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20 Lessons Of Innovation For 2015

What building this year's Most Innovative Companies list taught us about the current state of play.

Thread of change: Companies like American Giant (No. 38) don’t accept today’s rules.

[Photo: McNair Evans]

What have you done for me lately?

That is the demanding filter we use to assess candidates for our annual Most Innovative Companies list. It is a brutal, unyielding framework—directly in keeping with today’s business reality. Only a handful of companies repeat on our main Top 50 list year to year because the pace of change is so intense. Successful enterprises struggle to outdo themselves; new entrants with new ideas and new momentum are constantly emerging, demanding attention.

This year marks Fast Company’s 20th anniversary, but that benchmark means nothing if we aren’t challenging our own assumptions—and helping our readers challenge theirs. That’s one reason this year’s list includes only five repeats from a year ago. The goal of our Most Innovative Companies coverage is to encapsulate the state of innovation as it exists right now. With each new iteration of this project, we discover new things. Here, in honor of our 20th anniversary, are 20 lessons we’ve gleaned for 2015.

1. Inspiration Needs Execution

As much as we extol Apple and Google for big breakthroughs like iPads and self-driving cars, these leaders often shine due to iterative innovation. Apple makes it to No. 2 on our 2015 list because of a raft of iOS tweaks; Google is No. 4 for the success of its once-derided Chromebook. Our No. 1 company, Warby Parker, has elevated a smart concept with dogged attention to detail.

2. Tomorrow Is Too Slow...

When Mark Zuckerberg graced March 2010’s Most Innovative Companies cover, Instagram (No. 5) didn’t exist. Now it has more than 300 million monthly users. Such velocity of change is everywhere. Japanese messaging firm Line (No. 14) has swiftly built up 170 million users. Gilead Sciences (No. 16) reduced time to market for lifesaving drug Sovaldi from seven years to two.

3. ...But Great Ideas May Need Time

Some innovations mature at their own pace. HBO (No. 7), Kickstarter (No. 33), SoundCloud (No. 32), and 72andSunny (No. 43) appeared on our list back in 2012; they return this year as a next phase of development kicks in. We’re keenly watching alums like Pinterest (2013 honoree), which is introducing a new revenue model; if early tests are any indication, we’ll see the company back on the list in 2016.

4. Innovative Cultures Are Rewarding...

Our repeats from the 2014 list are Apple, Google, Netflix (No. 30), Tesla Motors (No. 17), and Warby Parker. But other previous honorees are still excelling. Nike, top-ranked in 2013, saw its stock rise more than 20% in 2014.

5. ...And Hot Sales Are Still Cool

Revenue at tablet maker Fuhu (No. 24) is up more than 159,000%. Line is outearning WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

6. Failure Does Have A Price

As we explored last month in "Under Fire," Amazon’s 2014 innovation efforts fell short. That’s kept the company off this year’s list. Twitter’s first post–IPO year proved disastrous for stockholders. Until performance aligns with aspirations, it’s in the penalty box.

7. Millennials Are Making Waves

This demographic cohort is often caricatured, but companies created by and for them resonate. From General Assembly (No. 28) to WeWork (No. 15), these enterprises offer new visions of how we work, learn, and manage.

8. Values Are Valued

Next-gen customers appreciate enterprises with soul. Warby Parker’s commitment to provide eyewear for the poor was there from the start. At American Giant (No. 38), "Made in the U.S.A." is a central tenet.

9. The B Corporation Can Scale

Once, the B Corporation certification was viewed by hard-core business­people as a laudable (or laugh­able) designation. Not anymore. Now, high-growth, socially conscious companies such as InVenture (No. 13), Revolution Foods (No. 39), and Kickstarter prove that B Corporations can be A-list.

10. Bold Ideas Are Global

Every continent but Antarctica is represented on our list. Aussie startup Catapult (No. 12) is transforming athletic training; Perfint Healthcare (No. 46) in India builds robotic tools for cancer treatment; Made in Kigali (No. 31) brings style to Rwanda; and Chile’s AlGramo (No. 42) has a new way to sell to the poor.

11. Disruption Can Be Collaborative

Not every disruptive innovation requires conflict. Instagram’s partnership with the fashion world has proven beneficial for both. HBO manages to help its cable-broadband partners. WeWork’s shared work spaces haven’t threatened local real estate titans; they’ve increased the value of adjacent property.

12. Platforms Are Powerful

It’s not just Apple, Google, and Facebook that benefit from being a platform. SoundCloud thrives by serving musicians and DJs, while Wandoujia (No. 34) stands out as the leading Chinese app store.

13. Data Isn’t Just For Geeks

Catapult’s sensor info makes athletes healthier and better; Next Big Sound (No. 21) identifies artists about to break big; and Mark43 (No. 49) uses analytics to help police fight crime.

14. Every Company Is A Tech Company

At one time, L’Oréal (No. 50) made cosmetics, period. Today, it is an app producer with 1.4 million downloads. Panera Bread (No. 27) isn’t just a casual-dining chain; it is using software to enable both remote ordering and mobile payments.

15. Retail Shopping Is Now Theater

Westfield Labs (No. 36) makes its malls hum with interactive features; Ikea (No. 40) tucks delightful surprises into its stores. Retail reinvention can be pleasurable in an old-fashioned way, too, as the Eataly (No. 23) shopping and dining emporiums show.

16. Design Is A Strategic Weapon

Design firm Ammunition Group (No. 29) helped Beats Electronics earn a $3 billion acquisition by Apple. A former Apple designer helped American Giant create the most desirable sweatshirt on the planet.

17. AI has gone mainstream

An idea once relegated to science fiction has migrated to store shelves: Artificial intelligence powers consumer products like robotic cars from Anki (No. 45) and aerial drones by DJI (No. 22).

18. World-Changing Ideas Are Bubbling

Gilead Sciences is preventing HIV and curing hepatitis C, Omada Health (No. 47) is attacking diabetes, and ElMindA (No. 48) is tackling brain disorders; Tesla and Toyota (No. 18) continue to push green-car breakthroughs; and ColorOfChange.org (No. 6) has emerged as a modern civil rights organization built for the Facebook-Twitter era.

19. teamwork Is Sexy

What we don’t see can help us: Slack (No. 10) helps teams collaborate with new efficiency. Stripe (No. 20) helps apps and websites make payments simpler.

20. Sprezzatura Is Dazzling

Contributing writer Max Chafkin uses the Italian concept of studied nonchalance to frame his analysis of Warby Parker: Innovation is hard, but to its audience, it should look easy. In that spirit, we hope that this year’s Most Innovative Companies issue looks effortlessly put together. Check out fastcompany.com/MIC or download the March issue on your iPad for exclusive videos and bonus content. Salute!

A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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