Q&A: How Innovation Leader digs into coverage of innovation
Scott Kirsner is the CEO and editor in chief of Innovation Leader, which was founded five years ago and focuses its content on a specific topic — how big companies innovate effectively.
Innovation Leader produces original content on its website with a team of nine people. It also publishes a print magazine twice a year because these executives at large companies still spend time with print.
The operation has a much-higher subscription price — $695 a year for individual subscribers — than the Economist, Fortune, or Wall Street Journal.
Kirsner spent nearly two decades as a business journalist and contributing editor at the Boston Globe, Wired magazine, Fast Company, Variety, The New York Times, BusinessWeek and other mainstream media. His focus on how innovations that matter get introduced to the world has taken him to the White House, the Sundance Film Festival, the United Nations, and the innovation labs of Google, Walt Disney, General Motors, and many other companies.
Kirsner is the author of several books on innovation and technology, including a highly-acclaimed collaboration with George Lucas, “Inventing the Movies,” which explored the challenge of bringing new ideas to a century-old, change-resistant industry: Hollywood.
Kirsner spoke by email with Talking Biz News about Innovation Leader’s strategy. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get the idea for Innovation Leader?
My two co-founders and I worked together for the Boston Globe in the mid-1990s, when the Globe was still owned by the New York Times Co. We had the experience of trying to do something new — digital publishing, and creating new revenue streams — inside an existing business that at the time didn’t feel a huge amount of urgency to change. Parts of it were very brand-conscious and risk-averse.
When the three of us started discussing ideas for a media startup five or six years ago, there was one that we kept coming back to. How do you make innovation happen faster, and spread faster, in an established company? How do you get people on board, rather than battling against change? It can be easy for a startup to pursue a new idea, take risks, communicate with customers in new ways, conduct experiments. All those things are harder for an existing company, and we just felt there wasn’t much information about how you do that.
How did you pick the specific topics that it covers?
Initially, we thought we would be writing more about the “what” of innovation — what does 3D printing mean for big companies, or how will virtual reality change the way people build buildings. But after eight or nine months of doing a lot of that, we realized that it was a crowded niche. Analyst firms and market research firms and consumer publications like Wired do a really good job at tracking these emerging technologies and trying to project what their impact will be.
But the more we talked to executives and published pieces about the “how” of innovation, the more we saw people reading our stuff, signing up for our free e-mail, and paying for a membership. (We use the term membership as opposed to subscription.) The “how” is really concrete examples of how big companies like Disney and Starbucks and Marriott and Google hire the right people, create time and space for them to innovate, get the budget they need, test ideas with customers, and eventually roll new stuff out to the market. How they innovate, as opposed to what emerging technologies they might be using.
While some of what we publish is stuff that would be of interest to a mainstream business audience, like an interview with the president of Southwest Airlines or the CEO of Hasbro, the bulk of it is really tactical, really detailed, really “zoomed in” stuff that helps people do their jobs better, and understand how other companies are approaching innovation.
Did you see a lack of coverage of these topics in mainstream business news?
Absolutely. Mainstream business news might cover the opening of a new innovation center in Silicon Valley, or a high-profile failure of a project that sucked up millions of dollars at a public company, but they just don’t cover the world of innovation and R&D on a day in, day out basis. Or at a high level of detail and granularity, where you can really take something away from a piece and apply it to what you do.
How did you grow your audience?
Initially, it was a lot of what we call “hand-to-hand combat” — going to events focused on corporate innovation, moderating panels, sitting with people over lunch. Reaching out to people on LinkedIn to have phone conversations — either to generate stories, or just to understand the general landscape of what their issues and concerns are. We had a free email newsletter from the very beginning, and we experimented with social media as well. Mainly organic social publishing, but a little bit of paid social, like focusing on reaching people with “innovation” in their titles on LinkedIn.
I think once we had a year of stories out there, people started to discover us when they were hunting for information about corporate innovation, and things started growing really nicely from there.
You’ve also got a print magazine. Why did you decide to do print as well?
