Why Amateurs Make Breakthroughs #BIF10

Point: “Amateurs” have a willingness to try outlandish things, things that experts “know better” than to do.

Story: The word “amateur” has gotten a bad rap. People apply the term dismissively to imply that someone is an RiseCoverunskilled dabbler, but the word originates from the Latin “amator” meaning a lover, a devotee, or person who adores a particular endeavor.  I learned this from Sarah Lewis, whose new book on creativity, The Rise, devotes an entire chapter to “The Disciplined Amateur.”

Lewis chronicles the discoveries by Nobel Prizewinner Andre Geim, among others. Geim credits his willingness to enter a new field as instrumental to his discovery and isolation of graphene, a carbon-based material that is the thinnest, strongest, most conductive material currently known to exist. As Lewis points out, “If we made a car out of graphene, it would be the lightest automobile in existence, but could also drive through walls.”

Geim, a physicist, had never worked with carbon before, but his curiosity and attitude of “it’s better to be wrong than be boring,” made him unafraid to be “entering into someone else’s territory, to be frank, and questioning things people who work in that area never bother to ask.”

Geim keeps that “amateur” freshness by staying in a field no longer than five years, to prevent his perspective from fossilizing such that he can no longer see anything but the “accepted” way.

To keep flexing that amateur muscle, Geim created “Friday Night Experiments” at his lab in Holland.  These experiments encourage physicists to explore and do whatever they want (short of blowing up the entire lab), to try things that will likely fail.  Yet out 24 such experiments, three have been huge hits, including the creation of gecko tape, a levitating frog, and the aforementioned isolation of graphene.

How can you create or join in a Friday Night Experiment yourself? One way I do it is by attending the Business Innovation Factory‘s annual Innovation Summit.  Although I go to other innovation conferences, the BIF series (now its tenth year: BIF10), has a unique, playful, “try it!” energy that encourages experimentation. The summit keeps its freshness by insisting that its storytellers (not “speakers”) share their personal stories, not canned speeches.  BIF banished PowerPoint.  Attendance is strictly limited to 400, and the summit sells out every year. The summit is small enough to facilitate mingling among storytellers and attendees, and large enough to enable “random collisions of unusual suspects,” as organizer Saul Kaplan puts it.

The BIF summits are conducive to being on what Schopenhauer called “the playground of others’ thoughts.”

I’ll be joining the jungle-gym of ideas at #BIF10 this Sept 17-18, my fourth time.  If you have a chance, I encourage you to join in, too!


  • Set aside time for experimentation whether its 10% of work time or special events like Friday Night Experiments and Business Innovation Factory summits.
  • “Jump the fence” to explore new areas where your “amateur” perspective could reveal new opportunities
  • Stay open enough to new ideas to take risks and fail

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Sustainable New Product Development

Point: Make sustainability decisions at the start of new product development.

Story: “Seventy-five to 90 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined in the product development stage,” says Kevin Myette, director of product and supply chain sustainability at outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.).

Given that fact, it’s extremely important for product designers to have access to information about the sustainability of materials when making decisions about which materials to use for new products.

For example, which do you think is environmentally more damaging: wool or polyester? Intuition might point you to rank wool as the more sustainable product, because it is natural. But, the processing of wool uses chemical washes, and wool as a material in apparel requires much more washing and energy use after purchase. Thus, although polyester uses more energy during manufacture, its lifetime energy usage is lower. Even better, polyester can be recycled. Nike used this information to design uniforms made from recycled polyester for the 2012 European Cup soccer championships, thus earning them high marks on sustainability.

A tool that’s helping the apparel industry with this problem is called the Higg Index, which lets manufacturers and brands score the environmental impacts of their garments across the apparel life cycle (materials, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, use, and end-of-life).

Getting industry-wide agreement on the metrics has been key. “As our CEO says, ‘sustainability is a team sport,'” Myette told me. “We’ve been working collaboratively with partners and competitors alike, pre-competitive, to develop the language and metrics of sustainability.”

Internally, to help its product designers make the right choices, REI implemented a product lifecycle management system that gives its designers a dashboard view of how materials rank across the lifecycle for sustainability.

