Technology

Associations Should Do More to Incubate Innovative Ideas

By / Feb 18, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

We talk often about stealing ideas from startup culture, but what if you could get more startups to focus on the problems facing your industry? Your need may be narrow, but with the right focus, the value could be massive.

A lot of times, when you say “tech startup,” people think “aiming for the fences.”

There’s this instant assumption that the idea being worked on is going to change the world in a big way, to change how we communicate or even to make us better, smarter people.

But what about all the problems in between? They need solving, too. The problem is these aren’t necessarily ideas that “reach scale.” Unlike Facebook, they don’t need a consumer audience to thrive. Maybe all they need is a handful of well-equipped businesses to nurture and support the ideas.

How can we make sure those ideas—focused, but important—stick around?

Reeling From a Loss

A few weeks ago, I made a case that the Apple Macintosh wasn’t immediately successful with the business world because it wasn’t a sure thing—despite the level of innovation clearly at the root of Apple’s effort. To the people in charge of the money, it felt like a roll of the dice—if Apple fails, what happens to us?

One of my favorite startups just underlined this point for me.

I do a lot of writing and editing, obviously, but it’s almost entirely for the web, so Microsoft Word doesn’t really work for my needs. It adds a lot of extra code to its exported HTML; it slows down the editing process due to all the additional emails that need to be sent to copy editors; and the OS X version of Word is dog-slow and has a ton of features I don’t need.

So, for months, I found myself on the lookout for a good editing tool—and the venture-backed product Editorially appeared to be the ticket. It had a number of features that were well suited to editing a lot of copy. It had some big names as advisors, including Ethan Marcotte, the developer who introduced the concept of responsive web design to the world. And while it was missing a few things, it had most of the features a product like this needed.

There was one lingering concern: It didn’t have a business model at launch, a not-uncommon issue for modern startups. I figured one would be launching any day, so I could pay some hard-earned cash for this tool that had become an important part of my workflow. Hey, maybe a “premium” version of the app might add those few lingering things missing from the free version.

But something terrible happened last week—the company announced the product was shuttering. It couldn’t reach the scale it needed. But what about the customers, like me, who clearly wanted to pay?

“We thought of that, and in fact, it was always our plan to do so,” CEO Mandy Brown wrote in her goodbye note on the company’s quite good blog. “But Editorially is a sophisticated application that requires a team of engineers to maintain and develop. Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Now, there are other options out there (among them Nathan Kontny’s Draft, literally a one-man operation), but the situation saddens me. Clearly this is a product solving a problem (collaborative editing) that quite a few businesses have, and it was doing it well. Why do solutions like this require the kind of uptake one might expect of a social network to merely be viable?

Perhaps it’s a matter of clearing a path.

Don’t Wait, Incubate

A lot of the industries represented by associations have similar problems—and they don’t have solutions that would thrive at scale.

Let’s say your industry is running into a supply-chain issue—not unlike the one the propane industry has struggled with all season. Now, if your association offered a tool which helped manage the supply, directed the trucks, and improved communication between competitors, there’s not a huge audience that would benefit from a tool like this, because the focus is so narrow. (In other words, nobody’s making any Zuckerberg money off of this product.) But the companies that did rely on this tool would use the heck out of it. Maybe you could even open-source the tool, pooling your members’ collective knowledge to build it out.

What if associations could help with the process—building the market research, taking advantage of the innate understanding of the market to encourage tech-friendly developers to build something awesome? Maybe you could even offer seed money to help build the next generation of products.

This isn’t a new idea—just last week, we published a piece about the American Heart Association’s Open Innovation Challenge, a crowdfunding effort to encourage heart-healthy ideas. Heck, even big companies like Disney are doing this: The film giant launched an accelerator program last week that offers prospective innovators seed funding and access to the company’s vast intellectual property offerings in building their products. If either of these programs score a winner, they could win big.

The corporate members that make up your industry aren’t all the same, but they very likely have a number of overlapping concerns. You have their resources at your back. By leveraging them, you might be able to encourage startups to focus their attention on your needs.

Maybe that’s not enough to save a product like Editorially in my case, but sometimes your industry’s biggest needs aren’t the same as everyone else’s. That’s OK. You’re in a position to make the right people listen.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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