The Snowball of Innovation

This week we had an extended conference call with our team to discuss our upcoming projects and ventures and near the end we took some time to look back at how different projects (themes in particular) have influenced later feature innovations in our business.

It was fun to review the last year or so and see how far we’ve come. But along the way, as we retraced some of our steps, it became clear that all the innovations we’ve released have been rolled into new projects to add tremendous value.

We’re calling this the Snowball of Innovation.

Very simply, the Snowball of Innovation is taking home run innovations from one project and rolling them into each new project after it.

Sounds simple, right? But there are some philosophical underpinnings to this simple concept …

Innovation in itself is a company-wide value I cherish and a focus of my leadership. Innovation is what drives and inspires me personally. I love being a part of a team that creates new and awesome things. And I believe wholeheartedly that innovation, particularly in our arena of business, is vital. We must stay ahead and on the cutting edge of innovation in web design.

My rational for all this is that if we continue to make small, incremental and consistent innovations, all of which point and pull in the same general direction that the sum of these will have enormous benefits for our company and our customers.

That’s why I emphasize flexibility and adaptability within our team. A running joke we have is that our company’s tagline is “All things subject to change.” Although it’s made in jest and always gets a laugh, it’s very much true.

The reason? I never want to get so complacent or set in our ways, that we’re not able to adapt and adjust our business for changing times. (See the entire newspaper industry as an example)

Here’s how it all works …

You take the underlying value for web development in our company — innovation — first. Whenever possible I encourage our developers, in particular, to think and dream about possible feature innovations that help the customer and client. These innovations of course need to be weighed with some kind of cost versus benefit analysis. I try to focus them on low-hanging fruit (low cost in terms of time investment, high benefit for client).

The hard part for me is that I often don’t know how long a particular feature request will take — or cost us — so I coach our team to think through these issues and help us make an informed decision about chasing a request. (By the way, the BEST innovations have actually come at the request of customers.)

A lot of the innovations we’ve rolled out have been trial and error ventures and honestly, things we didn’t plan for initially … they just happened. (I think that’s a byproduct of the values and passions we embody together as a team.) Others have been planned out.

Here’s a case study for the Snowball of Innovation: our crown jewel at iThemes, the FlexxTheme.

It was a two-month endeavor in late 2008, but benefited from the Snowball effect, and now is a vital part of the larger Snowball going forward. Almost everything we do has been and is influenced by this theme. I’m sure we’ll look back on this theme as a monumental innovation in our company’s history.

Here are some of the Snowball effects around the particular theme that have influenced so many of our projects:

PRE-FLEXX SNOWBALLS

  • The underlying CSS grid that makes FlexxTheme SO flexible started as a way to speed development, the first theme it was implemented in was our Titanium theme a month earlier; but building Titanium on the grid helped make FlexxTheme’s 1,000-plus layout options possible.
  • The Theme Options framework that went into FlexxTheme was started well before FlexxTheme was rolled out; initially the Menu Builder, a big part of the Theme Options, was rolled into earlier themes at popular request by our customers

BECAUSE OF FLEXX SNOWBALLS

  • Featured Images was a major feature innovation in FlexxTheme, then subsequently rolled back to our earlier themes and forward to all our themes. It was a banner innovation that produced a “Flash-like” effect with easy rotating photos
  • The image uploader and resize functions started with VizBiz and took out a common problem we encountered with customers regarding using Custom Fields
  • The Billboard ad management feature in FlexxTheme was a last-minute feature addition, not included in the original plans, but built based on another common problem customers had with WordPress and themes — adding images to your widget-ready sidebars was a PAIN in the butt; Billboard was consequently rolled out as a stand-along plugin
  • Background settings started as an off-the-cuff comment to Chris Jean, our code ninja, about having easy CSS background settings; he took that remark and ran with it and produced one of the best feature innovations that give some cool and easy customization options to customers

AFTER FLEXX SNOWBALLS

  • Multi-level dropdown menus were implemented after Flexx, but implemented backward to be included in Flexx as a popular customer request; it’s also now a standard feature in all our themes
  • Currently, Nathan, our lead front-end developer, is working on easy CSS font and color controls that will be implemented in all themes going forward; it’s one of the most exciting innovations we’ve had in a while
  • Prodigy Theme is a WordPress theme framework that Nathan’s been working on for several months and is now in public beta; it was an innovative idea that we’ve had to put on the backburner simply due to the enormity of a development project it entails; but it’ll have numerous benefits for our themes and how they are developed, in fact, it’s already inspired some of other projects currently in development

Looking back on all this, I’m excited to say … the best is yet to come!

I can’t wait to see what the Snowball looks like in a year, in 3 years … and beyond.

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