You can be both dull and innovative

Many of us are intrigued by wonders that scream “THE FUTURE” like flying cars. But sometimes the best inventions are more about brain power than technology magic. Let me give you a couple of examples in my quest to appreciate the ingenuity in boring things.

Take apple supply chains and roof trusses.

I was introduced recently to an online grocery delivery company based in New Jersey called Misfits Market. Many companies have struggled with the costs and complexity of bringing us bananas or Doritos at our command. Misfits knows this.

The company’s answer to the history of delivery failures is to think small. It tries to save pennies and eliminate tiny inefficiencies here and there that can be the difference between failure and success.

Here are a couple of examples of what its small innovations look like: Stores and delivery services tend to sell only the middle chunks of salmon. Misfits buys and sells the other cuts, which are just as yummy, at a discount. Abhi Ramesh, chief executive of Misfits, also excitedly told me about skipping some steps in the long chain of farmers, packers and distributors for apples. Pruning a middleman or two can save time and money.

“Boring problems are the ones most worth solving,” Ramesh said.

This man is speaking my language. It’s a competitive advantage if a company does a difficult, dull and expensive thing a little better, he said.

There are other food companies taking similar approaches, and I don’t know if the company will succeed. But Misfits is an example of a tech company that knows an industry well and believes it can slightly improve established ways of doing things. This is what technological progress often looks like: a novel but perhaps unflashy twist on what came before.

Roy Bahat, an investor in young technology companies at the firm Bloomberg Beta, uses the term “hot-swap” to refer to a type of startup that thinks big by tinkering with the status quo. He gave examples like Flexport, which is trying to streamline the steps involved in shipping crates of goods by ocean or air, and Newfront, which is trying to do something similar for insurance brokerages. (Bloomberg Beta is an investor in Newfront.)

A characteristic of these companies, Bahat said, is that they don’t aim for major change, as Warby Parker did with eyeglasses, for example. That kind of change can feel scary or threatening, especially to customers in huge industries like freight shipping or insurance, he said. Instead, a hot-swap startup promises something familiar but better.

This doesn’t always look like WOW, but sometimes it does. Dan Patt, an aerospace engineer whom I spoke to recently about package delivery by drone, told me about a construction company near Boise, Idaho, that used something cool — robots! — to improve on a snoozefest.

The company, House of Design, sells massive machines with robotic arms that automate some steps in building a house or apartment building, including roof trusses.

I had to Google what those are. They are triangular wood segments assembled together to form the skeleton of a roof. Designs of roof trusses vary, and putting them together is relatively repetitive and laborious work, Michael Lindley, a House of Design sales and marketing executive, told me.

House of Design promises that its systems are compatible with popular construction industry design software and that they churn out trusses more quickly and with fewer people. There are technology smarts in House of Design, Patt said, but what’s different is the creativity in the manufacturing process.

New York Times colleague Conor Dougherty has written about the ups and downs of excitement in automating home building. Katerra, a prominent tech startup, collapsed last year after it tried to streamline every step of construction, including by making lightbulbs in-house.

The history of failures shows the hubris of believing that you can reimagine a big industry, whether it’s real estate or groceries. Established ways of doing things may have been established for a reason. Plus, inertia is powerful, the status quo is often pretty good and smart tech can’t resolve structural problems.

But it’s useful to remind ourselves what invention is. It’s not always a driverless taxi or a new smartphone that is significantly different from what came before. Often it’s taking a product or a process that we know and slowly making it a bit simpler or cheaper.

Roy Walsh

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