How Extreme Users Propel Innovation in Unlikely Places

by: Zach Supalla

There is a lot of tried and true technology that surrounds us every day that we don’t think twice about. Looking around my office, I’ve got a file cabinet, a desk, a chair, lights, a window, a printer, my computer and its many accessories, headphones, and a notebook.

Most of these things haven’t changed substantially for years. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of engineers and designers that think every day about how to make a file cabinet cheaper (thanks, IKEA), how to make a chair more comfortable (thanks, Herman Miller), and how to make notebooks cooler (thanks, Moleskine). But most of these changes are incremental rather than innovative, and while that might be enough to sustain 3-5% annual growth for a big company, it’s often not enough to get a start-up off the ground.

So instead, most tech entrepreneurs focus on something new, in an effort to explore some relatively uncharted territory. Smartphones are relatively new, so a lot of attention is poured into creating smartphone apps. The problem is that everyone tends to pour into these categories at the same time. Very quickly, “smartphone apps” becomes a noisy category, and it can be hard to create something unique and valuable enough to distinguish yourself from the pack.

Innovation in unlikely places

So let’s go back to areas where people aren’t innovating – or rather, areas where innovation tend to be incremental. How do you create something truly unique and innovative in a space that’s been looked at thousands of times and yet has stagnated? Just look at extreme users – the 1% of people who take products beyond their normal expectations. Sort of like “off-label” uses of technology. They can help you understand what’s possible when you push everyday technology to its limits.

I’m the inventor of a product called Spark that connects your lights to the internet so they can be controlled from a smartphone, tablet, or computer. In addition to providing you with a remote control, Spark has an API so that software developers can create apps that can interact with your lights – such as an alarm clock that turns on the lights in your bedroom to help you get up, or an app that flashes your lights to let you know that you’ve got a new text message or email.

Extreme users and startup inspiration

I got the idea for Spark from looking at extreme users of lights: the deaf community.

Most people think of lights purely as a source of illumination: they convert electricity into visible light that helps us see. Therefore, innovations in lighting tend to be focused on improving the efficiency of that conversion, improving the quality of the light that is produced, and lowering the cost of the whole system. LED lights are at the forefront of all of these improvements, and if you work in R&D in the lighting world, that’s probably what you’re thinking about every day.

The deaf, though, use lights in very different ways. My dad has been deaf since birth and grew up in an almost entirely deaf family (two deaf parents, two deaf brothers, one hearing brother who went deaf later in life). Of course, he needs lights to see just like everyone else, but he also uses lights in a way that most of us don’t: signaling.

There are so many audio signals we are exposed to every day: phones ringing, doorbells ringing, cars honking, babies crying. Without these signals you can still get by, but it’s a little harder to know what’s going on, particularly in the case of phones.

The most common solution for the deaf is to replace audio signals with visual signals when possible: often this comes in the form of a light strobe. When someone calls my dad via video phone or TTY, the lights flash. When someone rings the doorbell, the lights flash. When I was a baby and I was crying, the lights would flash.

My lightbulb moment (pun fully intended) came when I was researching the home automation market to understand why, despite 20 years of product development, the “lighting as signaling” industry has never really taken off. The issue is that the value proposition was never strong enough. Remote control of your lights is cool, but it’s not worth spending thousands of dollars to have your house re-wired. To really take off, home automation products have to be cheaper, easier to use, and perhaps most importantly, they have to do more than just allow you to control lighting remotely.

I thought, “What if we could all use lights in the same ways that the deaf community does? What if I created an affordable and easy-to-install system that could provide the basic functionality of home automation systems – remote control – but also provide visual signaling to inform people when something meaningful is happening? And what if, by harnessing the power of the internet, I could connect this system to practically any source of information?” Now we’re not just talking about flashing the lights when the phone is ringing – we’re talking about flashing them when a stock price goes up, or when your kids are on their way home from school.

Entrepreneurial Lessons

There’s a second important lesson here for entrepreneurs. The first was to learn from extreme users, but the issue is that extreme users tend to represent small markets. To make a business worthy of VC investment (if that’s what you’re looking for), you may have to go after a market that is a tad larger.  So the second lesson is this: find a way to apply your solution to a market that is large enough to sustain a viable business.

We’ll soon see how Spark does; we’ve just launched on Kickstarter, and we have 30 days to see whether people want our product. Kickstarter is a great way to test the market before incurring significant development costs, especially for hardware products. The fundraising platform doesn’t work for everything, but when it does work, it’s invaluable.

After Kickstarter, the next step is execution, which is about ten times harder than the challenge of coming up with a good concept. But with a great team and the support of our backers, I’m confident we’ll be able to deliver our product as promised. With that said, the final lesson for entrepreneurs is this: work hard, have fun, and don’t ever give up on creating what you think the world needs most.

About the author Zach Supalla @Technori
Zach Supalla is a founder of Spark Devices, with a background in business, operations, and tech. Zach has formerly worked at McKinsey & Company and Groupon, and is an alum of Northwestern University (MBA + MEM) and Dartmouth College (BA). Zach has built all of the Spark prototypes from its beginning as an Arduino attached to an LED to its current state as a fully functional prototype.

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