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Innovation Requires Being an Outsider or Thinking Like One

By:  Jon Steinberg Dec 11, 2013
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Jon Steinberg

Innovation comes from not knowing. If you know the answer, it's hard to have a desire to innovate. This is why being an outsider to an industry can be such a powerful force in generating new ideas, and, in turn, success.

I recently finished "The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success" by William Thorndike, that makes a case of profiling eight outperforming CEOs who fit just this model.

When I arrived at BuzzFeed three and a half years ago, I had never sold brand advertising. Our Founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti, was a founder of the Huffington Post, but had only been adjacently involved in ad sales.  Neither of us had sold banners. We studied banners, and they seemed like a terrible advertising product for both brands and consumers. At BuzzFeed, Jonah had already begun to experiment with content driven advertising for brands.  When I dug in on that with him, we saw the ad product of the future and bet our whole business on it.

We had no legacy or revenue stream in banner ads. And many insiders at the time told us to run banners to start monetizing the quickly growing site.  Innovating, because we knew no better, was really the only option.

Shake, a company I'm on the founding board of, took the same approach. Why did simple legal agreements have to be long and filled with legalese? Why couldn't they be as simple to execute as answering a few questions on your iPhone and signing right there. One of our founders is a lawyer, so he's an insider of sorts, but he was able to ask the questions without being conditioned by his history.

For insiders, it's no doubt harder, but innovating simply requires that you forget the things you take for granted. And 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? Because ultimately if you don't disrupt yourself with innovation an outsider will do it for you.

Jon Steinberg is the President and COO of BuzzFeed and a Board Member of Shake. Coca-Cola is a client at BuzzFeed. He joined BuzzFeed in June 2010, growing the company from 15 employees to more than 300. Under his leadership, BuzzFeed has grown into a global and profitable social advertising business that works with over half of the world's top 100 brands. Steinberg, who was named one of AdAge’s Media Mavens in 2012, is a CNBC contributor. He lives with his wife, two kids and cat on the Upper East Side.

Jon is part of The Opener , an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of Coca-Cola Journey.