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Jordan Banks gets some of his best ideas at 35,000 feet while listening to Pink Floyd. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Jordan Banks gets some of his best ideas at 35,000 feet while listening to Pink Floyd. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

THE INNOVATIVE MIND

Facebook’s Jordan Banks: ‘It’s not enough just to dream’ Add to ...

When it comes to social media, Facebook is king.

Aside from a couple of now-forgotten predecessors (Friendster or Myspace, anyone?), Facebook essentially created social media as we know it, and revolutionized the way people communicate with each other.

Despite occasional proclamations of its imminent demise from naysayers, Facebook has more users than ever: about 1.3 billion active monthly users, up from 1.2 billion in 2013 and an even one billion in 2012. Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram may be nipping at Facebook’s heels, but Facebook is still clearly the big dog.

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It could also be argued that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – whose famous mantra is, “Move fast and break things” – is one of this century’s greatest innovators. He figured out before so many others that social media was the tidal wave of the future, and even better than that, he actually got people to use it.

Another entrepreneurial innovator at the helm of Facebook is Canadian Jordan Banks, global head of vertical strategy and managing director of Facebook Canada. Before he joined the social media giant, the Toronto-raised Mr. Banks, 46, was a mover and shaker in his own right, having helmed pioneering Internet broadcaster JumpTV and successfully introduced eBay to Canada.

We quizzed Mr. Banks about his own innovative process, how to recognize a really big idea, and the quickest way to kill innovation:

Do you have a process when you are coming up with new ideas?

Mine is pretty simple. It’s a combination of altitude and music. I end up flying a lot and some of my best ideas happen at 35,000 feet. I have my Bose headphones on, I’m listening to Pink Floyd, and I’m staring out a window.

Where does that creative spark come from?

In my experience, the best innovative ideas come from one of two places: Either someone is determined to solve a real problem that affects many – examples would be eBay or Amazon or Facebook – or someone is looking to satisfy an insatiable and genuine curiosity – examples would be the Khan Academy or Tesla or Apple.

I think the real key for me is thinking differently about a set of variables that currently exists as it relates to innovation. Einstein had this great quote, which was, ‘The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.’ And I think that is so true.

I think it’s important to note that good ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. What innovators do is they turn those ideas into reality, incorporating real, innovative solutions. It’s not enough just to dream. At Facebook, we’re exposed to lots of ideas and I found over time that the best question to ask myself when assessing the innovation of a proposed business opportunity is, ‘Does the opportunity fundamentally make an inefficient reality significantly more efficient?’ If the answer is yes, most often in my experience, good things happen.

You must be approached by so many app developers who say, ‘We’ve got something that Facebook needs.’ How do you know when it’s an app to pay attention to?

We do indeed interact with a huge number of social app developers, and ultimately there’s only one question I ask myself: Is the app before me trying to get people to share just for the sake of sharing? Or is it simply amplifying natural and important human behaviour? The latter is way more compelling than the former, because the core reasons we communicate don’t really change by virtue of the medium.

In my experience, the best app developers understand this and they build their apps accordingly. A good example of an app like this is Nike Plus. People who like to run like to talk about running, running is a core part of their identity, and it’s really fun for them to show off a good run and they take pride in their progress and they like to connect with other runners. These are all things that existed way before Nike Plus, so what the app did is it’s done a great job enhancing this experience.

Does competition drive you to innovate? Is it a driving force for you personally?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s the sole driver. Innovation is a function of competition, paranoia and calculated risk-taking. The formula is fairly simple: You really want to win, you become more and more worried someone else might win, and so you give your mind permission to start thinking more broadly and more boldly and more creatively. I think at its core, it’s a pretty good recipe for success.

You work with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Does she inspire innovation at Facebook because she thinks big and refuses to settle?

Yeah, she is a tremendous leader who is bold and brave, and is not really interested in incrementality. Along with Mark [Zuckerberg], she’s created a culture at Facebook that encourages people to be bold and to fail fast. We have so many examples on Facebook where we have gone down a path, allocated a significant amount of resources, and whatever it was we did, didn’t end up succeeding. We celebrate that, because we did it quickly and there is a lot of learning that comes into that process that will help shape the way we build product going forward.

Are there other people who inspire you when it comes to innovation?

There are so many Canadian entrepreneurs right now who are driving innovation around the globe from right here in Canada, and that very much inspires me. If you look at a company like Shopify, it provides e-commerce platforms for small and medium-sized businesses and they power over 100,000 retailers from around the world. So unbelievably innovative, right in our back yard.

And I think it probably goes without saying that I’m incredibly spoiled working for Mark Zuckerberg. He is probably the most inspiring innovator in the world right now. He is 30 years old, he has forever changed the way humans communicate and connect, and the most exciting part for me is that he is really just getting started.

You’ve been a mentor and adviser for young entrepreneurs through Extreme Startups and The Next 36. I’m sure many of them thought they had the next big idea, but how did you advise these young entrepreneurs to realize their vision?

At the highest level, focus and execution is key. There are lots of very interesting and very cool ideas floating out there, but the true genius lies in someone who is able to take those ideas and make them a reality.

There’s a very simple formula I use which grounds people in the viability or the lack thereof in their business. The formula is: ‘What does it cost you to acquire a user? What is the ultimate lifetime value of that user? And is the spread in between big enough that at scale you can make a lot of money?’ Young entrepreneurs sometimes ignore the first and last parts of that equation. They are not focused on how to acquire customers and what that cost is. And ultimately, when they acquire them, they don’t think about how much they are willing to pay for them based on lifetime value.

What stifles innovation?

People believe that innovation needs to be net new. And that’s just not the case. Building a better mousetrap is just as good as from scratch.

Second, I’m seeing an increasing number of organizations charging one group of people to lead innovation for a company – the syndrome of the chief innovation officer. But real innovation can happen anywhere, by anyone, and so by narrowing whom you officially give permission to innovate is a really limiting move within any company.

And the third thing that is core to Facebook – and this is a Mark Zuckerberg quote and you hear it a lot – the biggest risk is not taking any risks. In a world that is changing so quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. If you are afraid to fail, chances are you will do just that.

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