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  • 03.24.09

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies.

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