There’s no limit to how much you can scale your business if you know how to innovate. In this episode, special guest West Stringfellow discusses the innovation process he found works for almost any business. West is the Founder and CEO of HowDo, a self-guided innovation training program. West has worked for and helped grow some of the biggest companies today, including Amazon, PayPal, Visa, and Target. With years of experience, he has unlocked the key to innovation which he now uses to help others find their way to business success. Want to know how? Tune into this episode and be motivated to unlock your own potential! Join him and host Victoria Wieck as they talk all about innovation and give helpful advice to keep you motivated.
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How To Innovate To Scale Up Your Business With West Stringfellow
If you’ve always wanted to know how to improve your business, upscale it, all of that, it starts with you and you know that I’m a very big proponent of that. I’m a huge proponent of the one single thing you could do to change your life. Our guest is West Stringfellow. He is somebody who epitomizes everything that I’ve been saying on my show about all the things, little things and big things. The single thing you could do to start your journey to success. West comes to the show with years of impressive experience.
He has worked with companies like PayPal, Visa, Target, Amazon, Rosetta Stone and so many more. He’s made his impact with those kinds of companies but what impressed me the most about West and this is why he was invited to this show, is his ability to help every employee and person, no matter what you think your abilities are to help every person innovate and elevate. I’m so excited to have him here. I’m so thankful that he was able to make this time so that we can all share this amazing knowledge that he has acquired over many years. Without further ado, I would like to welcome West Stringfellow. Welcome to the show.
I appreciate it.
I don’t want many of you to email me because I’m not trying to make a political statement of any kind. I do think that when we were growing up in the ‘70s, ‘80s, even the ‘90s, I felt like they were at the height of innovation. The ‘80s is when we got the internet, laptop, computers, cell phones and all of that.
When I hear the word innovation, the last person who innovated anything to me was Jeff Bezos with Amazon. Have you noticed that even music is being regurgitated? A lot of this stuff and movies are doing their 3rd, 4th and 5th rendition of whatever it is that came out in the ‘80s. When I saw what you do with your program called HowDo, I was impressed with that. Tell me a little bit about how you got to what you’re doing now and what it is that you do now to impact the world.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor more than anything. I entered all the Science competitions and Science fairs and they had one that was based on an invention. I came into second place making a better lunchbox but ever since then, I have always liked the idea of building things. Real early in my career, when I was an intern, I learned that if I solved problems that people didn’t know were problems. I could make more money than if they did the job they asked me to do. I kept scaling at that problem-solving in my job until, ultimately, I was recruited by Amazon. At Amazon, it was ten years intern after Amazon launched. It was still a very young company. There are a million things to get done and it was a great place to get stuff done.
Being an entrepreneur is about figuring out how something you’re passionate about connects with a customer’s problem.
They gave me a lot of lessons about how to appropriately characterize problems and deeply understand what the problem is, put it in the language of the customer and then look at critically what competitors would do, could do or were doing in this space. Look at critically the commercial opportunity, how much money we could make from it and then make a solid pitch. That was what my job was at Amazon. I hopped around different teams and led the development of new products and fixed problems. When I left Amazon, I did that for Visa, Target, Rosetta Stone, PayPal and a bunch of startups.
What I learned along the way is that there’s a fairly generic process that can work for almost anyone in almost any context. If you’re a big company or you’re a small company, start with learning about the customer, the competition in the marketplace and then doing a pretty thoughtful analysis about what the real opportunities are that are present now and how you can take advantage of those opportunities using available technology and available tools. Business, in my opinion, is fairly simple.
There are only three tools, build, buy or partner. If you’re going to build something, it’s product management, service management or some sort of platform design. If you’re going to buy something, it’s mergers and acquisitions and corporate venture capital. If you’re going to partner with something, you use incubators, accelerators or other forms of partnership agreements but that’s business. When you understand the problem, the commercial opportunity and the tools that are associated with that opportunity, you need to find the team that can do that.
