Why it Took an Entrepreneur to Make America Flip Over the Flip (And Why it Would have Flopped Inside any Big Company)

Is it at all possible for simplicity to emerge from the twisted processes of the corporate mind?  I asked myself this question (again) after reading last week about Cisco’s purchase of Pure Digital, the company behind the fresh and frisky Flip video camera, for over $500 million.

For the uninitiated, the Flip is a deceptively rudimentary gizmo: a small, almost feature-bare camera (no zoom, no fancy framing options, no compensatory lighting mechanics) that lets you shoot, and then instantly move the video into your computer.  The transfer is made via a USB port that’s built into the camera. 

Once you’ve got the video on your hard drive, the Flip’s software makes it a cinch to upload it to YouTube, or to share in other ways. 

The Flip was developed by an entrepreneur and funded by VCs, both of whom latched onto the untapped market for casual video that was being neglected by the usual-suspect Big Tech technology companies – Sony, Kodak, Panasonic.  Their cameras were costly and complicated, mis-aligned with the improvisatory spirit of the quick video generation.

On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that this opportunity was missed by the Big Boys.  They could see the explosion in user-generated video, following as it did a similar crescendo in the taking-and-sharing of digital photos.  

And of course, they have great engineers who were certainly capable of bringing more technology chops to bear than a rag-tag start-up.

Well, that was precisely their problem. Those consumer electronics giants are historically and reflexively guilty of product gigantism, bent on piling one feature on top of another, rather than peeling them away.

As a result, Big Tech – in love with pixels and performance – was unable to see that consumers were willing, if not anxious, to trade off features and functionality for speed and simplicity.   Meanwhile, Small Tech, at Pure Digital, wasn’t caught in the model of satisfying the egos, and justifying the big salaries, of perfection-seeking engineers.

The Flip is made for capturing the demotic stuff of life, when picture quality is less important than the sheer fact of preserving the moment.   It’s there and available for the quirky, goofy, everyday experiences that don’t need to be memorialized with perfect framing and lighting.  The Flip makes video part of our daily conversation.

That’s why Small Tech focused on something I call speed-to-shooting time.  The more feature-loaded your video camera, the more time it takes to get ready to shoot; you’ve got to struggle with all sorts of frustrating tweaks and turns.  By contrast, the Flip comes out of your pocket and is ready to start shooting in a Malcolm Gladwell blink.

And guess what?  Even if someone at Big Tech dreamed up this stripped-down, ripped-down idea, it would never have survived in its ostentatiously imperfect form.  One meeting would have added a zoom, another would have added backlight compensation, and a third would have demanded a smile-recognition feature.  By the time you know it, the thing would have needed a larger battery to power it, and the Flip would have mutated into a flop.

It was the paradoxically narrow focus and big vision of Pure Digital that kept the Flip smartly flawed, falling short of engineering perfection but deeply satisfying the consumer’s idea of it. 

This innovation path is extremely, extremely different for large companies to pursue.  Why?  Well, to start with because they are big and complex, they have a mindset that over-values size and complexity.  We all love solutions that look like ourselves in the mirror.

So when they’ve got a problem to solve, or an opportunity that needs to be fulfilled, they respond by throwing teams into the fray.   But teams create over-designed and over-engineered solutions, be they hardware or software.  Try using any washing machine or GPS system or microwave and you’ll yearn for a Flippy alternative.

And big companies are also very polite.  They never want to hurt anyone’s feelings; it’s easier to add Justin’s feature than “dis-empower” Justin and send him scurrying to HR. 

At the same time, the Big Boys are so afraid to fail that they over-listen to the professional objectors within.  It’s not hard to imagine the torrent of abuse that would have been heaped on the Flip, and the PowerPoint slides that would have been devoted to improve it to death with a “Feature Expansion Platform Development.”

So, my three simple, Flip-inspired mantras for any big company in search of the inchoate mysteries of innovation:

Protect a good idea from people trying to help it.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. 

The secret of success isn’t just knowing where to start, it’s knowing when to stop.

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