8 Year Old Twins Saving the World One Wedgie at a Time

I was sitting at the gas station filling my tank at our local Speedway last night when a brief news segment on the gas pump TV caught my eye.*  It was a story about 8 year old Ohio twin brothers, Justin and Jared Serovich who developed the Rip Away 1000 – otherwise known as wedgie-proof underwear.  I burst out laughing at the ingenuity as I watched one brother grab on to his twin’s waist band and all of sudden he was holding his brother’s boxer shorts.  As Justin explained, When the person tries to grab you like the bully or the person tries to give you a wedgie they just rip away.  His brother Jared was happy to explain their secret, We took some old pairs of underwear and cut the bottom and side seams and put in Velcro.

wedgie-proof-underwear.JPG

One would think that the back story would be that the boys kept getting picked on at the playground and became determined to find a way to save their tender derrieres with a simple solution.  However, apparently, the boys’ Mom caught them in the basement one day giving each other the wedgie treatment and she scolded them.  Then as any parent might do when faced with the inexplicable shenanigans of young boys,  she suggested that someone should invent wedgie-proof underwear.

Inspiration!  The boys were looking for a concept to develop for the Central Ohio 2007 Invention Convention which encourages young people to come up with creative solutions to everyday problems and they had found their idea.  In fact it took them all the way to 2nd place in the competion and invitations to be on Fox Morning News, MSNBC, CNN, and even The Ellen DeGeneres Show.  I’m surprised that Dave Letterman never invited them on to his show for the Young Inventors segment but I guess it might be too low-brow for his show’s theme.  Though how that is possible given his “Will it float” series I’m not exactly sure. 

One might ask what will happen next when the kid is standing there commando and the bully is running around with their underwear.  This is the point according to Justin, where teacher intervention would be called for.  Still, in my mind, the fact that they could pull your underwear off would likely correlate with more wedgies rather than fewer given the way I recall the 8 year old mind works.  But at least they wouldn’t be painful so I guess one would classify the invention as protective rather than preventative.

It turns out this isn’t a new story, it was all over YouTube and Digg back in November 2007 but somehow I missed it.  Still, in celebration of their genius, I’ve decided to dedicate my Thursday posts, when they happen, to novel inventions by young innovators.  Who knows, these boys might go on to be anything from fashion designers to nanotechnologists with their creative minds.

 *The thought that I would say, I was watching the news on my gas pump TV this evening, just seems so outlandish but Madison avenue is always looking for new ways to reach the consumer where they are idle and have time to fill.  Perhaps personalized advertising as envisioned in the Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report, was not that far off after all.

What a brave new world we have entered.

Bringing Symbols of Prosperity to the Masses

What is the value of owning a car?  What benefits do 4 wheels and a roof offer to the driver?  As someone who lives in Chicago and commutes every day – on a morning like this when it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the immediate answer is safe, efficient, dry and especially warm transportation.  Safety comes first in my mind because when it comes right down to it, a car is the box on wheels that protects the cargo – you and your family – when an accident happens.

Would you believe though that owning a car rather than say a motorcycle could improve your social standing and increase your marriage prospects?  In America where we worship our cars it would seem odd to consider that car ownership bestows that kind of value but why else do young men lust after a high powered 1968 Nightshade Green GTO hardtop or a sleek BMW convertible or a massive jacked-up Ford F-150 truck with large knobby tires?  To be cool and impress the girls, of course.  Cars are all about status.  One just had to stroll the aisles of the Chicago Auto Show which wrapped up 10 days ago to see what the auto manufacturers were selling: power, prestige, thrills, excitement with the appropriate amounts of safety and convenience peppered in as well.  For some young men, their car defines them – it symbolizes their freedom, their power, their virility, their style.

GTO

In an earlier post I examined Dr. Paul Polak’s focus of designing for the other 90 percent of the world.  By the other 90 percent he of course means focusing innovation efforts on helping improve the lives of those who scratch to survive each day by improving their access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue generating activities, and affordable transportation.