I think so many people get wrapped around the axle of their emotions, what they wanted for their business or their dreams for their business and they lose sight of the purpose of business. The purpose of business is simply to grow revenue, decrease operating costs, mitigate risks, empower employees and delight customers. If you do those five things, you’ll have a successful business but so many people get focused on what they want or what they hear their customers say they want and they lose sight of the overall holistic objective. I’ve designed a course that tries to help anyone and everyone learn first principles around business and teach themselves how to move from an idea to something that’s in a customer’s hands and making money.
That was a lot of information that was shared now. I want to share with the readers that one of the consistent feedback I get is that I don’t share enough of what I’ve gone through. The building my business from $0 to $500 million. When I listened to West described the five pillars of running a successful business, I have to say a lot of what he said resonates with me on I didn’t know then. I was too naive and simple and my business grew for many years. It’s not like I had a plan but looking back, a lot of the things that he said resonated with me.
Here is the one key thing that you all need to take away from his entire presentation, which is it all starts and ends with the customer. When you have a business, it could be that you are an artist or a musician where you’re expressing your feelings or desires, even then your customer, the end-user who absorbs your information, is who you have to cater your life around. Every product you build and every pitch you make, you almost have to think about how am I going to present this to my customer? How is she going to use it? I think that when you do that, you can work it backward. Sometimes, customers don’t even realize that they have a real problem or they need a product until they see it.
It’s not really about you but it’s more about the customer. I would even go simpler than that. Business comes down to solving problems for your customer. That’s number one. It may be a perceived or real problem, but it all comes down to that and how effectively you can solve their problem. I love the conversation we had. I’m with you on that. I share information freely with everybody. When I first launched my online course, everybody said like, “Do you have any testimonials?”
I said, “I’ve got tons of testimonials. I just never got paid for it because I’ve always given free speeches, free webinars and free workshops to people because I’m so delighted at being able to share what works.” A lot of times, when you share that freely, you learn in the process of sharing because they will give you feedback. The other thing too is there’s such joy in sharing. I don’t have to get paid for every speech or every workshop that I do. I don’t think about how I am going to make the most money out of this thing. When you freely share, people come to you whether you are selling artistic cabinetry or coffee. Think about what Starbucks did with simple things like coffee.
They’ve almost made such a call that it’s cool to park your car, go to Starbucks, stand in line. There’s nothing else in life that I would want to stand in line for 30 minutes to overpay 500%. It’s crazy. This is what happens when you delight customers and have them love you and you attract legions of fanatic fans. To me, Starbucks coffee didn’t even taste that great. If you think about it, their coffee is so bitter that they have to add the whipped cream and all this other stuff. I was a pure coffee drinker before. I was a black coffee drinker before and now, they’ve converted me into drinking soy latte. I’m allergic to dairy so the next closest thing is soy dairy.
We digress but I think that what you’ve said about all the different pillars is not about you. I don’t want to sound harsh but when I say it’s not about you, of course, you do still have to honor your desires and your dreams. Your desires and dreams could be that you want to make it ultimately. If you have a product or service that serves your target market well, they’re going to either save time, money or hassles and they will then be able to contribute. When I look at your accomplishments, it’s all these big companies like Amazon and PayPal. These are all corporations that we have heard of.
Are there lessons that you’ve learned that you could maybe share with a small business person, a person that might have maybe one employee herself or under ten employees that are trying to innovate? When you hear the word innovate, it sounds like it costs money. Don’t you think that’s true? When you hear the word innovate, immediately, you think, “I can’t do that because I’m not an engineer. I’m not a scientist. I don’t have the megabucks so I can’t innovate.” What do you say to that?
The process of innovation is one of aggressive learning.
