Innovation key to standing out in the crowd

Tamara Kleinberg, founder of, says innovation is key if new companies are to stand out in the crowd.

And if innovation is lacking, that can be a death sentence, Kleinberg tells

“We don’t want to get caught in the “-er trap” — better is not enough,” she said. “To win in today’s marketplace you have to be different… iconic companies have gone under because they didn’t innovate.”

She noted many early-stage startups have also faded away after failing to “find that place of differentiation” which is key to innovating.

As well as the founder of the Denver-based innovation platform, Kleinberg is an author, investor, entrepreneur and TED Talk alum. She will give an opening talk at the Wisconsin Technology Council’s 2017 Early Stage Symposium Nov. 15 at the Monona Terrace in Madison.

“Even if you have the most amazing product or service, if you’re doing things the same way everybody else is solving them, you’re just adding to the noise,” she said. “How do you find that unique selling space that allows people to understand what you do, solve a need for them in a way they haven’t had before, in a way that’s meaningful for them?”

The key to getting there, she says, is to think differently from the competition at every level of the company.

“We put all of our heart and soul into creating an innovative product or service. … The innovation needs to be in the business model itself, not just in the product,” she said. “Everything we do has to be through that lens of innovation.”

Kleinberg points to The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery as one example of differentiating innovation that has led to real change in the industry.

This Denver- and Austin-based wine producer offers wine in a can, breaking from the market standard of bottled wine made at a vineyard. In doing so, owner/winemaker Ben Parsons has been able to bring millennials into a segment from which they were previously isolated by changing the way the product is packaged, sold and consumed, Kleinberg says.

“[Millennials] wanted to take it hiking, tailgating… just having a glass at night without opening the whole bottle,” she said. “By challenging the assumption of the marketplace, he brought in a whole new category of consumers and new distribution channels.”

That includes, she noted, getting the canned wine served on Frontier Airlines flights.

“It’s one thing to have an innovative solution, but how do you bring it to market so it’s meaningful?” she said. “You have to get buy-in from the people that matter — can’t get that if the strategy to market is based on yesterday’s success, on other companies’ success.”

Next week’s two-day Early Stage Symposium puts young companies in the same room with investors, later stage companies and other industry experts. Kleinberg says such gatherings can be valuable not only in finding a match between investor and promising idea, but also for strengthening entrepreneurs’ ability to talk about their innovations.

She says the event will give startup leaders the chance to learn how to read the room, better understand the feedback they receive, and refine and optimize their pitches.

“Connecting with other startups, having that cross collaboration of thinking with new people on the investor side, on the startup side… that’s hugely valuable,” she added.

She also characterized the current global environment for startups as “an even playing field.”

“The barriers to entry are so low right now. If you have a business idea, now is 100 percent the time to do it,” she said. “The flip side: there’s lot’s of competition, more so than ever before.”

One of the biggest challenges, she said, is that customers now are less loyal than they’ve ever been. Startups must find new customers, but they really have to focus more on how to keep them, she said.

This trend has led to the rise of businesses like Uber, she said, as taxicabs are fighting “a losing battle” to stay where they have always been, rather than innovating to keep up with the changing needs of customers.

“The challenges that presents can be enormous,” she said. “You have to be as good as the customer’s last experience.”

–By Alex Moe