Tata Motors has focused on delivering that last benefit – transportation – to the masses in India and perhaps to the world.  On January 15th, the largest auto manufacturer in India unveiled their rumored $2500 car (or 100,000 rupees), the Nano.  It may not have been unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show but it instantly became the talk of that show.  Tata drew a line in the sand and declared that they were prepared to pursue the very low end of the market, the consumers who today cannot afford an automobile but instead make do with a motor scooter or if they are lucky a 3 wheel rickshaw.

3 Wheel Rickshaw

The Chairman, Ratan N. Tata described his personal inspiration for the car:

I observed families riding on two-wheelers – the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family. Tata Motors’ engineers and designers gave their all for about four years to realise this goal. Today, we indeed have a People’s Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions. We are happy to present the People’s Car to India and we hope it brings the joy, pride and utility of owning a car to many families who need personal mobility.

Family on scooter

He doesn’t go into the full details though of what it means to own a four wheel rather than a 2 or 3 wheel vehicle in the Indian villages.  Of all things, owning a 4 wheel vehicle increases the marriage prospects and perception of success of the man/family who owns it.  An excellent Forbes article describes the work of the project manager who oversaw the development of the Nano, Girish Wagh, and what he learned in his earlier efforts to develop a truck that would compete with the 3 wheeled motorized rickshaws that many farmers use.  By doing something no one had ever done at Tata – talk to customers! – he finally found the key insight.  As the article explains:

In 2000, Ravi Kant, Managing Director of Tata Motors, needed someone to take on a risky project–to extend the truck line beyond the sturdy Tata mainstays. Kant wanted one cheap enough to compete with three-wheeled, motorized rickshaws and even considered building a small, three-wheeled truck.

Before starting the project, Wagh did something no one at Tata Motors ever had: He talked to customers. The three-wheeler men inevitably insisted on a cheap, dependable truck that could go from village to market carrying, say, 200 chickens, a ton of onions or potatoes, or 2,000 eggs. One night, as sunset approached, Wagh stuck with one rickshaw driver. “I kept asking the question. Why? Why? Why do you want a four-wheeler?” Wagh remembered. Finally, he got the real answer. It turned out it wasn’t really a problem of chickens or eggs. “If I had a four-wheeler, I would have better marriage prospects in my village,” the young man said. Drivers of three-wheelers are looked down upon in India. Wagh realized that four wheels had emotional, not just practical, appeal.

When Tata Motors brought out the bare-bones Ace truck in May 2005 for just $5,100, it had a monster hit: The company sold 100,000 in 20 months. To try to keep up with demand, it offers the truck only in white to save the time it takes to change colors in the factory paint shop. Tata is building a new factory that will be able to turn out 250,000 a year starting this month.

So when Tata Motors needed someone to take charge of the company’s most ambitious plan yet–to build the world’s cheapest car ever–Ravi Kant, who by then had become the company’s managing director, again turned to Wagh. Wagh remembers what he learned marketing the little truck. “People want to move from two-wheelers to four-wheelers,” he says. “Today they can’t afford it.”

Drivers of 3 wheelers are looked down upon in India which means that people want to move from 2 or 3 wheel to 4 wheel vehicles and today they can’t afford it.  Two wheeled scooters and motorcycles sell for $675 to $1600 and the per capita annual income is ~$800.  So this begins to make it feasible for millions of people in India and other developing countries to own a car.

Tata Silver Family

Now I’m not going to go into the contentious side of this question because there really are significant concerns with adding more cars to the already crowded streets in India or any country for that matter.  Increased petrol dependency, increased consumption of a dwindling resource, and let’s not forget about air quality and the ozone layer.  All kinds of people are coming out of the woodwork to say what a bad precedent this is likely to create.  Because every car manufacturer out there is studying this little car very closely.  It wouldn’t pass emissions tests today in the United States or Europe.  And it isn’t exactly a safe vehicle but when compared to the alternative (four on a scooter) or an open rickshaw it actually performs quite well in the safety category.  But it does bring inexpensive, reliable, and comfortable transportation within the reach of millions of people who otherwise would literally be left out in the rain.  Is it the right answer?  Hard to say, but it is a brilliant example of one company’s focus on improving the prospects and lives of very low income people in a developing country.