I think it’s a fair question and I totally understand why when people hear the word innovation, it’s a scary word. Candidly, that word has been so used and abused. It’s almost meaningless at this point. The reality and the definition of innovation really simple. It’s introducing a new good or service to the market. Do you know that the definition of an entrepreneur is a business person who takes on greater financial risk? It’s not like you have to be Elon Musk to be an entrepreneur. You could do something that’s moderately riskier than being an employee.
Elon didn’t take any risks with his own money.
A personal example would be I built and sold my own business. I was the sole employee and I’m not a great engineer. I’m a terrible engineer but I sold the business when it was on paper. I sold the patent in the concept. I think innovation takes many forms. Being an entrepreneur is about trying to figure out how something you’re passionate about connects with a customer’s problem. It may not be a direct connection or when you wake up out of bed, you have the right specific idea to solve that problem. The process of innovation, in my opinion, is aggressively learning. I don’t care if you’re a big company or a single individual sitting in your bedroom dreaming about what to do with the rest of your life.
Everyone has to learn from the customer. What I advocate for is a structured process of learning so that you don’t waste time and you maximize your potential for real knowledge gaining. The process that I’ve created for HowDo is based on best practices at big companies. I also founded and led a Techstars Accelerator, which I built and sold my own company as the only employee. I’ve done a lot of work with startups out of the years of my career, about seven years with startups. The process that I’ve created works for everyone. It starts with doing secondary research, which means Google. Ask Google a million questions. If you have an idea for a business, open up your laptop or your tablet and start typing phrases into Google.
You’ll see that there’s probably some information out there. If you want to build a bakery, open up Google maps and look at all the bakeries that are in your neighborhood. Get in your car and drive to all of them. Walk into the store and ask them how business is going. Look at what they’re selling and the price point. If you want to do any industry, look immediately around you and the folks who are in that industry. What I didn’t tend to do is specifically zero in on the people who are leading the businesses that are currently existing. I follow their social media accounts. I read their posts. I look at any of their blog posts or any podcasts they’re on that I listen to. Any YouTube videos they’ve made, I watch. I try to get as much information as I can about the marketplace so I understand what I’m talking about.
Let’s stay at the bakery example. I might know about all the bakeries in my neighborhood and then I try to meet some of the customers in the neighborhood. I’ll post a Craigslist ad and I’ll say, “I’ll give you a $25 Amazon gift certificate if you’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee with me. In these pandemic times, if it’s safer, you feel more comfortable with Zoom or on the phone.” Talk to customers. Now, some Google product managers wrote a great book called Sprint. Google is one of the best companies in the world in terms of using data to make product decisions. One of the things that blew me away about this book Sprint is they recommend that if you talk to five customers of an existing product, you’re going to get 80% of the feedback that you would get if you talk to 20, 30, 40 or 50.
Let’s say you want to make a bakery, find five customers of the existing bakeries and have some conversations with them like, “What do you think about the existing bakery? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? What would you like to see? How’s the price point?” Make sure you have these conversations. You have open conversations. Don’t go in there with your product and say, “I want you to buy my product. Tell me what you think.” Try to keep your mind open as much as possible. Try to listen to the words the customer says. The customer is going to speak in a different way than you think. Every time I talk to a customer, I’m constantly impressed with how they describe my product to me and words I would never use.
I’m also impressed that if I listen to the words they use, I can start learning more about what my product is. I can use those words to talk to my customer more effectively. I’ve been in the industry for many years. When I talk about stuff, it’s like, “Nerd.” It’s all about this technical crap. When I go talk to the customer, they don’t know all the technical stuff. They say to me in a much more colloquial, human and accessible way. If I learned that from my customer, I could ask them more specific questions, I get more insight, I know how to market and sell to them. It helps me long-term. Once I have a deep qualitative understanding and again, that can come five conversations. Not always but generally five conversations then I try to test it qualitatively.
