? No more. Today, energy efficiency, alternative fuels, and recycling are core advantages for successful enterprises. Brazil’s Braskem (No. 41), a $19 billion petrochemical giant, uses sugarcane rather than oil to create in-demand plastics. Levi Strauss (No. 30) produces more than 10% of its clothing with recycled materials, on its way to 100%. Companies such as FedEx and Coca-Cola are converting their truck fleets to hybrids, with the help of XL Hybrids (No. 35). You don’t have to own a Tesla (No. 20) to see the impact.
UNLOCKING GLOBAL TALENT UNLOCKS POSSIBILITY
In Kenya, a homegrown tech center called iHub (No. 38) is unleashing Silicon Valley–like potential, signing up 10,000 members, launching 152 companies, and spawning similar efforts in Tanzania and Uganda. India’s Universal Identification Authority (No. 22) combats the rampant fraud that cramps entrepreneurialism there. As an encouraging ad campaign in South Africa from Johnnie Walker (No. 31) explains: “Our future will not be written by the great strides of yesterday, but by the ones we take today.”
PASSION IS UNDERRATED
Crowdsourcing may seem like old news, but tapping into a genuine fan base is powerful. SXSW (No. 12) started as a small regional gathering and now attracts 60,000 people from around the globe. GoPro (No. 39) has moved from extreme athletes to the mainstream. GitHub (No. 26), home to the geek elite, is making collaboration the first resort for software development.
CONFLICT ISN’T REQUIRED
How do you make meaningful change in the face of calcified institutions? Sometimes you just have to go around them. That’s the path Charles Best at DonorsChoose.org (No. 9) has taken, avoiding unions and politicos by crowdsourcing direct assistance to teachers. Bloomberg Philanthropies (No. 2) uses data to answer questions other foundations aren’t asking, while SHoP Architects (No. 33) manages to both create cutting-edge designs à la indie firms and get them built at the appropriately industrial scale.
HAPPY CUSTOMERS MAKE YOU HAPPY
Uber made hailing a cab a pleasure, not a pain. But then it forgot what made it great; its pricing tactics have invited a backlash (which is why it’s not on this year’s list; see why). The mirror opposite of Uber? That’s Yelp (No. 10), which continues to reward grateful users with new features. Other companies are thriving by solving customers’ nagging problems, from Square’s mobile payment advances (No. 28) to Warby Parker’s stylish spectacles (No. 17). OTG Management has even made it possible to enjoy airport food (No. 46).
SOFTWARE BEATS HARDWARE
The hoopla around the latest iPhone or the newest car obscures the fact that software is the key source of progress today. Our autos are rolling computers, upgraded remotely and managing more of our driving tasks. (See “Driverless Cars“) Even lighting, thanks to LEDs and the folks at Philips, will be seen less and less as a physical product and more as an application.
“MADE IN CHINA” IS A COMPLIMENT
There was a time when artisans in China were considered among the world’s finest. That emphasis on quality is returning, as a new generation of fashion and luxury brands caters to the burgeoning middle and upper classes. The pernicious idea that Chinese companies aren’t about innovation is a relic. Xiaomi (No. 3) is reinventing the smartphone business; Beijing Genomics Institute (No. 37) has become the world’s largest DNA sequencer.
THE BIGGEST WINNER IN THE APP ECONOMY REMAINS APPLE
Case in point: gaming. As mobile and social gaming have exploded, we’ve gone from the Doodle Jump era to the FarmVille era, from Angry Birds to Candy Crush. Yet no new company has emerged with the profitability and stability of console-based enterprises like Electronic Arts or Activision or Ubisoft. (See why the maker of Candy Crush, King, failed to make this year’s list.) Meanwhile, (No. 14) Apple’s 2013 App Store sales topped $10 billion.
DREAMING BIG ISN’T FOLLY; IT’S REQUIRED
Philips scientists calculated that LED lighting could cut total worldwide electricity use by 10%–saving some $250 billion. It’s the reason they’ve put decades into developing it. Pharma researcher Medivation (No. 16) believed it could attack cancer in a new way, and it got a breakthrough drug on the market three years faster than the norm. GE (No. 27) estimates that sensor-packed plane engines could save the airline industry $30 billion over 15 years–and that broader applications of data-driven efficiencies could increase national incomes by nearly a third. Is Tesla’s vision of a national network of electric cars pie-in-the-sky? Maybe. But without the dreams, we’ll never find our way to what is truly possible. As Jon Gertner observes in his Philips article, “The initial appeal of an innovation doesn’t predict the problems it may one day solve.”