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Some people think innovation is creating something from thin air. We proved them wrong

How the author and his team built on what already exists to make something better.

Some people think innovation is creating something from thin air. We proved them wrong
[Source images: Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash; AlLes/Pixabay]

As an entrepreneur, my goal was simple: I wanted delicious food at home without spending a ton of time making it. I looked around at what was already available–expensive takeout, meal kits that took a lot of prep, traditional microwaveable or frozen options–and I wondered why we had to sacrifice quality for convenience. Where was the solution that met both needs?

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I wanted to create what I was looking for and couldn’t find, but how do you make what doesn’t exist yet? If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur with a big idea, you might also be asking yourself the same question. You might be thinking: I need to invent something completely from scratch, otherwise, my company won’t be considered innovative and we won’t win.

I’m here to dispel this myth about innovation. My company, Tovala, introduced our innovation—a  proprietary oven paired with a subscription meal service—by learning from other businesses’ products and plans and then building something unique.  Here’s how we navigated the ambiguity—and intimidation factor—and ultimately overcame the innovation myth.

Answer a real problem

Don’t pursue innovation for the sake of innovation. Instead, solve a problem that is real and relatable. Before “Tovala” existed, I wanted to eliminate a common pain point for busy households by offering a time-saving, high-quality way to eat well at home. I was guided by that problem because I knew its ultimate solution would be relevant and worthwhile. Our team remained laser-focused on a clear question, “What would be the best way to make fresh home cooking incredibly convenient?” This question served as our innovation North Star, driving the development of the first smart oven and meals.

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Know you’re not actually inventing from scratch

One of the biggest misconceptions around innovation is that you need to create something that doesn’t exist anywhere. In fact, most inventions are built on top of current technology. For us, there wasn’t a need to reinvent the wheel—just to improve upon it. Cofounder and CTO Bryan Wilcox and principal technologist Peter Fiflis tested every kind of appliance imaginable— from pressure cookers to other early smart ovens to run-of-the-mill toaster ovens. We researched other smart home devices to understand connected home technology. We learned from other models of shipping perishable food. We tweaked, designed, added to, and brought under one ecosystem what we learned from observing and examining the world around us. Ultimately, the problems that innovation solves are big, but the actual steps it takes to innovate are small and progressive edits, additions, and builds.

Create public accountability

It’s harder to walk away from an idea when everyone in your life knows you’re trying to build a business. If you want to force your own hand in staying committed to your innovation, make it public. I didn’t know how many years of work and research were in store, but I did know I wanted to be in it for the long haul. So, I told many people about what I was working on. I received support and guidance from my family, friends, peers and professors in business school—and in that support I also developed a sense of public accountability. By announcing my intentions and creating expectations, I made the big, nebulous word of “innovation” something I was practically working towards each and every day, measuring small steps of progress. My network was expecting an outcome and I was even more motivated to achieve it.

 Surround yourself with experts

At the outset, I had a lot of ideas, but no hardware or software experience. My only culinary credential was being a pretty decent home cook and working front-of-house at some restaurants. I had to assemble and trust the right group of partners—that includes Bryan and Peter, but also to many others with backgrounds in the culinary, design, engineering, finance, marketing, operations and more. It also extends to include each new team member we hire, from our Quality Engineer to our Head of Menu Innovation to our Lead IoT Engineer. They bring fresh perspectives and new ways of improving our business, from menu to hardware and software and everything in-between. You can’t do it all on your own, and if you really want to accomplish what you set out to, you need to bring in the people who can help you make it happen.

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The word “innovation” evokes big technological leaps like the man on the moon or the very first computer, but, in reality, even mind-blowing innovation happens incrementally. You just need the right plan and people to start making it a reality.

David Rabie is cofounder and CEO of Tovala, a smart-oven-paired subscription meal service. 

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