In the early days of an innovation, it's hard to tell whether we are looking at the future or just another blip on the screen.
Take the case of the Hudson Watch Company (HWC). It just got its first round of funding. From Kickstarter. It raised $115,703 from 409 backers, and will now go into production.
At this stage, the enterprise is preposterously small. (No disrespect to HWC. It's simply a matter of scale.) We can't believe something this tiny can tell us anything about the future. This can't be a staging area for disruptive change.
Well, not so fast. No one at Patek Philippe has cause for concern, to be sure. But someone at Timex may. HWC may be precisely a harbinger of disruptive change.
I know what you're (still) thinking. Timex and HWC are about 5 orders of magnitude removed from one another. Timex needs to worry about the HWC like the Yankees need to worry about a Little League team tearing it up in Arizona. Different leagues? Please. Different worlds.
But HWC could be a learning opportunity for Timex.
1. Amateurs can now make watches. And this used to be impossible. Barriers-to-entry kept out most experimenters and entrepreneurs. The corporation was protected by several requirements, deep pockets perhaps most important. Now, HWC (and precedents like Lunatik and Haruo Suiekichi) suggest that almost anyone can play. That should send a thrill of terror through Timex. They have lost their protected status. HWC may not be the one that breaks out and reinvents the industry, but there will now be a steady hail of experiments — and one of these might "take."
2. Consumers might not want to wear your brand. The world of watches, like most of the branded world, worked on the assumption that consumers want to wear a recognized brand. But there are a couple of generations of consumer who are happier if you don't recognize their brand. HWC makes a virtue of its necessity. It turns tiny and obscure into strategies. In the process, it illuminates a change in consumer taste and preference. Timex may already know this, but if they don't, HWC is their chance.
3. The HWC brand is just about all story. It is, in fact, the usual artisanal fairy tale. A husband and wife decide to make their own watches and scoured Manhattan and Brooklyn for inspiration. They name their models for local streets. They use Kickstarter to raise their funds. Once, this would have been a slightly embarrassing confession of how small and, gasp, amateur they are. Now it's a badge of pride. Once more, HWC has found a way to make a virtue of its necessity. As we know, stories are fast becoming the new coin of the marketing realm. We are told relentlessly that the brand is story or nothing at all. If Timex hasn't heard this news before, HWC is an excellent opportunity to see the future coming.
4. HWC asked its consumer to play the role of a supporter or an insider. We hear about this brand not from a four-color ad in New York magazine. It's not from a billboard or PR event. It comes instead as an act of humility that says in effect, "Please help us." Kickstarter casts the consumer in an entirely new light. They are no longer mindless hordes at whom we bellow "Buy!" Instead, they are early supporters who help bring the good into existence. Marketing thinkers now urge us to establish a symmetry between producer and consumer. Kickstarter goes a step further and asks us to make the asymmetry run in the opposite direction, with the consumer now the advantaged party.
HWC is deceptive. Its structural properties make it look precisely like the kind of thing Timex should ignore. It is local, obscure, amateur, and, most of all, tiny. At this point, the innovation is not only beneath our interest. It's beneath our professional dignity. The itch to dismiss is powerful.
Two tasks can help save us.
Task 1: Ask the question, "What could HWC be telling me about the world? What's out here that I can't see?"
Task 2: Ask the question, "What is HWC telling me about my assumptions? What's in here that I can't see? What prevents me from seeing this noise as signal?"
To dispatch Task 1, we have to set aside our skepticism and look at HWC real hard. Why does this exist at all? What large technological, social, cultural movements might be pushing it? As HBS marketing professor Bob Dolan has written [PDF], "Marketing strategy can take very little for granted. The context shapes what is possible and it is always changing. [Culture, technological and legal factors] are not fixed features of the marketing landscape, but factors to consider and monitor for signs of disruption." What contextual factors could make HWC (or something like it) work? And in this case, the hard work is rewarded with a glimpse of one of our futures: that we may be on the verge of a new era of branding, storytelling, and relationship building.
To dispatch Task 2, we have to set aside our familiar ways of looking at the world and scrutinize our assumptions. After all, these assumptions work invisibly to shape the way we see the world. So we don't know we are using them. This is our opportunity to examine those assumptions, and in this case we are rewarded with the opportunity to glimpse how much we are shaped by ideas of mass marketing and mass manufacture. Do we think of Timex as a large, anonymous corporation? Do we think of Timex as a mass brand? Where does this leave us with the consumer? Where does this leave us with the Millennial consumer?
To contend with disruptive change, we want to see innovations as early as we can. But in the early days, all innovations look more or less the same: they are odd, implausible, and in some cases, ludicrous. This makes us our own worst enemy. We can't see disruptive change in its infancy because we are captives of our ideas and instincts. If we want to live with disruption, we are going to have to two-step our way to salvation.