Innovation can produce a lot of different outcomes—a new method of getting something done, a transformation of processes or product, or even an industry-wide revolution.
To stay relevant, it's critical for businesses to continue evolving and growing through innovation. Three-quarters of recently surveyed global senior innovation executives believe innovation is among the top three priorities for their companies. Sixty-one percent indicated they spent more on innovation in 2014 than in 2013.
But what exactly does innovation look like? These six people accomplished great things in 2014, thanks to their abilities to rapidly innovate, adapt and spot opportunities others missed. See how you can use the experiences of these top innovators to shake up your own world next year.
Dharmesh Shah, HubSpot Co-Founder and CTO
This year, HubSpot went public and became a $1 billion company. How did it do that?
It's likely HubSpot would have been successful even if its only claim to fame was that it was a software company. But the company did more than create marketing software—it revolutionized an entire industry.
HubSpot coined the term "inbound marketing." Then Shah and co-founder Brian Halligan wrote a book with that title and launched a conference that now draws more than 10,000 people each year. More than a buzzword, the term was needed to define the way in which marketers attract customers through online searches, social media and blogging as opposed to cold calling, print advertising or other outbound marketing tactics.
"Inbound marketing is so much more than just getting found," Shah says. "It's about attracting people to you online. It's engaging those people and providing them with an experience. It's delighting your customers."
HubSpot's inbound marketing innovation defined a new segment of the marketing industry, propelling the business to billion-dollar success.
Leo Widrich, Buffer Co-Founder and COO
Once upon a time, people just didn't talk about how much they were paid. It was taboo, bad manners.
Buffer changed all that. Founder and COO Leo Widrich first turned heads a few years ago when Buffer announced that all its staff salary and bonus information would be made available to the public. Crazy, right? It gets better.
Transparency is one of Buffer's 10 core values, and the company has done more than just pay it lip service. This year, it launched a public revenue dashboard, giving the public access to its monthly revenue reports, a complete equity breakdown of the company, average revenue per user and a lot more.
Buffer is leading the charge for complete transparency in business. This innovative approach has earned Widrich and other company leaders not only respect but a ton of free publicity to help them build their business.
Gretchen Rubin, Author and LinkedIn Influencer
Sometimes, the best innovations aren't radical new ideas but twists on common issues that make us see them in a whole new light.
Author, blogger and speaker Gretchen Rubin helps people make sense of their habits in a way that's fun and easy to understand. The author of The Happiness Project and the upcoming Better Than Before, Rubin showcases innovative ways for people to accomplish things we all want: happiness at home, breaking bad habits and becoming a better person.
If you feel stuck in a rut and have trouble innovating, check out Rubin's Four Tendencies framework for breaking out of those habits. If you're married to a particular way of doing something, she explains, you'll need to break that mold to improve or even reinvent your process. And sometimes you just have to turn conventional wisdom on its head, as Rubin did in her first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide, which parodied traditional self-help books.
Rubin's innovative spirit has truly resonated with her millions of readers and massive online audience.
Kevin Henrikson, Acompli Co-Founder and VP of Engineering
The most innovative companies aren't that way by accident—they're driven to shake things up. That's what email app company Acompli does. The company, which was recently acquired by Microsoft for $200 million, is barely 18 months old.
With a ton of email apps already on the market, why would the company think people needed another one? "We needed to reimagine and develop a mobile email app that would work on any device for any email account and enable any user to do the same kinds of tasks that business users are accustomed to doing with their email at the office," Henrikson explains.
That's innovative in itself, but Acompli also got creative in its business strategy. The company's leaders knew they'd have to move faster and build a better product than their competitors in the hyper-competitive email space, so they gathered a team of 23 people—20 of them engineers.
Their vision was bold, and their execution ingenious.
Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos Founder and CEO
Elizabeth Holmes is wildly innovative and currently turning the blood-testing industry on its head. And you've probably never heard of her.
But that was completely intentional: Now the world's youngest self-made female billionaire, Holmes made a conscious decision to stay out of the limelight as she built her business, Theranos. Her vision was huge—she's spent 11 years developing a revolutionary blood-testing technology to run diagnostic tests with a single drop of blood drawn by a single, relatively painless fingerprick.
Holmes' medical innovation promises to change access to health care across the country and around the world. Imagine completely accessible diagnostic testing using just a tiny amount of blood—and at a fraction of the current cost. Her innovation is a prime example of what happens when you re-imagine the possibilities.
Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn CEO
Under the guidance of CEO Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn has shown incredible innovation not only in revolutionizing the job search but in corporate responsibility. The company's Nonprofit Innovation Grant encourages that same creative spirit in the not-for-profit sector by awarding $10,000 to organizations looking to launch or scale new, unique programs. The program has funded projects ranging from early childhood education for disadvantaged children in New York City to an interactive Web portal that enables children to play with animals in shelters to comparative testing and DNA mapping for patients with Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Weiner is an advocate for getting "unbusy" as a surefire way to stay innovative. As he once explained on his LinkedIn page, "As the company grows larger ... you will require more time than ever before to just think: Think about what the company will look like in three to five years; think about the best way to improve an already popular product or address an unmet customer need; think about how you can widen a competitive advantage or close a competitive gap, etc."
Creating the time and space to strategize is critical to innovators, Weiner says. He and LinkedIn are driving innovation in social networking, but they're also paying it forward by enabling nonprofits to innovate as well.
There you have it: six incredibly innovative people to emulate as you move confidently into 2015. Here's what you can take away from their experiences:
- There's huge power in being a trailblazer. HubSpot saw that the marketing industry was fundamentally changing, and it set out to help guide and define that shift. Seek out opportunities to lead within your industry.
- Don't be afraid to be different. It can be uncomfortable standing out—many people question Buffer's decision to be so open with salary information. But CEO Leo Widrich stood his ground and changed how people perceive that level of transparency.
- Reinvent the ordinary. The way we've always done things isn't necessarily the right way. Reexamine your habits and standing operating procedures, as Gretchen Rubin did, to find opportunities to innovate and improve.
- Do what feels right. Acompli bucked the traditional startup trend of focusing heavily on marketing and sales in its early days, and it paid off for the company in a big way.
- Think really, really big. Who would have believed a young woman in college if she'd said she was going to revolutionize a long-established sector of the health-care industry? Elizabeth Holmes had a huge dream and diligently worked on her innovative idea until it came to fruition.
- Find time and space (and money) to innovate. Your best ideas will escape you if you never allow yourself the time and space to let them percolate. Don't let the craziness of daily life or a lack of funds hold you back.
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