This edition of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies may be our most diverse and surprising yet. Our signature list, featuring the top 50 businesses pushing boundaries today, includes an entertainment company in Seoul; an arts collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico; a Hong Kong–based mobile operating system; and a sustainable packaging company in Gilbert, Arizona. Add in our 44 targeted lists, which identify the year’s most innovative companies by industry and region, and this issue features 434 businesses from 39 countries that have inspired our editors with their inventiveness, impact, and relentless belief in their ideas.
As varied as these lists may be, several themes have emerged, which reveal a lot about innovation in 2020. Consumer and enterprise demand for sustainable solutions has never been greater, and honorees such as Footprint, Trove, ThredUp, and others are rushing to meet it. Digital distribution has disrupted media, but fans still want to connect with artists; Universal Music Group’s Bravado and Big Hit Entertainment (the company behind K-pop sensation BTS) are leveraging technology to capitalize on the enthusiast economy via messages and merch. Here are four timely business lessons gleaned from this year’s Most Innovative Companies.
1. Let the tail wag the dog
Even while running the clothing subscription and rental business Gwynnie Bee, Christine Hunsicker knew that the company’s technology was its hottest item. CaaStle (No. 24), her expanded operation (which takes its name from “Clothing-as-a-Service”), makes the tech platform available to other retailers looking to do rentals. Social media company Snap (No. 1) generates little revenue from its 3D glasses but still actively develops the devices; its software business benefits from the insights, and if augmented reality takes off, the company’s hardware knowledge could be a transformative advantage.
2. Innovation begets innovation
India’s Meesho (No. 14) facilitates a new generation of boutique curators. Roblox (No. 9) has released new tools that help developers create revenue-generating games. And Shopify (No. 7), which offers a turnkey e-commerce solution—featuring loans, logistics services, and data analytics—frees up the likes of Rothy’s (No. 33) to reimagine footwear.
3. No company is perennial . . .
Certain tech stalwarts are notably absent from this year’s list. It’s not that they don’t continue to work on groundbreaking technologies. It’s that, given the concerns that have arisen about the power they hold and the way they capture and capitalize on our information, we think it’s time for them to start harnessing their vast innovation arsenals to solve some of the problems they have helped create.
4. . . . but comebacks are possible
The No. 1 and No. 2 companies on the list, Snap and Microsoft, have defied skeptics who thought both had been outflanked by competitors. They’ve done some deep self-reflection, and taken action. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella frequently talks about transforming the software maker from a “know-it-all” workplace to a “learn-it-all” environment by injecting curiosity (and maybe a bit of humility) into the business. At Snap, CEO Evan Spiegel is finding ways for the company to turn ideas into products, quickly. His advice? “People talk about an innovation culture all the time, all day long,” he says, “but actually what you need is an innovation structure.”
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.