Innovative: You can be both boring and innovative

Many of us are intrigued by wonders that scream “THE FUTURE” like flying cars. But sometimes the best inventions are more about brain power than technological wizardry. Let me give you a few examples in my quest to appreciate ingenuity in boring things.

Take apple supply chains and roof trusses.

I was recently introduced to a New Jersey-based online grocery delivery company called Misfits Market. Many companies have struggled with the cost and complexity of bringing bananas or Doritos to us. Misfits knows it.

The company’s response to the history of delivery failures is to think small. He tries to save pennies and eliminate the little inefficiencies here and there that can mean the difference between failure and success.

Here are some examples of what his little innovations look like: Stores and delivery services tend to sell only the middle pieces of salmon. Misfits buys and sells the other cuts, which are equally delicious, at a reduced price. Abhi Ramesh, Managing Director of Misfits, also told me enthusiastically that he had skipped some steps in the long chain of apple farmers, packers and distributors. Pruning one or two middlemen can save time and money.

“Annoying problems are the most worth solving,” Ramesh said.

This man speaks my language. It’s a competitive advantage if a company does a difficult, boring and expensive thing a little better, he said.

There are other food companies taking similar approaches, and I don’t know if the company will be successful. But Misfits is an example of a tech company that knows an industry well and believes it can slightly improve upon established ways. This is what technological progress often looks like: a new, but perhaps dull, version of what came before.

Roy Bahat, an investor in tech start-ups at consultancy Bloomberg Beta, uses the term “hot-swap” to refer to a type of startup that thinks big by tinkering with the status quo. He gave examples like Flexport, which is trying to streamline the steps involved in shipping boxes of goods by sea or air, and Newfront, which is trying to do something similar for insurance brokers. (Bloomberg Beta is an investor in Newfront.)

A feature of these companies, Bahat said, is that they are not aiming for major change, as Warby Parker did with glasses, for example. This kind of change can feel scary or threatening, especially for customers in large industries like freight transportation or insurance, he said. Instead, a hot boot promises something familiar but better.

It doesn’t always sound like WOW, but sometimes it does. Dan Patt, an aerospace engineer I spoke to recently about drone package delivery, told me about a construction company near Boise, Idaho that was using something cool: robots ! – to improve a snoozefest.

The company, House of Design, sells massive machines with robotic arms that automate certain stages of building a house or building, including roof trusses.

I had to google what it is. They are triangular segments of wood assembled to form the skeleton of a roof. Roof truss designs vary, and putting them together is relatively repetitive and laborious work, Michael Lindley, House of Design’s sales and marketing manager, told me.

House of Design promises that its systems are compatible with popular construction industry design software and produce trusses faster and with less manpower. There’s technological intelligence in House of Design, Patt said, but what’s different is the creativity in the manufacturing process.

New York Times colleague Conor Dougherty wrote about the highs and lows of enthusiasm for home building automation. Katerra, a leading tech startup, collapsed last year after trying to streamline every stage of construction, including making light bulbs in-house.

The history of chess shows the pride of believing you can reinvent a great industry, whether it’s real estate or groceries. Established ways of doing things may have been established for a reason. Moreover, inertia is powerful, the status quo is often good enough, and smart technology cannot solve structural problems.

But it is useful to remember what an invention is. It’s not always a driverless taxi or a new smartphone that’s vastly different from what came before. Often it’s about taking a product or process that we know and making it a little simpler or cheaper.

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