According to VJ –- everybody calls him VJ –- the global appetite to have and hold printed material is only growing stronger thanks to digital photography and the web. As such, VJ is spearheading HP’s drive to become the world’s premier printing and content consumption company. Under his guidance over the last eight years, IPG revenue has grown from $19 billion to $25.8 billion, and its operating profit has doubled. Not bad for the guy who started working for HP fresh out of Ohio State University in 1980 as a research and development engineer.
In an exclusive interview with Fast Company, VJ explained how he continued innovating in a rapidly changing marketplace — under the direction of 3 different CEOs in the past decade — and the key to a long and happy career.
FAST COMPANY: How do you continue to innovate under such sweeping changes both in technology and leadership?
VYOMESH JOSHI: When I joined HP as an engineer [from Ohio State] I think it was a good thing that the first three projects I worked on got cancelled. Failures are OK as long as you really make a contribution. After that I worked on ink jet and the reliability of that technology [helped me advance]. Throughout my career I’ve been making contributions and having passion. That helped me to build the right attitude in terms of dealing with the changes and continuing to innovate.
In last ten years HP’s had three CEOs but I’m centered. In really continuing to redefine and transform the industry and continue to build a growth business with new value proposition helps me to continue to come into work and say, ‘Hey how can I make a difference?’
How would you say your long tenure with the company contributes to your effectiveness as a leader?
One of the key things is it helps me understand how a big company can continue to be innovative. There are a lot of theories that to move up you need to jump around and another that you may be successful but someone will come and change things because you are not young enough to understand what is going on in the cloud. My view is to believe in our people, understand our customer and use technology as an innovation engine. I remember when I was an engineer I’d take my team to movies and eat popcorn [in the middle of the day] and then come back and work until midnight. [That encouraged them to say] ‘Hey, I worked on that,’ with pride.
One of the dangers of innovating too rapidly is that sometimes the resulting products are inadequate. How do you avoid that?
First, our innovation process is about getting the right value proposition for the customer. So we look at market trends and customer insights and use the technology to innovate. When [a product] is grounded on customer insight it will last longer. For example, in last 2-3 years [many people] bought smart phones and captured a lot of images but were not able to print them. Through research we figured out that every printer should an email address [to be able to send photos taken on a phone]. It’s a very simple, and powerful solution. Now if you have a smart phone you don’t need driver for printer. You just put in email address and just send it. All printers above $99 will have that. It’s not a premium charge. No one had done that before so we have a sustainable, competitive edge.
How do you toe the line between developing innovative products and providing good customer service?
We train all our support people, but a requirement for innovation is that it needs to be simple and intuitive. If it creates more problems for the customer, then value isn’t created. The important part for us when we do our life cycle of product development is that the customer experience is part of that process. And not just that of the [individual] consumer, but also small business and enterprise customers.
Are you getting the supply of future innovators that you need coming out of our educational system?
I think that the passion and smarts are there, the only thing that I worry about is patience. I don’t believe people are smarter today. Tech doesn’t make you smarter. It’s how you convert information to insight. Many young people want to jump to conclusions. People want easy answers, but if the problem is complex you need to immerse yourself. Immersion [in a problem] brings chaos before clarity.
What do you see as the next big thing for HP?
There are some key trends. One is a content explosion. More content is now created by users. The old push model is now a pull model where I create the content, or mash it up with professional content. We introduced the first ink jet printer in 1984 and for the last 25 years we’ve enjoyed printing from a PC. Now switching to web printing means every printer must have an email address.
Another is digitization. Ten years ago cameras were analog, now all cameras are digital and we print photo books, posters, etc. It creates a great opportunity. 1997 was the first time we introduced a photo printer using inkjets. I predicted then it would all go digital. We talked to anthropologists about why we take pictures. We take them to tell family stories. Digitally you can tell that story in a very effective way [as opposed to] a 4×6 print that ends up in a shoebox.
Also, 40 percent of books are never read, they just end up in a warehouse. Printing on demand with our inkjet web press has capability to reduce cost of printing $2-3 per book. I think that helps save paper and supply chain cost.
Finally, everything will be a service. Printing is a service. Once you have web connected printers –we will ship 20 million this year — and a large enough install base, you can do some very interesting things. Think about coupon delivery in the Sunday paper. The statistic for redemption rate is less than 1 percent, the others get thrown away. If you have web connected printer you can use the pull model for coupons print only what you need. For the advertiser the redemption rate goes up.
What challenges are you currently facing?
How people will view information versus print. I truly believe the physical world is just as important as the virtual. We are human beings, we like the physical world. In my view, there is so much emphasis atoms to bits but humans still want to touch and feel things. Converting information to insight and action is the next value creation we want to participate in. That’s why printing will still be relevant. It’s all about learning which requires interaction.
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