In tech, reliability comes before innovation
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Tech’s relentless focus on innovation is a derivative of how competitive the environment is for consumer engagement. In a world where consumers have endlessly expanding options for their mindshare, media companies face never-ending pressure to innovate and differentiate themselves with new experiences to make their products and features as sticky as possible.
In the chase for the press release, however, companies can sometimes mistakenly skip steps before they master the basics.
In my experience driving digital innovation at Comcast, AT&T, and Endeavor Streaming, focusing on mastering the basics of your current core offering can return much higher value to your customers and business than chasing the newest bells and whistles. Sometimes, the most innovative thing you can do for a business is to concentrate on the hard operational work that otherwise goes ignored or delayed.
While it might not be as newsworthy, homing in on being the gold standard at your foundational value proposition can have a profound impact on the trajectory of your business and thus, your continued relevance with your customers. It can also earn you the right to innovate in more meaningful ways as your business scales and allows for more experimentation with research and development.
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What constitutes reliable tech?
Reliable technology is like the air we breathe. We take it for granted until we don’t have it — and when we don’t, it’s a crisis.
In my world of video streaming experiences, reliability means that users don’t waste their valuable free time trying to figure out how to access their favorite entertainment. They should take for granted that they can watch whatever they want on their preferred device at any time, regardless of the complex engineering challenges involved in delivering high-quality live streams at global scale. To the consumer, reliability means the product works quickly and is delivered at an exceptional level of quality.
Is there a ‘resting point’ when it comes to your technology’s efficacy? The law of diminishing returns applies to any technology. Adding yet another “.9” to your service reliability number can come at a great financial cost, but does your customer really care about the difference between a millisecond and a microsecond of downtime or latency?
If you’re a high-frequency trader, the answer is yes, and that investment is easily justified. With most consumer products, however, users are likely unable to tell the difference. So with any technology, it’s about finding the technical tolerance that allows you to serve customers at a high quality and price they find value in.
Regardless of the metric you use to measure the reliability of an existing product, ask the questions: What increment of enhancement increases the value perceived by the end user? And how does that translate back to business value for the company?
The risks of being overly future-focused
There are endless ways to pursue innovation, but only a few will prove to be truly valuable to users at meaningful scale. Companies that are too future-focused face a few possible risks.
The first risk is incurring opportunity cost from solving the wrong problem. You can spend a lot of time chasing down a new feature or market opportunity as an early mover, but that time might be wasted on something with minimal return. Maybe that same time and effort would be better spent driving an incremental 5% improvement on a proven core feature that users will feel in every interaction with your product. Engineering and product cycles are valuable and, in many organizations, scarce. Leverage them thoughtfully when taking risks to make sure they are calculated.
A second risk is misunderstanding your users and their needs. Products like the Segway, 3D TV, and many others had a bold vision of the future but were too far of a leap from what people needed and wanted in their day-to-day lives. Extensive user testing and brutal honesty about what your data reveals about your product is the single best way to protect against chasing something that looks transformative on paper but may be a dud in practice.
There is a time and place for innovation, but approach with caution
None of this is to say we should ignore innovation altogether. But to pursue it intelligently, you need an in-depth understanding of your core value proposition and your customers’ evolving behaviors.
Companies with reliable solutions are almost always disrupted by technologies that are objectively worse when they first hit the market. No one working at a newsroom in the 90s thought that the dial-up modem was going to radically change their industry. Sometimes we underestimate how a single innovation can disrupt an entire market.
We’ve seen a few of these seminal shifts in digital media. Magazine publishers were not only notoriously late to the game in embracing the rise of the internet, but also had a hard time acknowledging the shift in consumer interest and internet traffic away from online text-based content and towards short form video.
Most recently, technology has had a large impact in driving the rise of direct-to-consumer streaming and the corresponding decline in traditional linear bundled entertainment experiences. Media companies that clung too heavily to their traditional linear model without acknowledging the data regarding the massive shift towards streaming got a late start. Those companies are now playing catch up in a highly competitive market for their share of consumer wallet and mindshare.
There are times when it makes sense to jump in on the conversation of what’s next — but forward innovation must be rooted in shifting consumer behavior as it aligns with your technology’s core value proposition. Think of reliable technology as the groundwork enabling your organization to innovate in more strategic ways as it scales.
The bottom line
The challenge will always lie in striking a balance between reliability and innovation. For any company to be successful, whether it’s a technology-driven company or not, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what your core value proposition is. Having a strong grasp on who your customer is and what value you truly deliver to them is critical for every business. It should be your north star.
If — and only if — it happens that your core assets are capable of solving multiple problems, and the timing is right, you can extend out into new offerings. But the platform mentality should always be to improve overall baseline rather than chase hollow one-off announcements.
A headline might last a week in the news cycle, but reliable technology will give your business the foundational endurance to have lasting power in the long run.
Chris White is SVP and chief product officer of Endeavor Streaming
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