Technology entrepreneur Harper Reed says innovation isn’t about disruption; it’s about creating products and services that everyone can use

You can’t have innovation without access. That’s the first thing technologists need to understand before they start working on inventions, according to Harper Reed. It took a while for Reed to arrive at this conclusion, but when he did it was like a lightning bolt.

At 37 Reed has packed a lot into his work to date. He was chief technology officer (CTO) of Threadless, the t-shirt business that uses designs crowdsourced from artists.

He also worked briefly for a venture capital firm before joining Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign as CTO, where he was responsible for optimising donations to the campaign through digital channels.

Most recently he founded payments business Modest, which improves the shopping experience for smartphone users by helping them to check out more easily. The business was sold to PayPal for an undisclosed fee earlier this year.

Innovation doesn’t mean ‘shiny new things’

It was while campaigning for Obama that he made the connection between technology that works and how it is deployed. “Without access you can’t have innovation,” he says. “I realised innovation has nothing to do with what I thought it did; shiny new things or ‘disruption’.

“I learned fast that just buying technology was a mistake and that people can do a lot of innovative stuff with things I had deemed anachronistic, such as paper, phone calls and door-knocking. If you can innovate with paper then the whole world can use your product.

‘You and I could invent the coolest, most technological thing in the world, but if no one has access, no one can see it and it is valueless’

“Alternatively, you and I could invent the coolest, most technological thing in the world, but if no one has access then no one can see it and it is valueless.”

Reed cites the example of a Nokia smartphone launched in 2004 with a touchscreen. It sold poorly and in 2006 it was re-released around the same time as the first iPhone. But because the Apple product was easier to understand – and therefore accessible – the Nokia product was overshadowed by the bestseller we know today.

Inventions that didn’t connect

Recent history is littered with similar examples of inventions that didn’t quite connect. Even the World Wide Web didn’t get near its potential until the world began to adopt it universally and it made its way into people’s homes and on to their phones.

Innovations such as 3D and virtual reality have experienced jittering progress for the same reason: they are not easy to adopt. Reed mentions a friend who has a 3D-enabled TV but to his knowledge is yet to watch a 3D film on it.

“It took me months and months to figure it out and when I did I felt stupid. It was like banging my head against the wall and then realising I didn’t have to do that,” says Reed.

“If you take the iPhone as an example, it wasn’t successful because Apple made it – because Apple can fail. It was successful because Apple solved the user experience issues and suddenly everyone loved touchscreens instead of hating them like before.

“Ostensibly, I was the CTO of the Obama campaign but I knew that it wasn’t about having the latest tech, it was finding out where technology – some of it quite basic – could be an appropriate force multiplier in getting donations.”

Products that everyone can use

In the private sector this means creating products that everyone can use. For widespread adoption to take place, the teams creating products have to be diverse too. If a team is composed of white males, then the chances are white males will love the product but others might not.

Worse, restricting the team demographic can lead to serious and embarrassing glitches after a product has been launched.

In May Google launched an app that categorises images on your tablet or phone. Users can call up all their images depicting dogs, bikes or buildings. It worked brilliantly until someone complained that the software had categorised African-Americans as gorillas.

A more cringeworthy public relations disaster is hard to imagine, but it backs up Reed’s theory that diverse teams make better products. Problems like this one happen more often than you’d think. In April, for example, it was reported that dark skin and tattoos caused glitches in the heart rate sensor on the Apple Watch.

‘The more diverse your team, the more diverse your early adopters’

“The more diverse your team, the more diverse your early adopters,” says Reed. “It’s one of the challenges you must work through when you start out: how do you make sure the people working on the project represent your audience?”

Working on Obama’s campaign

During the Obama campaign this meant experimenting with different ways of connecting with voters and asking them to contribute. Voter registration details are freely accessible in the US, so campaigners have a wealth of information with which to target potential donors.

Email-based multivariate testing revealed that by far the best engagement came when the president’s message began with a ‘hey’ compared with more formal forms of greeting.

The team experienced a high level of success when it sent emails suggesting the amounts of money voters should donate, based on their previous donations, and nudging the figure slightly higher than the evidence suggested they would normally give.

Meanwhile, the addition of a ‘quick donate’ button on emails meant people could give without reaching for their credit card. The innovation was responsible for around $250 million dollars of lift, says Reed. In an electoral system where money is everything, small changes like these were a game-changer.

“Having a quick donate button is definitely illegal in the EU, but that’s the kind of thing you can do when you have reasonable laws,” he jokes.

Why the PayPal-Modest tie-up works

Today, Reed and his team at Modest are working to apply the same access-based formula to mobile payments. Transactions over smartphones are currently vanishingly small compared with the rates on desktop computers; people research purchases but they don’t click the ‘buy’ button.

Despite Modest being acquired by PayPal – which would represent an endgame for many entrepreneurs – he says there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Both sides looked at the deal as a cheat code or a power-up on a video game. We wanted access to the huge pool of users PayPal offers and it was just starting to develop the technology that we had been working on for some time.

“They get to jump ahead with the technology and we get to jump ahead with the audience. We set out to change the way ecommerce works and we’re only partway through what we set out to do. ‘Doneness’ is a continuum in technology so you never really finish.”

Harper Reed was talking to Dan Matthews at Grant Thornton’s Inspiring Business event in London in November.

Image: Matt James