While experience is highly prized, a lack of experience might be more valuable when it comes to creativity and innovation.
It might sound strange, but it works according to Jon Steinberg, president and COO of online ad boutique BuzzFeed. The idea is that people who have experience will often use what they know to simply follow a formula, where people who don’t know are forced to innovate.
“If you know the answer, it's hard to have a desire to innovate,” Steinberg explained in Coca-Cola Journey USA's The Opener column. “This is why being an outsider to an industry can be such a powerful force in generating new ideas, and, in turn, success.”
“Innovation comes from not knowing.”
When Jon came into BuzzFeed in 2010 it was a small company with big ideas. Although Steinberg had worked at Google and in a number of other software companies, he had never done what BuzzFeed was trying to do; sell brand advertising.
Similarly his CEO, Jonah Peretti had only limited experience with brand advertising.
“Neither of us had sold banners,” Jon said. “We studied banners, and they seemed like a terrible advertising product for both brands and consumers.”
Because of this lack of experience, Jonah and Jon were not about to sit back and accept the status quo – and immediately set about looking for alternatives.
“Jonah had already begun to experiment with content driven advertising for brands,” Jon said. “When I dug in on that with him, we saw the ad product of the future and bet our whole business on it.”
Unlike other online advertising companies BuzzFeed did not depend on existing revenue streams from banner advertising, and so the company was able to focus its entire attention on a brand new business model.
“Many insiders at the time told us to run banners to start monetizing the quickly growing site,” Jon said. “Innovating, because we knew no better, was really the only option.”
According to Jon it’s not impossible for industry insiders to become innovative, so long as they train themselves to think like outsiders.
“For insiders, it's no doubt harder, but innovating simply requires that you forget the things you take for granted,” Jon said. “Ask yourself, what if things didn't have to be the way they are? What if this new idea overtook and destroyed our existing business lines?”
At BuzzFeed the approach has paid dividends. The company has grown from a staff of just 15 in 2010 to over 300 at present, boasting some of the world’s largest and more well known companies among its customers.
According to Jon the push to innovate is about more than growth, it’s actually a matter of survival.
“Ultimately if you don't disrupt yourself with innovation an outsider will do it for you,” Jon said.