We launched that after about two-and-a-half years in business mainly because we were hearing from people in these kinds of innovation and R&D roles that they still paid attention to paper, whether it was a research report produced by a consulting firm or Harvard Business Review or the Economist. We felt like print was a way to get a few minutes more of precious time from this audience — to add some tangible and tactile value to something that is largely an e-mail and web and mobile product.
I guess the last thing I’d say is that we were producing entirely original content, and we wanted to showcase it in a format that would encourage you to really read it — as opposed to skimming it on your phone — and maybe even pass it around to colleagues at your company. After doing a “beta test” magazine issue in 2015, in 2016 we started working with Patrick Mitchell, whom I’d worked with previously at Fast Company magazine. He is really an innovator when it comes to print design, not to mention a National Magazine Award winner.
How much content are you publishing on a weekly basis?
A typical week averages probably two or three pieces. That may include a video replay of a recent webcast, a photo gallery from a live event we’ve run, or an interview about the head of innovation for the city of Los Angeles. But we are also in the midst of rolling out the first season of our podcast, “Innovation Answered,” as well as occasional videos where one of our staffers goes out to visit a lab or new retail store or R&D center.
Because our model is member-supported, and not about driving lots of page views and getting new content up every hour, we can focus on what the members want, which is less content, content they can’t get anywhere else, and more in-depth content.
How quickly did you become profitable, and who are your subscribers?
Well, we’ve had to grow the old-fashioned way — based on revenue — from the very beginning, because we chose to bootstrap the business as opposed to looking for outside investors. It took just about five years of really hard work to get to profitability.
The subscribers, or members, are largely people in big companies who have some kind of job that ties in to innovation. They could be in R&D, new product development, technology, design, marketing, or even human resources, where they’re thinking about how to enhance the culture of the company and bring in new talent. Some companies may have just one member, and some buy group memberships, where they’re getting access for a team of 10 or 50 people.
We recently sold a membership to the NBA that covers all their teams, and last week I was talking with a group of members from Universal Parks & Resorts. Some of our members also work at the consulting firms or product design firms that work with these big companies to help them innovate more intelligently. They want to understand what’s going on, and who’s doing what.
Who do you see as your competition?
Free stuff on the internet. It may not be good. It may be written by someone with an agenda or something to sell you. It may be rehashed from a book the blogger half-listened to on Audible. But it’s free.
Where are you looking to grow your editorial operation?
We have a small, really talented editorial team right now. The main thing I’m looking for in 2018 is a few freelancers to help write our really in-depth, 30- or 40-page research reports, and analyze some of the survey data that goes into them. On the business side, we’re thinking about adding a “customer success” or “member success” person in 2019, who will make sure paying members are getting value from Innovation Leader, and finding the information and resources they need on the site, before we go to them and say, “OK, it’s time to sign up for another year. Did you get anything from it?”
How does your conference business help the editorial side?
Well, we do at least one event every month, where it’s a small roundtable with 12 or 16 people in a boardroom, or a bigger gathering with 50 or 250 people. There’s just no substitute for spending time with the people who are paying for the content in person to understand what problems they’re dealing with, and what information or data would be helpful to them.
It also builds rapport, and makes it easy when you want to call them to do a piece — you don’t have to do the “three-month tango” with the PR person, trying to persuade them to set up a phoner with this executive. The executive e-mails the PR person and says, “I’m planning to do a piece with Innovation Leader.” That’s enormously helpful.
The events also really build bonds among the membership — they get to know each other, offer a lot of really nitty-gritty advice, and it adds this really helpful and human dimension to what in the 20th century we used to call “publishing.” The approach we are taking, to me, feels more like forming a tribe or community-building.
How does the business model work?
Roughly 95 percent of the content we produce is behind a paywall, either right when it is published or a few weeks after. Members pay an annual fee to get access to all of the content, which includes articles, interviews, quarterly research reports, and also downloadable tools and templates that we create or that members share with each other. Then we have sponsors — we call them strategic partners — who pay to be in front of that really senior, high-value audience, whether it is in print, online, or at events.
Our site does also have a job board where people can pay to post jobs, but we don’t do anything with ad networks or CPM-based advertising.