To Innovate From Inside Your Industry, Get Inside the Heads of Your Customers

When you’re an expert in your field, it can be hard to challenge the assumptions that have helped you build your business and get to where you are today. However, those same assumptions won’t always get you to where you want to be tomorrow.

Time and time again, the most revolutionizing forces pushing industries forward come from outsiders. Twitter’s founder, for example, was no expert in communication when he started the multi-billion dollar social networking company. Nor was he an expert in finance when he started the multi-billion dollar mobile payment company, Square. It’s the same story for Uber and Airbnb.

What has ultimately allowed these entrepreneurs to stand out is not their expertise, but rather, their fresh perspectives. It’s for this exact reason that more and more of the world’s largest companies have begun to hire outsider executives in the face of innovation.

But not all innovation has to come from outsiders. By beginning to think as an outsider instead of an expert, startup founders can innovate within their own industries, as well. Here’s how you can start:

Change your frame of mind

Since you first started building your expertise, things have undoubtedly changed. Apart from technological advancements that have rewritten the rules of the game, shifting demographics and consumer tastes mean that what customers once wanted might not be what they want today. The crazy part is, your customers probably don’t even realize it.

Therefore, rather than chasing the goal of improving existing solutions by relying on your expertise, change your frame of mind to take the perspective of these new-age customers. The classic example of Netflix and Blockbuster is as fitting as ever. Had Blockbuster’s CEO recognized sooner that people watch movies to unwind, maybe he would’ve thought to leverage existing technology to make those movies accessible from one’s own couch instead of in stores.

When you have developed expertise in a certain area, it creates a bias where you fail to consider that technological advances have created the opportunity for new, better solutions to existing problems. These very biases are the ones you can identify and exploit as a competitive advantage. In fact, we’ve been able to successfully grow our SEO company by challenging the industry’s widespread belief that improving Google rankings is the only route to SEO success.

To find these types of blind spots, start by putting yourself in the shoes of your customers and reevaluating the problem you’re trying to solve. Have their preferences changed over time? Are there new technologies that can better solve their problems? How do their needs change across demographics? When you find a need that is not being met, or one that could be met better, focus on building the ideal solution for it.

Related: The Marketing Secret Your Customers Can’t Resist

Expose yourself to different industries

As most revolutionization comes from people outside an industry, another great way to start innovating is by starting to think more like them. Do this by learning about other industries. After all, the solution to a customer’s problem is normally multi-faceted and requires the expertise of many individuals. In fact, your offering is likely just the solution to part of a larger problem. And odds are, your product alone required input from a team of people with different areas of expertise.

With SEO, for example, companies aren’t just looking to improve their Google rankings. At the end of the day, they’re actually looking for a solution to the bigger question of how to acquire customers, and how do so in a cost-effective way. As such, it’s helpful to think about everyone who would be involved in solving your customer’s problem, and consider each of their frames of mind. In the case of SEO, a usability expert might focus on making sure the call to action is obvious. A copywriter, on the other hand, might focus on the emotional pull of a headline.

Even industries that seem completely unrelated to your business can teach you a lot. Consider the fact that Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, gained inspiration for the company’s Trips service using an idea from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” a book which outlines a popular literary structure used for storytelling.

“Great travel is a lot like the characters’ experiences in great movies,” Chesky said at the Trips launch announcement. As such, the service was designed to lead users through the same type of journey as the characters in their favorite movies.

Ultimately, you can learn a lot by exposing yourself to ideas from other industries. This opens your mind to discover new angles or ways to solve customers’ problems that others in the industry might not have considered. It’s good to get in the habit of studying other industries to expand your knowledge and to see less obvious possibilities. This is not to say that you should concern yourself with becoming an expert in each of these areas, but rather develop a foundational knowledge that makes you more receptive to customers’ problems.

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Work backward from the ideal customer experience

Steve Jobs expressed another interesting idea at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997, in response to the same issue of identifying customer challenges.

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it,” Jobs said.

In other words, when you become an expert in your field, you can easily get sucked in to the details of the technology, product or service that you’re offering, at the expense of recognizing customers’ true needs.

Frequently, different companies try to solve the same customer problem in the same way, without recognizing that there are alternative solutions. For this reason, looking backward starting with the ideal customer experience can illuminate certain paths or solutions that other companies on the market haven’t taken.

The most obvious problems to solve are the customer pain points that are surface level, i.e., the ones that they tell you about, for which there are already many competing solutions. In SEO, for example, customers would always tell us about their subpar keyword rankings. As such, it’s really no surprise there are hundreds of thousands of competing vendors offering ranking reporting tools.

However, the strategy of working backward can help you identify your customers’ painful, but less obvious pain points, and give you the advantage of servicing a need in a blind spot that most, if not all, competitors fail to recognize. In many cases, these “numb” pain points are the ones that customers have given up on solving because either they seem impossible, or the customers can’t do it themselves, and there currently are no solutions that exist to help them. For you, this means there’s a major business opportunity.

Thus, another way to innovate is to keep those pain points top of mind, and research how new advances in technology make a solution possible.

Artificial intelligence, for example, is enabling many novel solutions to previously impossible problems. Simple, menial tasks are being automated quickly and cost-effectively. Consider how your company can leverage these types of technologies to solve both new and existing problems for your customers.

While it is sometimes difficult to innovate in your own industry, changing your way of thinking can help give you the necessary edge to outpace the competition. In this sense, outsiders have a natural advantage. However, by changing your frame of mind, exposing yourself to different industries and working backward through the ideal customer experience, you too can lead your industry forward.

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