Note: This piece is specifically directed to people who work at mid-large companies. The ideas will still apply to you if you work at smaller companies, but they’ll come as less of a surprise.
At any point in time at a company, you can find a bunch of ideas to make things better.
You can create features that make your customers happier. You can create tools to make your engineers more productive. Or…you can launch completely new products.
The questions to ask are “Who gets these ideas” and “How do they get these ideas?”
In larger companies, there’s an implicit understanding that ideas come top-down. It’s as though there’s a line for innovation: the best ideas come to the CEO, and maybe one day some of them trickle down to you.
Yet, is that how things work?
Thankfully, reality doesn’t work that way. If you look around you, you’ll see that some of the best ideas in the world come from some of the most unexpected places.
Memcached — did it come from a senior architect at google? Nope…young kid working on scaling their project (LiveJournal!).
Gmail — did it come from an ex-hotmail VP? Nope, 24 year old who tried creating an email client before, and decided to do that again at Google.
Airbnb — did it come from veterans in the hospitality industry? Nope…just a few friends trying to make rent.
Stripe — did it come from veteran payments execs? Nope…just two brothers frustrated with taking payments online.
This is happening all over the place externally. And, even though it may not seem like it, it’s happening all over the place at larger companies too.
Don’t believe me? Try this: look over a few of your favorite tools and products at work. Try to find the origin story. You may be delighted with what you find! (If you do this, I’d love to hear the origin stories that speak to you in the comments!)
We begin to see that ideas are not top-down. Well, how do ideas come then?
The more stories you see, the more you notice a pattern: Ideas come to people who face problems, talk to customers, and tinker. Paul Graham goes over this quite well in his essay on startup ideas, and they apply at larger companies just as well.
That’s really all you need to do. The beautiful thing about this? Notice what’s missing: title, pedigree, experience. None of that is required. Just face problems, talk to customers, and tinker.
At this point, you may be facing some resistance. You may think — it’s just not how it works at my company.
Yet…I encourage you to try and test your assumptions.
Most leaders want people like you. They know ideas can come in the most unexpected places. Now, there will be a spectrum of resistance. At most smaller tech companies you’ll find sympathy and support, while at more bureaucratic places you’ll face much more resistance.
However, If you try, you’ll contribute to the culture within your company that nurtures innovation and employee engagement. If you do this, you’ll give your company the ultimate competitive advantage and discover a bunch of like-minded people too.
Two action items, and a note
1. Action Item: #crazy-ideas
At Airbnb, we have a slack channel called #crazy-ideas. This is a space for people to get together and spitball any idea. So far we’ve found it great for encouraging innovation and engagement. I think Stripe has something similar (I was inspired to create this channel from a conversation with some of the engineers there). If you don’t have this, try starting one off at your company.
2. Action Item: origin stories.
In this essay I asked you to look into origin stories of some of your favorite products. What came up? If you’re up to share it, I’d love to hear!
3. Note: On facing resistance
As you test your assumptions, you’ll be surprised with how much you can do, but at some point you will invariably face resistance. There’s a whole trove of strategy here: aligning with teams, finding buy-in, managing up, building momentum, the list goes on. This will come for another essay. Meanwhile, if you start facing these problems, ping me and I’d happy to riff.
Thanks to Avand Amiri, Daniel Woelfel, Eric Ning, Jacky Wang, Julien Odent for reviewing this essay