The rants against the latest technologies and companies are old-hat at this point: that they isolate, they separate neighbor from neighbor, that they’ll all leave us all in Black Mirror–like stupors while taking profits off ads. And for some Silicon Valley companies, this doesn’t actually seem like such a bad end result. Better living through algorithms, higher profits through responsive web design. Now, are algorithms and good mobile experiences crucial to just about any company these days? Sure. But those things aren’t the reason why we get excited about the companies we love. What’s truly exciting, what’s truly new these days, is the unparalleled human experiences companies are starting offer. Fifty companies trying to push direct connection above all else can be seen on Fast Company’s list of the Most Innovative Companies of 2015.
We’re proud to be named on this venerable list. But looking at the top and the bottom of the list is remarkably instructive on its own. At Number One there’s glasses company Warby Parker, and rounding out the list is cosmetics giant L’Oreal. At first glance the two companies couldn’t be more different. L’Oreal, founded in Paris 1909, was celebrating its 101st birthday when Warby Parker was founded in 2010 in New York City. L’Oreal has a world-stomping brand: as the leading seller of cosmetics products worldwide, it enjoys the freedom to experiment in the new Connected Beauty Incubator. And Warby Parker, for all of its hype, is still a competitor in the cutthroat world of eyeglasses sales, competing with price-slashing, poorly designed warehouse websites.
What’s the connection between these two companies? It’s the same link that ties them to WeWork and other list-makers like Mark43 and General Assembly: these are companies powered by people. It may sound cheesy, but it’s true: L’Oreal, for example, behaved much less like a huge international corporation and much more like a start-up when it reached out to YouTube star Michelle Phan and gave her her own makeup line. Would Phan appeal to literally every L’Oreal user? Of course not. But L’Oreal realized that its customers were interested not in buying goods but in plugging in to a sensibility and a way of life. Phan represented this aesthetic, and L’Oreal was innovative for having tapped her.
The same attitude is on display at Warby Parker. As Co-CEO Dave Gilboa told Fast Company, “When we launched, a lot of people bucketed us as an e-commerce company, but we never thought of ourselves as an e-commerce company…The only products we sell now are glasses, but we think our brand can stand for much more than that over a long time period.” Gilboa probably isn’t talking about expanding into watches, phones, or publishing. He’s talking about standing for a direct connection between company and customer, and understanding that people love and trust companies that enable them to live a richer, more passionate, more fulfilled life. And he’s not only talking the talk: when a customer named Kevin tweeted that after calling the company of the phone, he “has a crush on the girl from Warby Parker,” the company soon released a video of the employee saying hi to him. It was a quick burst of light in not only Kevin’s day, surely, but also in an Internet that loves seeing the connection between two people. What today’s most innovative companies understand is that there’s nothing stronger in the world.