Some industries are so tradition-bound they defy innovation, virtually demanding that things be done as they always have. Not only are they seemingly impervious to change, but the very idea of doing so is unthinkable. Until, of course, it isn’t. With amazing speed, these “sacred cows” can be dispatched by an idea whose time few could imagine had come.
Winemaking, restaurant criticism, and medical apparel don’t appear to have much in common. But all three are entrenched in outmoded paradigms. In a panel discussion entitled “Slaying Sacred Cows: Imagining the Unimaginable” at its annual Innovation Festival last month, Fast Company brought together four entrepreneurs who challenged their respective industries’ fixed mind-sets. While these thought leaders came from different worlds, they shared a common determination to shake things up and deliver something more to their consumers.
Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at INTRINSIC Wine Co., and a third-generation winemaker, is no stranger to tradition, having learned some of his own secrets from family lore. However, as he contemplated his own role in these conventions, he noticed the disconnect between producers and consumers. “The way in which we drink our wines and the environment in which we’re drinking wines is not the same as it was 450 years ago,” he told the panel audience. To reach his largely urban target audience, Muñoz-Oca worked with Brooklyn street artist Zimer on a label that expressed the wine’s boldness, rather than sticking with traditional pastoral scenes. The same thinking went into the winemaking process. Muñoz-Oca radically changed his production methods, leaving skins in contact with the grape for much longer than usual—nine months as opposed to six or seven days. Initially, this increased contact leads to a tannic taste—Muñoz-Oca compares it to leaving a tea bag in water too long. However, eventually, the grapes correct this problem, leading to a complex wine that relies on the intrinsic characteristics of the grape itself, rather than oak barrels or other additives. Thus the name of his gamble: INTRINSIC Wine Co.
FIGS founders and business partners Heather Hasson and Trina Spear identified a glaring void in an entirely different field. “The medical-apparel industry is worth $10 billion in the United States—$60 billion around the world—and [there has been] no change and no innovation over the past century,” Spear noted. Hasson, who has a background in fashion, designed stylish basics using material that enhances performance and added details requested by those in the field. She took these more attractive—and more practical—garments to the people who wear them, marketing directly to medical professionals, who overwhelmingly buy their own scrubs. Together, Hasson and Spear flipped industry norms on their heads, building a runaway success in the process: between 2016 and 2017, FIGS experienced 600 percent growth.
For his part, Andrew Steinthal, co-founder of restaurant-recommendation platform The Infatuation, saw a gap not in product but in approach. “There was tons of content, but it was all targeted at that one percent of people who are really into restaurants and cooking and chefs,” he said. “The average person doesn’t really care. The average person just wants to know, Is this a great place to have a specific experience?” With his background in the music business, Steinthal knew how to connect people with the experience they were looking for. He and his partner weren’t looking to “start a blog because we loved food,” he says; rather, they wanted to provide brass-tacks tips for those looking for a particular experience, from dinner with mom to a dining room packed with hotties. While the allure of big-name writers and chefs is obvious, The Infatuation focused on serving as a utility, rather than a luxury product. “That was really what made a difference for us in our whole focus,” Steinthal said. “This nice balance of entertaining and utility.”
Such novel thinking often leads to ruffled feathers, or at least skeptical reactions, something each entrepreneur on the panel encountered. “When we entered, the industry was kind of dumbfounded,” said FIGS co-founder Spear. Muñoz-Oca admitted that other winemakers looked at him “like I was from Mars,” when he revealed his new process. “Winemakers have been always very conservative when playing with grapes,” he said. “But I remember having this gut feeling of, it’s got to work. It never crossed my mind that it wasn’t going to work.”
All of the panelists credited their single-minded focus and nearly blind faith in their ideas for giving them the inspiration to see past tradition to new possibilities. But it was commitment to their community that kept them going through this initial skepticism. “We have really connected with medical professionals around the country, and I don’t think there was a company that had done that,” Hasson said. “These are people that are literally saving lives and curing diseases and caring for patients every single day and our only job is to serve them so they can go to work and do their job better.” Consumer feedback has been central to the brand’s growth and providing a superior user experience is one of the company’s guiding principles.
Steinthal agrees that keeping his customers foremost in his mind has served him since The Infatuation’s beginning. “We build a product that helps people improve their lives by guiding them to great restaurants,” he said, not one that simply parrots conventional wisdom on where to grab a bite.
This reinvestment in community elevates innovation from a one-off marketing trick to sustainable business. Muñoz-Oca didn’t ignore the work of previous generations when creating his wine; he adapted it to the unique growing conditions of Washington State and the consumer mind-set of the 21st century. “If we create a situation in which innovation is built into the DNA of what we do, then we will create an environment in which we will grow grapes for centuries,” he said. Or, in other words, plenty of time for his own children to come up with some revolutionary ideas of their own.
This article was created for and commissioned by INTRINSIC Wine Co.