I use something like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms. I try to get a statistically significant number of responses. Now, if you’re in a small market, 100 or 200 people, it might be enough. If you’re trying to do something nationally, you should try to get 1,000 people from the demographic that you’re targeting. Hopefully, through your initial research and conversations, you’ll start getting an idea of your demographic. All you want to do in that quantitative survey is take the information you learned from the conversation, the qualitative and validate that they’re true at scale. Once you’ve done that, you have a much better idea of your customer than most of your competitors will because no one does that work.
I think that’s interesting because I love what you shared. As I said, I am so customer-centric that I rarely talk about myself ever and that’s one of the biggest complaints I get from my show because not many people would turn to my show. I’ve sold over 10 million pieces of jewelry and they basically want to know how I did it and I never shared that. What you’re saying is exactly what I did before the digital age. I started my business in 1989 and I didn’t have any money. I had no idea what I was doing. I literally had no clue. I was so naive but I went to different department stores and asked the buyer or the jewelry department managers, “If you had this type of design, would you be able to sell it?” It was all sketches.
The amount of information they gave me, in fact, they were so excited about it. Many of them sold from me off of the sketches. That’s how my business started. I started my business with no money. I had $30. This is before computers and anything then I thought, “How real could that be?” The two stores that sold for me were Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire and Rodale. It’s a different store. In my mind, I was thinking to myself, “That can’t be the rest of America. I’m going to need more than those two stores.” As you said, you needed a bigger sample. The two people that I talked to, the stuff that they ordered for thousands of dollars, I personally didn’t know anybody that would buy it from me.
Everyone has to learn from the customer.
My personal circle of people couldn’t afford the stuff that they thought they were buying. When I went out to other stores all around Southern California, I got a pretty good view. Even then, I didn’t think that that was all of America. I thought that was Southern California. My first trip was to Dallas, which I thought was much more Middle America. Basically, in order for you to find out what your customers want, go find customers, even if it’s just five. I completely agree with those five. In my personal experience, when you’ve talked to people, they’re overjoyed that a real person is talking to you. You’re not a part of anything. You’re not hiking and showing off on social media telling everybody how great you are doing.
You’re asking their opinion, they will be brutally honest with you and then you’re getting some feedback from them. I also loved what you said about how you think about your product a certain way that the customer then sees it in a different way. I think that that’s a key important issue because a lot of times when you think customers see it one way and you think you’re giving it another way, there will be a disconnect in how you message them in the end. If you come up with a marketing ad and let’s say you’re advertising on Facebook, “I have this wonderful, beautiful jewelry for you to wear to work,” then the customer says, “That’s like a milestone jewelry heirloom. I will never wear it to work.”
There’s a huge disconnect between those two because you think they’re going to want to wear it to work into everything then the person says, “No. For me, that would be such an incredible thing that I would want to keep it in my jewelry box. I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to ruin it.” You have to figure out how the customer uses it. Let’s go back to the word innovation one more time.
I think that a lot of people, when you say the word innovation especially coming from someone like yourself who has worked with Amazon, the innovation capital of the world, they think of inventions. They don’t think about improving things that are already out there. Innovating could mean the same product is delivered in different ways and products used in a different way.
It’s a similar product that elevates personal. Coffee is a great example. I wouldn’t say that Starbucks innovated coffee but the way we use it, the way we now view coffee, there are countries that used to only drink tea until Starbucks got there and now nobody drinks tea in those countries anymore. UK is one of them. I wish the bigger companies that you worked for did what you say. They don’t do it.
They don’t listen to us. It’s insane. I hate PayPal. I don’t like PayPal. They make it so convoluted and it’s not simple for me. I don’t understand why I have to put in my information and then you have to put in all your credit cards to go to their platform. It’s so stupid. I got my gripes with Target and even Amazon. Basically, what I’m saying is that if you’re a small company, you are in a better position to be nimble and surgically effective in the market that you’re in. You can make a lot of profits. You don’t need to make billions of dollars to make money if you got one employee and that employee is you.