Myette is encouraging REI’s suppliers to use the system, as well using a dyeing process that requires no water and using patterns that minimize scrap waste. “Five percent of our landfills are just textiles, apparel,” Myette says. Avoiding scrap material and encouraging recycling of apparel is vital for reducing this waste. Few consumers know that it takes 10 times more energy to produce textiles than to produce glass. Greater awareness could spur consumers to demand retailers offer recycling of their synthetic fabrics.


  • Think about sustainability before you design the product, not just after you have the product and want the best suppliers
  • Consider the entire lifecycle of the product:

— your suppliers’ footprint for the raw materials
— your footprint of your production processes (and customer services, too)
— your customers’ footprint when using your product
— the recyclability/reusability of the end-of-life product (and any scrap produced along the way)

  • See if your industry has something like the Higg Index.  And if not, help create one!
  • Think holistically — perhaps something that seems unsustainable (e.g., fossil-fuel-derived polyester) might be best if it enables greater sustainability in other parts of the system (e.g., washing, dying, end-of-life recyclining)
  • Finally, keep looking for improvements, such as bacteria that can make biodegradable polyester


Personal interview with Kevin Myette

Higg Index: http://www.apparelcoalition.org/higgindex/

Bacteria: http://www.asknature.org/strategy/aafff01c6748d9169047522c11c0280a

Note: this post originally appeared in the Huffington Post: Mitigating Environmental Impact of Apparel: REI http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrea-meyer/mitigating-environmental-impact-apparel_b_2253103.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

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Innovation in the Collaborative Economy

Point: The collaborative economy enables new business models (and disrupts old ones).

Story: The collaborative economy is growing as individuals find new ways to connect directly with their peers to share or rent their assets and skills. The collaborative economy includes sharing assets like spare rooms (Airbnb) and cars (RelayCars) or consumable goods (CampusBookRentals, Toyswap) or services (TaskRabbit, oDesk).

The peer-to-peer rental market alone is worth $26 billion, according to Rachel Botsman, and that doesn’t include peer-to-peer-lending or crowdfunding, which is predicted to reach $5 billion this year.  Altimeter Group’s sample of 200 collaborative-economy startups revealed that one-third had received VC funding, amounting to $2 billion overall and an average of $29 million per company.

Consumers are sharing and collaborating with each other as new platforms make search easier and verification more secure.  The collaborative economy is expanding rapidly because it:

  • appeals to consumers who want to make money from their unused assets (RelayRides avg $715/mo)
  • appeals to companies who want to rent out extra office or warehouse space or equipment
  • appeals to individuals who want to earn extra income running errands or doing one-off tasks
  • appeals to individuals and companies who want to rent assets at a lower-cost or on a short-term basis
  • is good for the planet: renting a car when you need it means fewer cars need to be built. Patagonia is partnering with eBay to encourage re-sale of its used clothing rather than have it go to the landfill.

Some collaborative-economy startups are partnering with existing players. For example, Deliv partners with retailers who want to offer same-day delivery to customers.  Big companies, seeing potential disruption as well as opportunity, are entering the market as well. BMW is offering rentals from its dealership in San Francisco, and GM invested in RelayRides, which connects car owners who want to rent their cars with consumers who want to rent them by the hour, day or month.  GM gave RelayRides access to GM’s OnStar Navigation System, which is installed in 6 million American cars. Anyone who has an OnStar-equipped car and wants to rent it out can sign up on the site and then use the OnStar app to let the approved renter unlock the car via the app rather than handing over the keys.


  • Explore new business models enabled by the collaborative economy. Altimeter’s Jeremiah Owyang and Chris Silva offer three models: Company-as-a-Service, Motivating a Marketplace, or Providing a Platform. Or, use Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas to think through changes in the nine elements that make up a business model.
  • If you’re an established company, think about ways you could be disrupted, and consider jumping in or planning a counter-move.
  • If you’re a startup, consider providing a platform that connects and verifies the parties involved. Be aware of legislation and incumbents who may seek to legal action (bus companies blocking ride-sharing services like Ridester.com) or running afoul of licensure or insurance laws.
  • And whether you are an individual or a company, think about the under-utilized assets that you have sitting around.  Perhaps there’s a way to monetize them.



The Sharing Economy, Economist March 9, 2013

Rachel Botsman, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

Ontario bus-companies trying to shut down competition from ride-sharing groups

Crowdfunding tries to grow up – May. 6, 2013 – CNN Money

Jeremiah Owyang

Chris Silva


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