Low-tech innovation

Author: Marion Debruyne (Dean of Vlerick Business School); Source: De Tijd (14/09/2016)

With over 23 million views on YouTube, you couldn't exactly call the 90-second clip a hidden gem. But on general request, it has become a regular component of my product management sessions. In the hilarious clip, Michael Dubin – the founder of Dollar Shave Club – takes on the shaving giant Gilette with the message "Shave time, shave money". When it was released online 5 years ago, it went viral immediately and gave Dollar Shave Club a flying start. The company was recently sold to Unilever for 1 billion dollars.

A striking story as it involves a simple product and a simple concept. After all, Dollar Shave Club definitely earned its name. The company promises to supply you with razor blades for just 1 dollar per month. In these times of robotics, artificial intelligence and big data, the story of Dollar Shave Club demonstrates that you can also be innovative without being high-tech. Drybar and Warby Parker are also good examples of companies of the same generation which offer low-tech innovation. Several common ingredients are found in this recipe.
Step 1: Don't start from nothing, build on a basic recipe from an existing sector. For Dollar Shave Club it was razor blades, for Warby Parker it was glasses and Drybar took hairdressing as the basis. Afterwards, don't be afraid to leave out a basic ingredient. When Alli Webb set up Drybar 7 years ago, she was clear right from the start: Drybar is a hair salon without a pair of scissors in sight. You can only go there for styling. 7 years and 70 branches later, the formula appears to be working exceptionally well.

Step 2: Add a completely new ingredient. For Warby Parker, it started with the idea of selling glasses online, even though glasses are a prime example of something which people want to try before they buy. Warby Parker solved the issue by sending everyone five models to test. It encourages people to try them out and use social media to ask their friends to help them decide. This immediately provides additional exposure for the brand. In addition, for each pair of glasses sold the company promises to give another pair away to people in need, a promise to which millennial consumers have proved receptive. Warby Parker has already donated over 1 million pairs of glasses.

Dollar Shave Club was the first company to introduce a subscription formula for razor blades. After all, if a product revolves around repeat purchases, why not include the repetition in the business model from the start?

Step 3: Keep a close eye on the costs, keeping your price easy to digest and allowing you to appeal to a wide audience. However, do not compromise on basic quality. Warby Parker's trendy glasses cost less than $100. Dollar Shave Club sells the simplest and cheapest razor blades, but it does guarantee that they are made from stainless steel.

Step 4: Build a strong brand by obsessing about every detail of the customer experience. Drybar saves women from the fruitless task of explaining to their hairdresser how they want their hair styled, by offering a simple menu of just five standard styles. And instead of making customers look in the mirror with wet hair, the mirror only comes into play when it's time to admire the finished result. After all, in the words of Alli Webb: "We're selling confidence, and that doesn't include unflattering lighting and a head full of wet hair". From the distinctive yellow roses at Drybar to the inspiring books at Warby Parker, every detail ties in with the brand perception.

The icing on the cake and good for the PR: a charismatic founder and a nice, authentic (sounding) story about why the company was set up and which universal problem it solves. That's the recipe. Follow it and with a bit of luck, you'll be a billionaire five years down the line.

Sometimes we forget that innovation has many dimensions and is not the exclusive terrain of high-tech. Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker and Drybar prove that you can also be extremely innovative without technology. And that low-tech innovation can also rock the boat.

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