Startups Must Harness Trend-Driven Innovation to Survive in the Long Run



At TrendWatching, we love startups. From São Paulo to Shenzhen, we can’t get enough of them. Our methodology involves better understanding the needs and expectations of tomorrow’s consumer by looking out for the innovations that are delighting them today. This means that along with global marketing campaigns from established players like Adidas, or massive product launches from FMCG giants like Unilever, we’re forever on the lookout for innovative startups. Yet startups (and their founders) often aren’t as enamored with trend firms or trend experts as we are with them.

Why the unrequited love? Firstly, founders do well when they build new companies with an insight that allows them to incrementally or entirely improve a current business model, product, service or experience. This insight is often part of a larger trend that the founder instinctively ‘gets’. Therefore, they don’t need a trend firm’s input on that trend. Secondly, startups benefit from being leaner and more responsive than large, established organizations. So again, they feel they can adapt to new trends quickly without external help. Those are two pervasive reasons why startups rarely seek out information on trends.

Yet both the value of the startup’s core insight and its youthful agility will fade with time. Marc Andreessen believes disruptive Silicon Valley startups have about five years before they themselves are disrupted. And before wholesale disruption, there will always be smaller shifts in consumer expectations that start impacting your startup from day one! Founders must recognize that no matter how revolutionary the insight they had – explicitly or intuitively – at the formation of their company, other firms will learn from, mimic and improve upon them.

This is where I should admit our complicity. Companies like TrendWatching rapidly notice what’s special about you. Our spotters identify and our analysts evaluate countless new startups every single day. If you’ve built something that will heighten consumers expectations, we will find you and tell all of our 250,000+ subscribers 1,300+ clients (from Venture Capitalists to automakers to Pharmaceutical giants) exactly how you’re delighting consumers, and how they better react, fast!

Lucky for you, the lightspeed flow of this information from innovators to other professionals can empower your team, too. You can, and should, use consumer trends to keep innovating in much the same way that a CMO for a PepsiCo snack brand can. Tracking trends helps professionals in all organizations, from hot new social apps to financial services dinosaurs, meet and exceed consumers’ ever-changing expectations.

If you’re new to the concept of caring about and harnessing the power of trends, let me share a few key fundamentals of the process (condensed from our book, Trend-Driven Innovation) that will help any startup remain competitive in the Expectation Economy:

  1. SCAN

As mentioned above, tracking innovations – new products, services, campaigns and more – coming into the market is at the heart of our trend spotting methodology. We’re interrogating those innovations for the basic needs they serve, the external changes (technological, social, etc) they leverage, and, crucially, the new customer expectations they create. Why are those new expectations so important to your startup? Because they’ll eventually spread all the way to your door, whatever market or industry you’re in. Every employee or stakeholder at a startup should be scanning, looking for these expectations. Many will already be doing it informally but, to make observations more actionable, we recommend developing a Trend Framework of relevant mega-trends. At TrendWatching we have 16 mega-trends (slow moving, large scale shifts in the global marketplace), and they provide buckets for us to add in and evaluate new observations and sub-trends so we better understand their implications.

  1. FOCUS

Not all trends are relevant to all startups. Once you have a solid process of observing new trends, you must decide which to act on. We use the Consumer Trend Radar to help organizations understand the relevance and opportunity of multiple trends. But startups can use their own process, as long as they’re interrogating HOW a trend impacts them, negatively or positively. They must assess if a trend provides a product, service, marketing, or business model challenge? When must they act? What resources are required to respond?


Once a startup SCANS for trends and FOCUSES on the urgent ones, they have to take action. For those looking to go from insights to ideas, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend the Consumer Trend Canvas. Inspired by the Business Model Canvas, it is a tried and tested tool for devising new solutions built on the expectations within a trend. Get a group together for a couple hours and give it a go. It works!


Often with larger clients, even when they GENERATE trend-driven innovations at the previous step, they really struggle to bring these new innovations to market. Yes they have the resources, but there is too much bureaucracy or risk aversion. In this regard, most startups don’t need our advice! You’re fantastic at getting new ideas out the door and into the hands of the customer.

Those four fundamentals are a solid starting point, but if your startup is to survive for 5-10 years or even longer, you must nurture an organization-wide culture of tracking and acting on trends. One employee in charge of trends or consumer insights is not enough. Your entire organization should know the challenges and opportunities that an endlessly changing consumer landscape presents. All employees should be given the training & tools required to SCAN, FOCUS, GENERATE and EXECUTE new ideas anchored in emerging expectations. It’s the only way to keep delighting customers in the years to come.

Good luck!

About the author: Maxwell Luthy

Maxwell Luthy is the author of the new book Trend-Driven Innovation. Based in New York, Max runs TrendWatching’s North American business, regularly delivering keynotes and workshops for leading brands, from Disney to Samsung. Max has been quoted as a trend expert in the Financial Times, The Next Web, and strategy+business. Max also oversaw the TW:IN trend spotter network until 2013, hosting meetups everywhere from Johannesburg to Manila. A contributor to five of TrendWatching’s most-recent annual Trend Reports, Max now lives in the oft-overlooked trend hotspot of New Jersey.

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