Monday, March 21, 2016

Harnessing Innovation Keynote with Josh Linkner

Today's blog post is a write-up of one of the sessions from the 2016 Young Professionals Summit in Omaha, Nebraska on March 3. Organized by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's Young Professionals division, the summit is "the premier regional event for Young Professionals to learn, connect, and live a better version of themselves." While I'm not sure I'm a YP anymore (I'm 42), the summit was a great chance to learn, engage, and have fun.

Harnessing Innovation: Fresh Approaches to Growth, Creativity, and Transformation
Opening Keynote with Josh Linkner

Josh Linkner started his career as a jazz guitarist and is currently one of the founding partners of Detroit Ventures, a venture capital firm in Detroit, Michigan. He is the founder and CEO of four technology companies that he sold for a combined $200 million. He's also the author of two New York Times bestsellers, including "The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation."

Linkner started his first company in 1999, and later sold it to a private equity fund. He said that whether you're building a community, a company, or a career, there will be many obstacles in your way. "Your ability to be creative and drive innovation can be the single biggest difference-maker." Linkner added that "it's not about inventing the next tech breakthrough; it's about 'everyday innovation.'"

He gave an example of "everyday innovation" in practice. One of his tech companies, a digital promotions business, was trying to win a contract from ConAgra Foods. ConAgra was going to consolidate their purchases with a single supplier, representing a "massive amount of business," according to Linkner. His company was selected to the round of finalists, but his company was a small supplier compared to some of the other companies in the running, so he knew he would have to set himself apart. The question was: How.

He found himself on an airplane with the ConAgra executive who was responsible for deciding the contract. In fact, his seat, in first class, was right next to the executive. But Linkner had observed the executive and his wife board together, but the wife's seat was in coach, while the husband had a first-class ticket. Linkner knew he would have the executive's ear if he sat next to him, but he decided to take an unconventional approach.

"When your instincts are telling you something, pause," Linkner said. "Can you do the uncharted move instead of the typical move?"

Linkner approached the executive and offered his first-class ticket to him so his wife could join him in first class, saying that he had work to do. Linkner took her spot in coach.

When the plane landed, Linkner said he called his office to check in and was told that they had been awarded the contract. He got the contract by giving up his seat.

Linkner gave several examples of companies that "failed to adapt, innovate, or change." Companies like Sears, Palm, Compaq, Blockbuster, Borders, and Circuit City were all market leaders at one time, but are either struggling or out of business now.

Disruption is possible, even in consumer products, where "category killers" are prevalent. Linkner gave the example of, and how they got started with a single viral video four years ago. The video cost $4,000 to produce, and almost half the budget went to renting a warehouse to shoot the video. In the first week, 3 million people watched the video. (More than 19 million more have watched it since then.)

The company had 17,000 paying customers in its first week. "They launched their business in a mature industry in a commodity field with a dominant market leader (Gillette) with no product innovation," Linkner noted. "You don't have to be on either coast to soar; embrace the entrepreneurial approach."

"No matter how good our technical skills may be, human creativity has become the currency of success," Linkner added. "It's a skill we can develop. All of us are creative as human beings. It allows us to leapfrog the competition and seize our full potential."

It all comes back to "everyday innovation," he noted. "We all need an additional job title of disruptor, innovator, and business artist." The most successful companies embrace innovation, creativity, and disruption, he notes.

Linkner outlined the "Five Obsessions of Innovators."

1. Get Curious. When your instinct is pushing you to make a decision, stop and ask yourself some questions: Why? What if? Why Not? "This forces you to explore what 'can be' instead of 'what is.'"

He showed this Louis C.K. clip (warning: language)

An interesting note about Louis C.K. that Linkner shared: "Every year, Louis C.K. throws away all of his old material. By starting with a blank page, it forces him to become relevant and creative again." It's the concept of "planned obsolesence." No one can disrupt you, if you're disrupting yourself. Linkner advised attendees to "Embrance the same blank page approach with our companies, our careers, and our community."

"Someday, someone is going to come along and put us out of business. It might as well be us."

2. Crave "What's Next." Have a "forward orientation" -- imagine what can be. Duke University head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski ("Coach K") has trained his team to look forward. "Let go of the last quarter." Instead, look at "what's next?"

Linkner is fron Detroit. "Detroit is rising from the ashes with the 'What's next?' approach," he said. "Detroit used to be Silicon Valley. The 'Paris of the Midwest,' but it became complacent. They built bureaucracies. They stopped innovating and winning."

But Detroit is reinventing itself. "We're not trying to build the old Detroit. We're taking an uncharted approach and building the new Detroit." Linkner launched a tech venture capital firm to invest and create social change. "To try and make a difference. To create jobs, urban density, and hope." The venture firm invests in mobile apps, ecommerce, and social media instead of manufacturing.

