Top 10 Innovators

Michael Tchong innovation

Like that year-end ritual where some organizations claim to be able to pick the hottest trends of the next year, some market watchers compile lists of the top (fill-in-the-blank) most innovative companies. As much as trends do not adhere to calendar years, innovators defy ranking.

A few weeks ago, Fast Company did its best to try to shoehorn 50 companies into such an arbitrary list, placing Amazon at the top of the list for “offering even more, even faster and smarter.” Really?

And then there’s No. 2 Google, which merits its ranking for “developing a photographic memory,” You mean that photographic memory that had Google Home spewing fake news? Or is it because of Google’s search algorithms, developed way back in 1999, which are now picture perfect?

Then there’s No. 3 Uber, which ostensibly is “accelerating autonomous driving” — accelerating it so much that one of their self-driving cars ran a red light in San Francisco. Read the list for yourself and start wondering.

At least Fast Company did not repeat the faux pax Insead committed back in 2013 when it named Salesforce.com the world’s most innovative company. Their yardstick? A financial metric.

That was a complete joke. If you’ve ever heard how much people complain about using Salesforce.com, then you know there’s no way this company could be named the world’s most innovative company.

No, innovative companies create breakthroughs. They materially rewrite the rules for market sectors. And yes, it’s not easy to choose who belongs because one has to consider a number of factors to make a list of top innovators, besides profitability or company value.

The companies we chose are category disrupters. They prove that constant innovation drives success. Our picks are not ranked but simply listed alphabetically and include a concrete rationale behind each choice:

AirBnB
AirBnB introduced us to the concept of “home optimization,” offering homeowners the same opportunity to boost their cash flow that major airlines have enjoyed for years. AirBnB is a genuinely disruptive innovator. That is evident from the 70 million guests who have discovered the joys of using AirBnB, making it the world’s largest hotel chain in the span of just ten years. And their success makes them a major topic of conversation at every travel conference.

Apple
No innovation list would be complete without the iPhone, which has completely reinvented the way we live our lives today. In nearly ten years, Apple has sold 1 billion iPhones, making it the most successful product in retail history. In a little over a decade, the iPhone vaulted Apple from a company that was down $2.6 billion in fiscal 2001 from the $8 billion recorded the year before to the world’s most valuable company. Cupertino could not have done that without breakthrough retailing, featuring stores without cash registers and a Genius Bar that still has no equal.

Domino’s
Here’s a company that promoted the fact that its pizzas used to taste like cardboard. Know of any other company that has publicly admitted that its products used to suck? Many companies should do the same, AT&T and Yahoo! come to mind. But Domino’s has continued to innovate relentlessly, with a host of novel ways to order pizza, from emoji tweets to Amazon Echo. But the best innovation of all is its pizza tracking, which still stands alone in the pizza category today, despite being launched in 2008. Not surprisingly Domino’s revenue growth continues to outpace the entire industry, growing at quadruple the rate based on the latest figures available.

Google
Google is a company that defies description. It generates most of its revenues from an amazingly ugly and user-unfriendly product, AdWords. Yet it lumbers into markets like a classic 800-pound gorilla with some remarkably elegant and innovative solutions, like Google Maps, Inbox and Cardboard. Some 10 million Cardboard devices have been shipped, enabling the exploration of virtual reality for a broad cross-section of the population. For that is has to be commended.

Nest
Yes Google owns Nest, but the company that Tony Fadell started has acquired a sterling reputation for creating a truly innovative, smart thermostat and packaging it in a very elegant way that even includes one of the most beautiful screwdrivers you’ll ever see. Nest’s interface is well-designed and intuitive. Its app is the sine qua non. We can only hope that other players will see the light and follow Nest in its footsteps because consumers need more encouragement to join the smart home revolution.

Square
Before Square, accepting credit cards wirelessly required filling out a lengthy merchant account application, undergoing a credit check, paying activation fees, leasing or buying a wireless terminal, and paying separately for wireless access. It was a real shit show. Enter Jack Dorsey, the Jack Black of digital retailing. His company’s invention: transmit a credit card’s magnetic stripe data via the iPhone’s headphone jack using a free Square reader. Square lets millions of small merchants ring up sales anywhere, anytime. Capitalism loves freedom, and we all love our Square reader.

Starbucks
What can you say about Starbucks that hasn’t been said before? Howard Schultz is not only a visionary, but a man with a mission and his imprimatur is indelibly written all over this remarkable chain of restaurants. Who else but Schultz could convince millions each day to fork over $4 for a cup of coffee? Starbucks did it by being the first with an iPhone app, first with an electronic payment system, first to put a Starbucks on a cruise ship, and first to gamify a loyalty program. Starbucks also treats its employees right with profit sharing, free education, and healthcare. McDonald’s and crew would be wise to pay heed, for happy employees means happy customers.

Tesla
One has to wonder why more multi-million-dollar-compensated CEOs can’t think the way Elon Musk does. He asked two simple questions: “Why can’t we build a great electric car?” And “Do I have to sell through retailers?” The resounding answers are clearly “Yes” and “No.” It takes cohones to be a disruptor, and that’s probably what all those over-paid CEOs lack. Tesla has scared the heebie-jeebies out of the entire automotive industry. And rightly so, they were all asleep at the wheel.

T-Mobile
Need more evidence of what cohones can contribute to a company? Look no further than T-Mobile. Here’s a player that inhabits a horrible market. Carriers rank right behind Comcast in sheer likeability. Enter John Legere with his “Uncarrier” shtick. His tireless quest to upset the apple cart has brought an entire industry to its knees. Remember how AT&T and Verizon famously abolished unlimited plans a few years ago? Hilariously, AT&T had to cave twice in just the past few weeks after it realized how lame its “unlimited” plan was compared to T-Mobile’s. Can you hear me now?

All of the above companies live and breathe innovation. It’s in their DNA, and the ripple effect they cause is proof positive that being innovative obliterates the status quo. The sad thing is that there are 265 million businesses in the Dun & Bradstreet global database, yet it’s difficult to come up with ten that resoundingly deserve to be on our list. We need to fix that.

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Michael Tchong

Michael Tchong
Michael is a professional people watcher and founder of four ahead-of-the-wave startups. He’s also a top-rated innovation and trends speaker, and an adjunct professor of innovation and social media at the University of San Francisco and the University of California at Berkeley.