From left to right, Saleha Williams, a digital partner at Cognizant; Zach Miles, associate vice president for economic development at UNLV; Winston Caldwell, vice president of advanced engineering at Fox; and Jeremy Sinon, vice president of digital strategy for Hubbard Radio discuss innovation at the 2019 NAB Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Sunday. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jon Jones, the director of business development for Amazon Web Services, discusses innovation at the 2019 NAB Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Sunday. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It’s the perfect startup Cinderella story.
After launching inside Jeff Bezos’ garage in 1994 as strictly an online bookstore, Amazon has since become a household name, earning more than $230 billion in net sales last year. Today, Amazon echo smart speakers and packages with the famous Amazon smile can be found in millions of homes across the country.
Jon Jones, the director of business development for cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services, said the company’s focus on innovation has allowed it to become the global powerhouse it is today. Speaking at the same session Sunday at the National Association of Broadcasters Show, UNLV’s Associate Vice President for Economic Development Zach Miles said an innovative mindset can better prepare students for work post-graduation.
“Innovation is critical. That’s how we’re going to survive,” Miles said. “We have to push for new ideas.”
Amazon’s innovation methodology
The NAB Show began Saturday and will run through Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority expects 90,000 attendees at the show.
Jones said the company has four building blocks that make up its culture of innovation: customer obsession, long-term thinking, willingness to fail and willingness to be misunderstood.
“At the core of it, our mission is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company,” Jones said. “Our commitment is we make our customers’ lives easier.”
When pitching ideas, Jones said the company tries to figure out what sort of benefit the idea would have for customers and whether it’s good for them. If there are no good answers, Jones said they pull the plug.
In terms of long-term thinking, he pointed to the Amazon Kindle, which first launched in 2007 to some criticism — Jones said he himself didn’t buy the first model. Since then, the company has sold tens of millions of the e-readers.
“We’re OK being comfortable being misunderstood for a really long time,” he said. “Innovation’s really hard. You have to be stubborn on where you’re trying to get to, but really flexible on how you’re getting there.”
But not every idea is a success.
Jones brought up past failures like 1999’s Amazon Auction, a platform meant to compete with eBay, and its attempt to enter the smartphone industry with the Fire phone in 2014, which Jones called a “pretty big flop.” The company took a $170 million hit for the Fire phone and related supplier costs.
But the company was able to learn from its mistakes. Jones said Amazon took the same team that worked on the Fire phone and created the Amazon Echo smart speaker.
“If we only did things we knew would work, we’d still be selling books,” Jones said.
Speaking at the same session, Miles said one example of innovation at UNLV comes from its semester-long Hackathon, which took place in the 2018 fall semester.
The hackathon invited teams of students to create commercially viable products and services using technologies that will become mainstream in the next 20 years. The ideas could be used in smart city initiatives, alternative uses for radio frequencies or media innovations.
The unique aspect of this hackathon, Miles said, was its goal to carry the students’ ideas to fruition.
“We have academic work, but then we have them work on real-world problems with companies,” he said.
Miles said the university has a culture that embraces thinking outside of the box and finding innovative ways of giving students real-world experiences.
“There’s a lot of times where I show up with crazy ideas and it’s embraced” by UNLV, he said. “If you don’t have that culture, you’re not going to change anything.”
Contact Bailey Schulz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.