Innovation: Lessons from Stephen Colbert –

You Can’t Discover the Product Until You’re Making It

By Shlomo Maital


Stephen Colbert

   Some readers may recognize Stephen Colbert as the host of the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report”, which in its last season drew 1.7 million viewers, amusing them with Colbert’s skill at deflating hypocrites and finding enormous irony in our daily political lives.   CBS chose him to succeed David Letterman, in its “The Late Show”, which launches soon.

   We can learn two major innovation lessons from Colbert and his new venture.

   First, Colbert’s persona for his “Colbert Report” show was entirely different from the one that he must embrace for The Late Show. For Comedy Central’s savvy viewers, mostly young, “wonkish” according to the New York Times, he was perfect. Now, for The Late Show, he has to reinvent himself, to become more genial, softer, kinder, gentler, because who wants prickles at 11:35 p.m., when you’re drowsy and just want to relax, chuckle and doze off in front of the TV?   Jon Stewart, who until recently hosted The Daily Show, has said, “what made [Colbert’s character] work was the thing that Stephen had to hide – which is his humanity”.    Adapting to your clients, when they change, is crucial for any innovator. And above all, it means being highly sensitive and attuned to who they are and what they really want.  This is especially hard when the product is the show host himself.

   So, that brings us to the second lesson, an important one.

   “You can’t discover the product until you’re making it”.  Colbert said this.   I would turn that saying into a sign and post it on the walls of every startup.   Until you make the product, and deliver it to clients, and hear their reaction, you have not yet really discovered the product. Discovery begins not with the idea, but with the first person who actually uses the product.

   So how did Colbert test his Late Show formula? He and his team spent the whole summer producing original content, and then uploaded it, even though they did not yet have a TV program to try it on.   According to The New York Times, Colbert will have to “take command of his work and assert his tastes confidently and unapologetically” – this, at a time when there is an army of producers, directors, joke writers and CBS executives messing around with The Late Show (a machine that prints money) and giving advice.

     So, innovator – discover your product – by making it. It’s so simple. And it’s why many startups fail, when they think they are taking time to perfect their product, without really knowing whether anybody will like it and buy it.

   Be like Colbert. Get serious.   Get your product out there and see the reaction. Before you do that, you won’t have a clue.