A Billion Dollar (Shave Club) Case for Simplicity in Innovation

Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
~ Leonardo da Vinci

While it may seem counterintuitive in our era of rapid technological advancement, many of our most successful current innovation case studies involve simplification. In these cases, an existing marketplace was disrupted by a group of people who reconsidered what a product or service should do, and then systematically pared it back to its most fundamental value.

This process of stripping away requires the courage to ask questions and consider alternatives to currently accepted ‘norms.’ Armed with that foundation, teams can be strategic with a creative process that is optimistic, human focused, iterative, and broadly impactful.

A Billion Dollar Case for Simplifying

On July 19, Unilever announced its purchase of Dollar Shave Club (DSC) for $1 Billion. The direct-to-consumer razor business officially entered the marketplace in March 2012 with a viral YouTube video and an audacious promise to eliminate the hassle and high price of buying ‘unnecessarily fancy’ razors. The solution, a subscription-based model and an only-and-all-you-need product. They hit the bull’s eye with simplicity, convenience, and a truly human appeal by stripping away extraneous packaging, marketing, and design components.

“Do you think your razor needs a vibrating handle, a flashlight, a back-scratcher, and 10 blades? Your handsome-ass grandfather had one blade AND polio.”
~ Michael Dubin, DSC co-founder and CEO

Almost immediately following its launch, the company was labeled a ‘disruptor.’ It reached the one million member mark in two years and rapidly unraveled decades of market dominance long held by Gillette and Schick.

The Unilever purchase is hardly the first confirmation of the power and validity of this simplification model of innovation. Like DSC, Warby Parker stripped down a long held industry model by establishing an eye glasses sales model that eliminated the middle man, ran lean with the help of e-commerce, and employed a B Corp “buy one/give one” structure. The company launched in 2010. By 2012, they were experiencing 500% growth.

These innovators turned to technology not to create a more elaborate product or service – rather to streamline it. They changed entire markets in the process.

The Power of the Innovation Mindset

The impetus to evaluate, deconstruct, recreate, and iterate is one reason why early stage companies tend to be successful innovators. They are born from an individual (like Michael Dubin) who experienced an issue as a member of the audience they set out to serve. These companies tend to enter a market with a vision and a group of people who willing to join in the work to systematically and creatively pursue a solution in the form of a new organization, product, and/or service.

This process drives toward solutions by empowering people to work together to draw on perspectives, creative ideas, forms of logic, and reasoning about use and feasibility. The team immerses itself in a process of defining a problem, considering solutions, and prototyping – knowing that perfect is the enemy of good. The company is brave enough to declare when good enough is good enough, and deploy – recognizing that iterations surely will come.

Empowering the Global Workforce

This kind of work can be incredibly motivating. Around the world, we see growing numbers of people seeking to create change and earn personal value with their contribution. Many of our pioneering, design-minded organizations are launched with workforce empowerment at the core of their culture. They attribute their ability to thrive to the broad range of perspectives and personal insights that come from the talent in and around the organization. People are driven to contribute, work in communities, and connect – which inspires a stronger organizational culture and a global context. Many of these innovative organizations apply design thinking to drive toward solutions by empowering people to work together while drawing on various perspectives, creative ideas, forms of logic, and reasoning about use and feasibility.

Warby Parker is the perfect example of this impact. The company declares that customers, employees, community and environment all are stakeholders. They promise to consider every one of them in every decision. Their core values are based on mutual respect, empowering their workforce to “think big, have fun, and do good,” and to be positive global citizens. And they give credit for their positive charitable impact to everyone who has engaged with their organization – sharing in the good and empowering others to pursue enduring change. This innovation mindset is related closely to design thinking in that both engage groups of solution-minded individuals in iterative learning.

Innovation for All

In this discussion about solution-driven, culturally empowering innovation, we nodded to two of the great success stories of our current Knowledge Age. But there’s a reason why companies like DSC and Warby Parker are called ‘unicorns.’ They’re incredibly rare.

But the strategy of assessing a complex problem in order to break it down into simpler elements and strip away unnecessary complications applies to any organization. As does the commitment to nurturing a community of stakeholders that is empowered and rewarded for their contribution. Perhaps the better measures of success are the abilities to fail intelligently, preserve a learning environment, and build extendable processes. Those skills, lived out by a team committed to assessing and reassessing how they can isolate clean, useful solutions to real human challenges and possibilities will position your organization to thrive in complexity.

It’s time to distill complexity into simple solutions that can have positive global impact on markets and the people within them.


About the Authors

Dave Baber

Dave Baber is Managing Director and leads Toffler Associates DoD and Resilience practice areas. He advises executives across commercial and government sectors on strategic initiatives that build and protect an organization's value. He previously worked at Deloitte Consulting, as a portfolio and risk management consultant. In addition to his role in Toffler Associates, he is currently in the Army National Guard with more than 20 years serving as an Engineer Officer in roles from Platoon to Division, and functional roles in Facilities Management and Information Operations. Dave is also an active member of the National Guard Bureau's Innovation Team (NGIT) advising the Chief, National Guard and his leadership team on how to address challenges facing the National Guard.  Dave earned a Bachelors of Science from Virginia Military Institute.

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