I agree when you’re talking about PayPal being difficult. Having worked there for three years and I was the head of the platform there, it had to do a lot with a KYC, AML CTF, Know Your Customer, Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing. If anything is difficult on PayPal, it’s not PayPal’s fault. It’s generally regulations that come in and make it hard. PayPal rides this weird line between banks, etc. The challenge when you get big is the government starts to pay attention to you. When the government starts to pay attention to you, they want their piece of the pie. They want to make sure that you’re doing things the way they want the things to be done. The government has its agenda. Companies have their agendas. A lot of times, those agendas aren’t the same.
When you’re small, most governments don’t care about you. Most competitors will ignore you. It gives you a lot of latitudes to take risks and experiment with your customers. I wanted to touch on one of the things that you said earlier, which is innovation doesn’t necessarily mean invention. In fact, I think some of the world’s best innovations are taking something that worked in one end and doing it in an industry that hasn’t done it yet. There are so many examples of technology specifically that were helpful for the military and is now used by everyone on Earth like using a cell phone, Velcro or zippers. All of those things were designed for specific activities. A lot of them had to do with the space and how we use them in our kitchen like the microwave.
There’s a lot of utility in technology out there that hasn’t been brought to the customer in a way that makes it accessible to the customer. I also think part of the work that I’m trying to do with HowDo is to help people with their inner monologue. I think the biggest barrier to innovation starts with the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we can’t innovate, it’s hard, I’m not this or I’m not that, we’re literally ending the story with that thought rather than giving ourselves permission to try and maybe fail. Failure is literally a failure and learning. If you failed but you learned, that’s not failure. That’s an iteration. That means you took a step, it didn’t work, you’re going to take the step again but you’re going to do it smarter.
If you keep taking the same step with the same process, that’s crazy. Doing the same thing twice and expecting different results, it’s sanity. If you learn every time and you use that learning to scale, that’s not failure. That’s iterating. Everyone iterates on the path to success. Amazon, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos all iterate. If you give yourself a more positive story like, “I can do this. I might have messed it up the first time but here’s why I messed it up. Here’s what I learned about it,” then go look at people who were successful, your role models and your aspirational innovators. Watched how they got there. There’s a ton of failure in that process. No one got up out of bed at eighteen and he’s like, “I’m going to be a billionaire,” and then the next day was a billionaire. There’s a huge 20 to 50-year journey for most of these people.
I believe that there’s a lot of power and capability in everyone but we often are held down by the narratives that we tell ourselves and potentially stories other people tell us but innovation is not scary. Invention is not scary. Invention is harder than innovation. That’s for sure because you have to do something not new but innovation is everywhere in so many things. There are many problems in the world and people will say, “How are we ever going to fix this?” I swear to God, it’s going to be innovation and it’s going to be someone who’s alive now that fixes it. It could be you. It could be anyone.
We started with customer-centric mindset and we’re going to end it with a customer-centric mindset. I think that whether you’re innovating or inventing, it becomes easier the clearer you have in your mind of who your customer is and what they want from you. For example, your customer now wants to save time and they want safe food and they want a new way to microwave something that whatever it is, it becomes a lot easier to innovate and invent once you figure out what your end goal is. You’re going to go back to the customer, see what they want, how they are going to use it and what problems you’re solving for them.
In terms of the obstacles along the way, I weigh with you on that too. When I first immigrated to America, my father told me, “America is the promised land where all dreams come true,” which was a lie. You didn’t know it at the time but you have to work for your dreams. When I came to America, the prevailing thought was that America is still the promised land. It’s the land of opportunity. All you need is the opportunity. As long as you are willing to work for it, you’re persistent and tenacious and you believe in yourself, you’re going to get there. Nowadays, that is not the prevailing thought. A lot of people who are almost nearing retirement age will tell you, “Unless you have something so unique, chic and something different, you’re better off in Corporate America. You’re not going to succeed because the world is complicated.”
