Five Secrets of the World’s Top Innovators

My radio show guests have taught me a few things about entrepreneurship

Kara Miller in her radio studio

In 1995, the legendary venture capitalist Roger McNamee watched Jeff Bezos lay out his idea for a company. The concept was simple. Bezos would create an online bookstore, Amazon. You’d pick out a book, and Amazon would send it to you. “I just sat there going, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great. I love books. I’d buy a ton of books. I’m so glad they’re here,” McNamee told me. “The notion that they were going to be as important as Wal-Mart was very hard to conceive of.”

Which is often the nature of true innovation. It can seem trivial, marginal, even slightly nuts—until it changes the world.

When I launched the public radio show Innovation Hub at WGBH in 2011, I was only vaguely aware that the people behind those world-changing ideas were becoming icons—that their reputations were inspiring legions of entrepreneurs, creating what McNamee calls a “social revolution.” The former chief operating officer of eBay, Maynard Webb, put it to me this way: “At Stanford, in the graduating class . . . even if you got offered great jobs like at Google, that was kind of selling out. People wanted to start their own companies.”

So, if you want to be an innovator—by starting your own company, reinventing someone else’s or just adding doses of creativity to your everyday routine—how do you do it? Here are five lessons I’ve learned:

1. TAKE AT LEAST ONE CRAZY CHANCE. Jeff Bezos walked away from a lucrative career in finance. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college and then turned down hefty offers for Facebook. And before computers were widespread, Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, hacked together video games—and earned money by repairing pinball machines—rather than using his engineering degree.

Doing something innovative almost ensures that people will shake their heads at your decisions. When Hewlett­-Packard considered creating scientific calculators in the 1970s, focus groups showed that the public had no interest in buying them. But Bill Hewlett ignored the research and gambled on his own instincts that a significant slice of consumers would pay for a handheld calculator. Turns out he was right.

Sure, taking a chance means risking failure, but for true innovators failure isn’t the end of the world. Travis Kalanick saw multiple ventures fail before cofounding Uber. Fred Smith nearly went bankrupt starting a company called FedEx. And Jeff Bezos wasn’t at all sure that Amazon would succeed. When Bezos approached early investors, according to biographer Brad Stone, “he told them all that there was a 70 percent chance they would lose their money. So I think all along he knew that the odds were long and the risks were high, but he never allowed it to stop him or slow him down.”

2. FORGET ABOUT BALANCE. I once asked Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who served as a Google VP, whether she’s able to maintain work-life balance. “Balance is a dangerous word,” Mayer said. “People think Google just happened. It didn’t just happen. There was a crew of 50 of us, and 100 of us, and 200 of us doing 100-plus hour weeks. And you do it because you love it. And because you know that you’re doing something important.”

Though building something great often means working incredibly hard, Mayer said you can protect your sanity by reserving time for the things that matter most—whether that’s bowling with your friends on Thursday night or coaching your kids’ soccer team.

3. GET SOME ALONE TIME. One of the most striking—though rarely discussed—facts about the technorati is that they spend periods of time (a couple of hours a day, one day a week) eschewing tech. And they can be tougher on limiting screen time for their kids than most other parents.

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, has noted that we do some of our best thinking when we’re bored, when we’re alone, when we’re singularly focused—not when we’re toggling back and forth between Facebook and Candy Crush.

While an employee at Hewlett­-Packard, Steve Wozniak sought out quiet stretches of time to develop the computer that would become the Apple I. He got to work early and stayed late into the evening, fiddling with a project that would change the world.

4. EMBRACE EXTREME CREATIVITY. One of the most fascinating people I’ve ever interviewed is a guy named Jason Fried, who runs the web application company Basecamp. Fried has experimented with four-day weeks, he’s given employees time to create independent projects, and he’s more than willing to allow colleagues to work from home, even if home is in another part of the country. “It’s unlikely that every best person in the world in their job happens to be within a 20-mile radius of our office,” Fried said. “That’s just not the way things work.”

By thinking creatively about his role as CEO, Fried enables employees to be imaginative and take initiative, rather than worrying about punching a time card.

Creativity is also worth embracing for another reason: rote jobs tend to be low-paying (think fast-food workers and supermarket clerks) or disappearing altogether (think bank tellers). “We need creative learning,” Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, noted recently. “The creativity is the thing that the computers can’t do. All the repetitive physical and mental jobs will be taken over by computers.”

5. BE A NERD. Being great at something inevitably leads to nerdiness—and this isn’t a culture that always embraces nerds. Despite the success of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, kids still dislike the “nerd” label, according to David Anderegg, author of Nerds. “They’re anxious to avoid it. And other kids are very down on kids who do nerdy things, like science and math.” This kind of labeling can easily follow us into the adult world.

But I believe we’re in the middle of a nerd renaissance. Techies are feeling inspired. Cash is flowing. Investment in startups has shot up over the last few years, and by some estimates there are now north of 15,000 such companies in Silicon Valley. Nerd culture is on the rise, too. Randall Munroe, for example, has become a phenomenon by creating a physics-and-math-focused comic strip, xkcd. Monroe now lures millions of readers a month, and his new book What If? recently landed at number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

For a nerd like me, this is a cool time to be focused on innovation. We’re living at a moment when the public sector is looking for unorthodox solutions to big problems, when information is increasingly available to brilliant minds and when gaps in opportunity are forcing us to rethink the economy.

I have the amazing luck to sit in a studio, don earphones and talk to the men and women who are revolutionizing the way we live. People who are willing to face the odds, embrace the discomfort of standing apart from the crowd and opt for oddity over assimilation.

Change is coming. I can hear it.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Kara Miller, G08, is the host and executive editor of Innovation Hub, a nationally broadcast radio show from WGBH and PRI. Before earning her Ph.D. in English at Tufts, she received a B.A. from Yale.

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