And let’s not forget, that this is the same company that was announced by Ford Motors as the leading bidder for the Jaguar and Land Rover brands and production facilities.  So in one month, a big little company in India jumped out on the world stage and put the luxury and the economy car manufacturers on notice that they are planning to make a VERY big splash in the world automotive pond.

Imagine It! – Creating Value From Nothing

Could you create value from nothing?  Do you think it takes a creative, entrepreneurial spirit in order to accomplish such a monumental task? 

I promised yesterday I would share a case study I worked on recently, the Tata Motors $2500 car to be specific.  But snow blowing the remains of the still-going snowstorm this morning from my driveway sent my creative thoughts whirring around like so many snowflakes and got me thinking about an incredible documentary that was just released on Friday.  It’s called Imagine It! and it focuses on a collaboration that Richard Tavener from Infinite Loop Media did with Stanford University – and ultimately universities across the globe – in challenging students to be innovative with a common everyday object.

As Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program explained, “We’re giving people an everyday object and then telling them to create value.”  Which according to the dictionary there are 18 different definitions of the term.  She continues,  “Students can do it by how much money you make, the amount of social value you create, the amount of entertainment value, how creative you are.  There are unlimited categories.

I mention this documentary because it’s an amazing example of encouraging young people to recognize and expose their own internal creative genie.  Creativity on one level is all about solving problems and this is a fantastic approach to help students tackle innovation in a fun and engaging manner. 

The challenge: Take a pack of Post-it Notes and create something of value from them.  But as always there are constraints.  Participants have 6 days in which to create their value and then must report on it in 3 minutes either in a video or 3 slide presentation.  There are some great examples of creativity and problem solving that come out of it.

What I really love is all of the experts they interview throughout the movie – which can be watched in 5 minute segments online or downloaded in one single loop.  Some of the great moments included:

Geoffrey Moore (who wrote the seminal Crossing the Chasm business series on growing your tech business and more recently released a brilliant book, Dealing with Darwin, about matching innovation efforts with your organization’s role in its market ecosystem).  I love how Moore jumps right to the problem solving aspect of innovation:
Go to the problem and then imagine a world where that problem has been removed.  And then say well how many steps from this world to that world.

Guy Kawasaki (the original technical evangelist for Apple and now Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures).  Guy is, well, Guy and he dives right into the analogy of how the constraints this effort puts on the participants is just like real life innovation that those of us who practice it struggle with every day:
It’s sort of a good preparation for later life.  Which is, you never have infinite resources and you’re given this constraint and it is constraining, it’s Post-it pads.  And when you’re out in the real world, you will also have constraints, you will not have infinite capital, you won’t have infinite employees, you won’t have infinite time.  And then doing his best Forrest Gump, Guy continues, Life is like a Post-it pad.

But my two favorite moments in the film are two specific comments that really nail the genius of this effort. 

Randy Komisar, Partner Kleiner Perkins, Caufield and Byers:  It wouldn’t be Silicon Valley if there wasn’t a quote from some partner at Kleiner Perkins – the VC firm that birthed so many great internet businesses.  Randy discusses the challenge of getting past the blank slate and a discussion he had with  George Lucas about the creative effort.
It’s hard to look inside to get started.  That’s where people often get stuck.  It’s often easier to find something to rub up against.  It’s very difficult to make that first brush stroke on a white canvas.  But throw some dots up there, and then when you look at the canvas it’s very easy to put that first stroke on.  So find something to oppose, find something to merge with, find something to dance with.  And in the process you have creativity. 

To the innovators out there, I would say, find a REAL consumer problem first.  When I was working at InstallShield with Viresh Bhatia, the co-founder of the company, we often discussed the same questions, especially as we looked at the mass of crazy projects we saw sprouting across the web during the dot-com phase.  The projects, the business ventures that succeeded in surviving, were always the ones that had found a single customer or customer group first and then developed a solution for them.  If you’re an entrepreneur, then it’s not good enough to come up with the most amazing technology ever if you can’t find any use for it in the real world.  The VC’s might support you for a while, but eventually you’re either solving problems or you’re out of money.

