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Idea Generation

99U Conference Recap 6: Innovation Lessons from the Trenches

Insights from Seth Godin, Detroit Bus Company founder Andy DiDorosi, and D-Rev CEO and ALVA award winner Krista Donaldson from the 2014 99U Conference.

In our final 2014 99U Conference recap, we bring you more insights from our yearly gathering focused on idea execution. To close our series, we explore the lessons learned from a mix including an urban troublemaker and a designer that helps people walk again.

“Innovation” sounds good in your company’s mission statement, but what does it actually mean to push things forward, to create entirely new communities and markets? The tools of our speakers vary: some use buses, others a series of best-selling books, but one thing was made clear: creating something totally new requires us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Andy DiDorosi



Founder // The Detroit Bus Company

Andy DiDorosi is a man who takes matters into his own hands. In his native Detroit, he helms several projects to help make the city a better place. Whether it’s through the Detroit Bus Company or his accidental incubator Paper Street, DiDorosi gets things done.

  • Call the world’s bluff. DiDorosi told the story of when he held a race at an abandoned velodrome in Detroit. The city was threatening to shut down the event. That is, until DiDorosi stated on a local radio station that the city was “very supportive” of his effort. Public excitement over the event forced the city to change from combative to helpful and the event went on as planned. 
  • You don’t need to live in New York or San Francisco to make an impact. DiDorosi acknowledged the allure of two of the cultural capitals of the U.S. but suggested that there are tons of other cities in America that need entrepreneurs and creatives. He closed his talk challenging those looking to make an inpact on the word to “move to Detroit. Pack your things. Fire your landlord.” 
  • Do something about it. When Detroit killed its light rail program in 2012, DiDorosi said he was disappointed. Then, he did something about it. Armed with some mechanical skills from fixing up his high school ride, he purchased serval buses at a local auction and bootstrapped his own public transit line.” In most cities, you’re a passenger: everything just works,” he said. But in his city, he and his friends had to do it themselves.

Seth Godin



Author & Entrepreneur // Squidoo

A best-selling author more than a dozen times over and a serial entrepreneur, Seth Godin took the stage at 99U to answer audience questions in what may have been the world’s most quotable Q&A ever.

  • Be different. It’s hard to make an impact on the world while falling in line with everyone around you. “Create something that is offensive,” Godin urged. “That is only going to appeal to the weird.” When you put yourself out there in this way, you will create a new inner circle or “tribe” of people that will create change. “You will not be doing great work until you can say to some people: ‘It’s not for you,'” he said.
  • Embrace fear. Fear is part of any creative process. It is impossible to conquer it, but as Godin said, “You can dance with it.”
  • “It’s free to be wrong.” Keep guessing, keep trying, keep pushing your boundaries. “Nobody wakes up with talker’s block,” said Godin. So keep the ideas and work flowing until you find something that sticks.
  • True connection happens around ideas, and in person. One of the fallacies of our connected internet age is that social networking and email can make poor substitutes for actual, in-person connections. “Just because you can type and people type back, it doesn’t mean you’re connected.”
  • Read more quotes from Godin’s Q&A here

Krista Donaldson 



CEO // D-Rev

Whether she’s creating an inexpensive, state-of-the-art prosthetic knee or inventing new ways to fight jaundice, Donaldson received the third annual ALVA award and then took the stage to share lessons learned from using design and pure grit to solve the world’s biggest problems affordably. 

  • The user is king. When developing a prosthetic knee, Donaldson and her team observed the behavior of amputees and found that they were extremely concerned with the sound and profile of their new appendage. As a result, D-Rev prioritized noise-dampening mechanisms and a more rounded natural profile, much to the delight of its customers.
  • The design process is messy, embrace it. Donaldson said that, in theory, design should move in a straight line. But instead, she found her team continually returning to their users to improve and iterate the product. It made for more roundabout process, but resulted in a far superior product. “Be okay with relentless iteration,” she said.
  • Partner with experts. Donaldson and her team were expert designers, but when it came to distributing medical equipment throughout India, they relied on local partners to help ensure their product got to market quickly and successfully. “[You’re designing] a system, not a product,” she said.


More 2014 Conference Recaps:

Part One: What Are Your Creative Values?
Part Two: Rethinking the Way We Work
Part Three: Rethinking the Way We Lead
Part Four: The Best Way to Complain Is to Make Things
Part Five: Creating a Business That Withstands the Test of Time

Part Six: Innovation Lessons from the Trenches

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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