“What are you, crazy?”

“There’s a reason no one has ever tried that before!”

“Why on Earth would you think that could work?”

Wondering how to be an innovator? Here’s your first lesson: If you’re going to come up with something truly different, something that truly pushes us into new territory, expect to be bombarded with doubt and negativity at every stage. Often from people whose opinion you deeply respect. Sometimes enough that you start to doubt yourself.

I’ve worked with and met many innovators over the years, and I’ve heard all of those statements above and many more like them — to say nothing of the ones I couldn’t print in a professional publication.

When we talk about innovators, most of us sense that they “see things differently” from the rest of us, and that they’re great at communicating their vision. And, of course, there’s the cliché that innovators and entrepreneurs “take big risks.” But I don’t think most of us fully understand these qualities — how they play out in the real world. We rarely stop to consider how to be an innovator and what you really need to be one. Let me suggest a few of the most important traits.

1. You’ll need to be fearless.

fearless innovation

“What will they think of me?”

“What happens to my reputation if this fails?”

“Am I making a huge mistake here?”

If you buy an ice cream store and it fails, well, that’s business. But if you innovate — if you bring something unique and unproven to the market — and it fails, well, that’s on you. This is why it takes a certain amount of fearlessness to be an innovator. That’s what we mean when we say entrepreneurs take risks. You need to face the very real possibility that your idea won’t resonate with its audience, and that your social and professional reputation could suffer as a result.

Contrary to the old saying, hindsight isn’t 20/20. It’s far better than that. Particularly in identifying losers, hindsight has Superman X-Ray vision, see-through-walls vision.

New Coke? How did that slip by? Cop Rock? What was Steven Bochco thinking?

Anyone can pick a loser right after it fails. And they won’t necessarily give you — the innovator — any credit for trying, having a vision and betting your reputation on it.

Tweet This:
“Innovators are fully aware of the risks, but they ship anyway.”

It’s not that innovators are blind to the risks to their career and personal brand that come with shipping a new idea, turning it over to the world and saying, “I created this. Please judge it.” They’re fully aware of these risks — and they ship anyway.

Are you willing to do that?

2. You’ll need mad communication skills.

mad communication skills

“Of course Facebook was one of the greatest ideas ever.”

“Of course Google AdWords was going to revolutionize advertising.”

“Of course every home would have a personal computer.”

Of course? Really? And I’ll bet you can also tell me the biggest IPO… of 1997.

When it comes to picking winners, hindsight also gives us that better-than-20/20, Superman vision. And yet, here’s a curious thing: Even when we know something worked in the past, most of us would still have difficulty communicating it today powerfully enough to convince others to back it.

Snapchat is the media darling of the moment, so let’s use them as an example.

Here’s a quiz for you. Let’s say you’re a Snapchat co-founder in its earliest days. You’re pitching a group of partners at a Tier-1 venture capital firm. You have the floor. What do you say to convince them to invest?

These firms are not known for stocking piles of cash in the lobby and instructing their receptionists to tell visiting entrepreneurs to “take whatever you need.” I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what I would’ve said to those investors to land a VC deal for Snapchat. “Video messages that self-destruct in a few hours” doesn’t sound like a can’t-miss pitch, does it? And remember, we’re in hindsight territory here. We know it did work.

This is where your mad communication skills come into play. As an innovator, you’ll have to articulate your vision so persuasively, and transfer your enthusiasm so powerfully, that your early-stage investors will know it’ll work. And your early-stage staff will want to work themselves to exhaustion to help you bring it to market.

Think you can pull that off?

3. You’ll need to see things from a different vantage point.

different vantage point innovation

Innovators “see things differently,” we often hear. And it’s certainly true. But I don’t think most of us fully understand what that means. If a friend told you her new idea for a business and you didn’t immediately understand it, your first question would probably be, “What’s it like?” Meaning: what existing idea or business can I tether this idea to in my mind, so I can fully grasp it?

Consider the Audible.com business model of a monthly subscription fee to download audio books. We could take that model and logically come up with the Netflix model of paying a subscription for unlimited streaming of movies and TV. (Or vice versa.)

“Audible.com. What’s it like?”

“Simple: It’s Netflix for audiobooks.”

Both services take a monthly fee for downloading content that we can consume at home, in the office, or on our personal mobile devices. No big stretch from one to the other.

Tweet This:
“We like familiar models — ‘It’s like Uber for X’ — and that’s fine, but it’s not innovating.”

That’s what we do — we look for the pattern, for the existing business or idea already out there to give us a frame of reference. And that’s fine — but it’s not innovating.

That’s why, often when an innovator tries to articulate a truly new idea — one that doesn’t provide an easy answer to the “What’s it like?” question — people’s first reaction is, “That’s a little out there for my taste.” Or: “What are you, crazy?”

The point is, if you’re getting those questions — “Will this work? Won’t everyone in the supply chain fight you? Will the public really go along with this?” — then you know you’re innovating. Those questions won’t necessarily mean you have a hit on your hands — maybe your idea really is too far out there to work — but at least you’ll know you’re in new territory.


Can you find a unique vantage point? Are you willing to ship a new idea that could backfire on you? Could even hurt your reputation? And do you have the mad communication and persuasion skills to transfer your excitement for this new idea into the minds and hearts of others?

If so… then go out there and innovate. We need you!

To your creativity!

Have you figured out how to be innovator? Share your secret weapons in the comments below.