You can be both boring and innovative

Many of us wonder about the wonders that scream “future” like flying cars. But sometimes the best inventions are more about brain power than the magic of technology. Let me give you some examples in my quest to appreciate convenience in boring things.

Take apple supply chains and rooftop farms.

I was recently introduced to an online grocery delivery company in New Jersey called Misfits Market. Many companies struggle with the cost and hassle of bringing us a banana or a Dorito. The Misfits know this.

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

Here are some examples of what his small innovations look like: Stores and delivery services usually only sell salmon in the middle. Misfits buys and sells the rest of the pieces, which are just as delicious, at a discount. Abhi Ramesh, CEO of Misfits, also excitedly told me about missing a few steps in the long chain of apple farmers, packers and distributors. Cutting out the middleman or two saves time and money.

“The vexing problems are the most worth solving,” Ramesh told me. This man speaks my language. It’s a competitive advantage if a company does a difficult, boring and expensive job better, he said.

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

Roy Bahati, an investor in young technology companies at the firm Bloomberg Beta, uses the term “hot swap” to refer to the type of start-up business that thinks big by disrupting the status quo. He gave me examples like Flexport, which is trying to simplify the steps involved in shipping goods by ocean or air, and Newfront, which is trying to do something similar for insurance brokers. (Bloomberg Beta is an investor in Newfront.)

What characterizes these companies, Bahat said, is that they don’t aim for radical change, as Warby Parker did with eyewear. Such a change can be scary or threatening, especially for consumers in huge industries like trucking or insurance, he said. Instead, the hot-swap startup promises something familiar, but better.

It doesn’t always feel like WOW, but sometimes it does. Dan Pett, an aerospace engineer I recently interviewed about drone package delivery, told me about a construction company near Boise, Idaho, that was using something cool – robots! – to enhance the snooze fest.

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

I had to google what it is. They are triangular wooden segments that hold together the framework of the roof. Roof truss designs vary and putting them together is a relatively repetitive and time-consuming job, Michael Lindley, the design house’s sales and marketing executive, told me.

House of Design promises that its systems are compatible with popular construction industry design software and produce trusses faster and with fewer people. There’s technological ingenuity in the design house, Pat said, but what’s different is the creativity in the manufacturing process.

My colleague Conor Dougherty has written about the ups and downs of home building automation. Katerra, a well-known tech startup, collapsed last year after trying to streamline every step of construction, including making the lights in-house.

A failure story shows the ingenuity of believing you can reimagine a large industry, whether it’s real estate or grocery shopping. Established ways of doing things can be created for a reason. Furthermore, inertia is strong, the status quo is often pretty good, and smart technology cannot solve structural problems.

But it is useful to remember what invention is. It is not always a driverless taxi or a new smartphone that is significantly different from what came before. Often it takes a product or process we know and slowly makes it simpler or cheaper.


  • Amazon is trying again in the field of healthcare. Amazon says it will buy One Medical, which operates primary care clinics in the US. Amazon watchers have predicted for years that the company would transform healthcare, including its 2018 acquisition of an online pharmacy chain and (now completed) venture capital. undermine employee health care benefits. Amazon didn’t change healthcare.

  • “What did I do wrong on Facebook.” Farhad Manju, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, told everyone to join Facebook in 2009. He reflects on his regrets, including considering the consequences of Facebook’s ubiquity.

    Related: Facebook is redesigning its app to be more like TikTok, my colleague Mike Isaacs reports.

  • Which computer should you buy for your child? Kimber Streams of Wirecutter, a product recommendation service from The Times, has advice for school-age kids and college students on repurposing an old computer, buying a used computer, and choosing a new model.

Hello from Moshu the red panda at the Oregon Zoo.


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