Debra Dunn, Advisor to Social Ventures. 
[This project] taps into in some ways the rawest level of their creativity.  Because what you’re giving them is apparently, nothing.  And so you’re really asking them to create value from virtually nothing.  That’s sort of the essence of entrepreneurship.  No question about it, the thrill of any creative innovation effort is looking up after all the sweat and toil and realizing you have come up with something amazing and perhaps new to the world.  You have given birth to something that never existed before you set out down the path of creating it.  And if done right, it is destined to offer beauty and/or happiness when it is encountered.

The one last reason I absolutely love this idea is because I can see us using it in future solution generation sessions to help spark the group.  We use Post-it’s all of the time to encourage the people we gather for these sessions to help them develop an idea.  They’re wonderfully constraining because they force you to be economical in your description and pare the idea down to its very essence.  And then, you can stick them up on the wall to cluster in groups of similar or very different ideas to find amazing relationships that evolve into a single or even many brilliant solutions to the problem we are exploring.

On a personal note, I have to mention that my wife Julianna, who is often my muse when it comes to developing new ideas and thinking through a problem, came up with a brilliant business idea for Post-it notes that her brother-in-law Roger went on to implement as a full blown cottage business.  This was 12 years ago when she had noticed one day in church how Roger had all kinds of inspirational quotes on scraps of paper or scribbled in the margins of his scriptures.  She looked at them and said, You know Roger, I bet you could put those on Post-it notes and then you wouldn’t have to worry about them falling out of your scriptures.  In fact, I bet you could actually make sets of those and people would be interested in buying them.  Roger went on to make a pretty tidy penny off of that insight.  Talk about creating value from nothing!

Rubber Bands  

Finally, the effort is not over with the completion of the documentary.  The challenge is intended to be an annual tournament – the Stanford Innovation Tournament Video Contest – and it kicked off on Friday with reveal of this year’s secret item: rubber bands!  Students are encouraged to participate in groups and submit their entries online.

Kuczmarski, Google, and Innovation

Early in December last year, Tom Kuczmarski, the Senior Partner of our firm was invited to come share his perspective on Innovation as well as discuss his latest book “Apples Are Square” with the bright and curious minds at Google.  Below is a video of the engaging conversation that ensued. 

Great questions from the audience included:

Can you routinize and processize innovation or does it have to be original every time?

We would say that innovation is only TRULY successful if you have incorporated it into your culture and it becomes a standard part of your product development efforts.  When I worked in software I often looked around at small and large successful tech companies and wondered what made the difference between those that were small one or two hit wonders that stall at $30-40 Million in revenues and those that just dominate a market (think Flickr or VMware or Microsoft or Google)?  There are several parts to that answer but there is no question that generally success is tied to an iterative, customer centric process. 

Being at Kellogg, how do your students respond to your discussions of innovation?  Are they excited about it, engaged and what kinds of examples do you use, what types of companies do you point to?

Since part of my regular work is to develop many of the cases Tom uses in his Kellogg and corporate presentations and we at the firm use for our client work I’ve been thinking it might be a useful approach to start fleshing these out in the weblog.  Look for a discussion of Tata Motors tomorrow.

And my favorite was, How do you make sure that what you innovate to is actually going to be demanded by the market ultimately?

See the answer to the first question.  I love how Tom phrases his answer, and no, unlike Hillary and Barack, we did not seed that question into the crowd.  The dimension of innovation that people and companies – especially high tech organizations – often forget about is that while we have to focus on the creative side of innovation, we also have to focus on how do we convert that into a successful business venture or new service or new product that ultimately will serve new customers and will be profitable to the business.  You have to be customer centric and you have to be willing to let go of your preconceived notions of what your target customers really want.  Either that or you have to accept that it may actually be a very different customer who finds an even greater value to your product or service while using it in a very different fashion than you originally envisioned. 

If you want Tom’s full answer to the last question then you need to sit and watch the video – the reaction from Google was very enthusiastic both during and after the presentation.