Roger Vozar: ShareThis made its mark by separating from the pack

“The most innovative ideas come from conditions that are constrained or set.”

I’ve always thought of myself as more of a task manager than an innovative, creative person, and those words from ShareThis CEO Tim Schigel, subject of this month’s cover story, resonated with me because not knowing where to start is a familiar experience.

At first glance, it seems counterintuitive to place limits on innovation.

Wouldn’t keeping all options available lead to more possibilities? That, in turn, would be expected to produce better results, since you’re able to select the best solution from among a larger pool of ideas.

Setting constraints

As Schigel says, without rules you wind up floating around in this ambiguous space. Only with constraints does innovation occur.

That comment made sense to me. When there are no rules, there also are no boundaries or ways to keep projects on track. It sounds like a way to rack up some huge expenses with no assurance you’re on a trajectory toward success.

At ShareThis, the starting point for development was to restrict ideas to working within the Amazon Cloud. Designers also had to ensure that their solutions didn’t use up too much computer power and slow down websites.

For many companies, I’m sure budgetary constraints are a large consideration that employees must work within. That’s certainly one of the reasons ShareThis stayed within the cloud rather than invest in a data center. But they were able to find a way to make the seemingly impossible work.

Ignoring the crowd

Clearly part of Schigel’s success stems from being a contrarian: “I like to go where the puck is going.”

As a hockey player, I appreciate any analogy connected with the sport. But it does make good business sense. All that he’s really saying is that better results come from anticipating changes.

Talent can make up for a lot of shortcomings when it comes to reading and reacting to a situation. But companies, like hockey players, can certainly maximum their potential by analyzing where things are going and taking steps to arrive there ahead of the competition.

In the case of ShareThis, that meant getting away from being dependent on a Facebook platform and developing an open model approach to sharing.

Hitting home runs

Many engineers at Google and other West Coast companies are from Midwest colleges like The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, says Schigel, who grew up in Cleveland. Schigel says they often don’t have the same belief that it’s OK to change the world that you find on the West Coast. As a result, many business plans focus too much on incrementalism, he says.

“They just want to make something 20 percent better, instead of changing the rules,” Schigel says.

He says the key is to build up confidence within your organization and encourage people to ask questions. Remember, however, to stay focused as well.

“If they are just asking, ‘What if?’ and are not accomplishing anything, that gets a little old,” he says. “You want to not only ask the interesting and penetrating questions, but then go try and do it.”

Sounds like the perfect balance of task manager and innovator to me.

Roger Vozar is associate editor at Smart Business Northern California. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Northern California, please sent an email to [email protected].