Detroit Venture Partners has raised more than $60 million and invested in young tech companies, giving them not only money, but coaching, support, and mentoring. Linkner took over a building that had been vacant for 15 years in downtown Detroit. At the time, there were no tech companies in downtown Detroit. Today, within one square block of their building, there are 70 companies with over 1,000 tech workers — "breathing new life into downtown Detroit."

Having a "What's next?" approach can lead to real outcomes, Linkner said, "even in complex situations."

3. Defy Tradition. "When you see a tradition, ask yourself, 'Is there a way to defy it?' Is there a better, more appropriate approach, in the context of today?"

For example, take the common glazed doughnot. A glazed doughnut is a commodity at 50 cents. Chef Dominique Ansel invented the cronut: "A marriage of the doughnut and a croissant." They sell for $5 each. "The costs didn't go up 10-fold, but a little layer of innovation on top of a commodity" allows him to sell it for ten times more than a doughnut.

He asked the audience to "put your left hand in the air, as high as it can go."

He paused. "Now go an inch higher."

Linkner said, "Don't worry about going the extra mile ... go the extra inch."

"When you're facing an opportunity or a threat or a problem, can you 'judo flip it'? Can you flip it in order to create a better result?" he asked.

"Every airline experience is pretty much the same -- you can only change the customer experience." He gave the example of Kulula airlines in South Africa, which uses its sense of humor to provide a better customer experience. "They are having more fun and making more money," Linkner noted. "Use customer experience as a battleground for competitive differentiation. If your hands are tied regarding the product itself, look to the experience for internal/external customers for opportunities for growth."

Another example is the Children's Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh. They wanted to create a better experience for their "customers," the children who were patients. Their window washers are superhero characters that entertain the customers while they work.

Tweet: "Instead of throwing money or time or other resources at a task, throw creativity at it." -- @JoshLinkner

 "There's zero cost, no productivity drop, but the kids love it," Linkner said. "It takes attention away from the medical care while better serving their community. It's a win for the window washers -- they were doing a mundane task and now have purpose and meaning for their task."

4. Get Scrappy. "Be MacGyver. Instead of whining about the resource he lacked, MacGyver got creative. He was solving complex problems in unorthodox ways with limited resources," Linkner noted.

The starting point for a Super Bowl ad is $5 million. What if you don't have a $5 million budget? TNT took a "scrappy approach" to their ad.

While only 100 people saw the stunts live, the viral video has racked up more than 200,000 views.

Linkner talked about "creativity hacks" -- for example, a Dad who decided to make his kids' lunch box meals more exciting and it turned into a blog and a business: The founder, Beau, puts his recipes out there and shares them with the world. He reached 100 million blog readers, and major brands came calling, saying they wanted to sponsor him. He left his day job and is doing this full-time now. "It all started by him being scrappy and creative: All tools within the grasp of us all."

5. Adapt Fast. "Take the weight of the world off your shoulders; change doesn't have to be a massive change," Linkner says. "Big breakthroughs don't happen with a big lightning bolt. It's about a series of small innovations."

Linkner gave the example of the "Billboard Wars of Los Angeles: BMW vs. Audi" as outlined in this blog post.

Linkner also gave the example of Tom Lix, a serial entrepreneur. He had started a company, Bulldozer Camp, raised some money, but the business completely failed. "His personal wealth was gone; his investors' money, gone. He was going to take a soul-less desk job and go hide," Linkner said. Instead, he invented a new way to create whiskey.

Traditionally, whiskey has to be aged for years (usually 10). Lix didn't have the luxury of time. "The traditional approach wouldn't cut it," Linkner said. He had to adapt fast. He did a "judo flip" -- "Instead of putting whiskey in barrels, what if I put barrels in the whiskey?" Lix put pieces of barrel in with the whiskey in a tank and applied pressure. The liquid is soaked up in the wood. When the pressure is released, the liquid comes out, inflused with the wood flavor. "It's aged one week whiskey," Linkner said. "People in non-traditional markets can create giant progress and breakthroughs." And it creativity can sell for a premium price. Lix sells Cleveland Whiskey for a 30 percent premium over other whiskeys, making it among the most expensive whiskey available.

Linkner ended by issuing an "Innovation Challenge" to participants:
Now that you have all these fresh, creative ideas swirling, how do we take it back to our professions and the community? See if you can identify a single idea for creative disruption. It can be a big thing or a little thing. Ideas are contagious: One idea becomes six ideas becomes 11 ideas. The creative vibe starts to spill over to those around us.


  1. A great read! As usual, Bridget, you have shared with us innovative ideas and food for thought. Your information is always appreciated!

  2. Thanks so much for posting this, Bridget! As a former Detroiter, I love his 5 obsessions. You are incredibly helpful to me both professional and personally.
    Stay curious! With warm regards,