Virgin on Business: Testing, Testing

Companies that don't try out all those crazy ideas are, well, crazy.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Somewhere in the acres of South Lake Union real estate that Amazon now occupies is the secret lab where the company comes up with its next big idea. Maybe it looks like a movie-cliché mad-scientist lab, with bubbling beakers and electrical apparatus throwing off sparks.

Maybe it’s a room decorated in tech-sector-employee lounge motif, with whiteboards galore and the occasional office dog.

Maybe it’s no more than a cubicle farm. And perhaps it’s just a scrap of paper on which Jeff Bezos jots the latest Big Idea to cross his brain.
But there has to be an idea, right?

All companies constantly change, innovate and test new concepts for products, services, marketing, sales strategy, production methods and facilities. At least the ones that expect to stick around do it. Complacency and inertia are deadly behaviors in business. Keep doing what you’re doing, even if you’re good at it, and eventually someone will come up with a way to do it better, or with something that makes what you’re doing irrelevant.

That reality is what motivates a small retailer to freshen up the window display, and what compels one of the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturers to try out designs for its next-generation plane.

You could fill a decent-sized hangar with all the planes that Boeing considered but, for various reasons, never built. The original supersonic transport. The Sonic Cruiser. Ever seen a Boeing 7J7 in the air? Of course not, because it was never built. And you would have known it if you’d seen one, with its distinctive design of propfan engines mounted near the tail.

Innovation isn’t just a matter of coming up with a new product. It can include finding new uses and markets for an existing one. Example: Insitu, a company based in the Columbia Gorge town of Bingen, makes unmanned aerial vehicles — drones. The best-known application of drone technology has been with the military, but developers have long been intrigued with other commercial uses. Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, recently conducted a pilot — or pilotless? — demonstration project with BNSF Railway on using drones to inspect bridges, trestles and miles of right of way running through rough and remote terrain. Utilities, which face the same inspection and monitoring challenges with transmission lines, are experimenting with drones as well.

So the fact that Amazon is constantly tweaking and expanding its basic model isn’t particularly noteworthy by itself. What is attention grabbing is the frenetic pace at which Amazon rolls out new ideas — and sometimes scraps them nearly as quickly. Use drones to deliver packages? Sure! Home grocery delivery? Let’s try — and add restaurant food as well! Our own branded phone? Why not!? Produce our own programming? Absolutely! Run our own trucking and air-freight systems? Sign us up!

The opening in University Village of a physical Amazon bookstore last fall prompted considerable commotion and commentary, given the company’s origins as an online bookseller and its impact on the brick-and-mortar segment of the business. But seen in the context of its experiment-a-day approach, its significance lessens as just one more exercise in throwing ideas at the wall to see if they’ll stick.

Amazon might argue that the impulse to remake and expand its business portfolio is crucial to its survival, lest someone get to those ideas first and use them to wrest away growth opportunities or market share. The counterarguments are that when Amazon spreads its attention and resources over so many initiatives, it risks losing the focus necessary to see those projects through to completion.

Amazon turns 22 this year. What shape the company is in even 11 years from now will depend not so much on the fun part of the business — churning out innovative ideas — as on the dull but important side: making at least some of those ideas work. 

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

So the fact that Amazon is constantly tweaking and expanding its basic model isn’t particularly noteworthy by itself. What is attention grabbing is the frenetic pace at which Amazon rolls out new ideas — and sometimes scraps them nearly as quickly. Use drones to deliver packages? Sure! Home grocery delivery? Let’s try — and add restaurant food as well! Our own branded phone? Why not!? Produce our own programming? Absolutely! Run our own trucking and air-freight systems? Sign us up!

The opening in University Village of a physical Amazon bookstore last fall prompted considerable commotion and commentary, given the company’s origins as an online bookseller and its impact on the brick-and-mortar segment of the business. But seen in the context of its experiment-a-day approach, its significance lessens as just one more exercise in throwing ideas at the wall to see if they’ll stick.

Amazon might argue that the impulse to remake and expand its business portfolio is crucial to its survival, lest someone get to those ideas first and use them to wrest away growth opportunities or market share. The counterarguments are that when Amazon spreads its attention and resources over so many initiatives, it risks losing the focus necessary to see those projects through to completion.

Amazon turns 22 this year. What shape the company is in even 11 years from now will depend not so much on the fun part of the business — churning out innovative ideas — as on the dull but important side: making at least some of those ideas work. 

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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