What happens as a society is we condition our children. Our graduate schools are teaching business schools how to plug into a system, how to lead a team and how to report to your boss, organizational skills and all this stuff. I can see why you might be sitting there, reading this and wondering if any of this stuff applies to you. I would argue that if you look at all the companies that we’ve mentioned, we’re talking PayPal, including Jeff Bezos at Amazon, all of these people started their companies with very little money like $5,000 or below. Google, Apple or Facebook were all started by some little dreamer with a little idea of something. I would say stop doubting yourself because sometimes, you might be the only thing that’s in your way between you and your dream out there.
What have you got to lose? I believe there was no failure because when you fail but you get up, you learn something and how to do something better the next day. I would consider that our learning lesson. Now, if you choose to do something and you succeed on day one, let’s say you want to learn how to ride a bike. One of my kids learned how to ride a bike pretty quickly and the other one fell for about a year. The one that learned how to ride a bike pretty quickly was a success story but then the one that didn’t eventually learn. You learn a lot of things along the way. Everything that you want to have is worth trying, even if you fear that failure because that failure isn’t a failure. It’s a stepping stone.
West was saying to believe in yourself. Innovation isn’t scary. Even invention is not scary. It’s something that you’re going to have to get used to. Don’t you agree with all the companies you worked for in the past, West, like Target, Amazon and to some extent Visa? These companies have evolved every year. Do you remember when Target first opened? It was an undesirable store.
It was a grade above Walmart. Now, that’s the choice that the Millennials go to. Go figure. Target is shaking. It’s hip now. When I say we’re going to end this segment with customercentric thing, again whether you innovate or not whether you evolve or not, your customers are evolving every day. You better stay in touch with the evolution, the innovation and all that stuff that’s happening around you. Do you want to add anything else to that as we end our segment?
I would say never get comfortable. A principle is always day one. I think that’s true for every business. Many businesses that I’ve worked for missed hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue because they were like, “Whatever that thing is, it’s not going to be popular.” In 2007, I was at one of the largest banks in Europe. I was talking to their head of innovation and they were like, “We think this Facebook thing is going to be done in two years.” They were very wrong.
The biggest barrier to innovation is the stories we tell ourselves.
I see that so often. I see that in startup founders and in big companies. It’s a basic human behavior. We like patterns and familiar. Talking about stuff that’s unknown or unfamiliar is very hard. For a lot of people, that’s deeply uncomfortable. The more that we can make ourselves comfortable, specifically for me, I’m surrounded by musical instruments, I am constantly learning new things. I constantly challenge myself to learn new things so that I never get tired of the sensation of being unaware and feeling like a newbie. That is where people become the most successful. It’s when they have the endurance to consistently learn about the customer. Never get complacent.
Thank you so much for spending all this time with us. If you want to know more about West, he can be reached at HowDo.com. He will be launching a video series of a lot of free information. I highly recommend that you check it out because he has found ways to apply a lot of the principles that the bigger companies use. Those bigger companies do research at a much different scale and West is giving you them in smaller bites where you can apply it to your small business. I appreciate you coming in and wish you all the luck in the world for your upcoming podcast, which is also called HowDo Podcast. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me. This is awesome. I appreciate it.
About West Stringfellow
West Stringfellow leads product management and innovation at scale. Throughout his 20 year career, West honed his ability to quickly create a better strategic vision of a company’s future, motivate large groups of people to pursue that vision, and then lead teams through the operational, financial, organizational, and technical processes that bring strategic visions to life.
Currently, West is the Founder and CEO of HowDo where he is providing free universal innovation training. Prior to HowDo, West was Target’s first Entrepreneur in Residence, Target’s VP of Innovation, and the Founder of the Techstars Retail Accelerator, in partnership with Target. He was also Chief Product Officer for Bigcommerce and Rosetta Stone, led product innovation at PayPal and Visa, and was a senior product manager at Amazon. As a result, West led teams that built and rebuilt products and services used globally and daily by tens of millions of satisfied customers
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