For innovators tasked with coming up with new products and services or business models, we often find ourselves in a catch-22.

When we try to get sponsors for our initiatives - for either financial capital or human capital, they typically will ask to test more, reduce uncertainty, and then come back. When you've reduced the uncertainty, then I'm more likely to be a sponsor or join a team.

Of course, this creates a paradox. We need the resources to do the testing and validation that they want us to do in order to sponsor. And yet, we can't get the resources before doing the testing and validation.

In his latest book, Jeff Dyer addresses this “innovator’s paradox” by looking at how we can win the resources needed to turn ideas into innovations. He joined us at Innov8rs Connect Unconference 2021 to talk about this crucial topic.

Innovation Capital

The secret to escaping this paradox lies in building “innovation capital”, something Jeff learned from Mark Benioff, Founder and CEO of Salesforce. The only way to accrue innovation capital is “to earn it by being an innovative leader.” He’s talking metaphorically about “innovation capital” as a leader’s reputation for success in taking new ideas to market.

There are three major reasons why a sponsor will want to support you:

• Human Capital: sponsors believe in your intrinsic abilities
• Social Capital: you have existing relationships with those you’re seeking to influence
• Reputation Capital: you have a track record of successful innovation already.

For the human capital factor, one key trait is being able to “mental time travel”. Looking into the future and understanding what problems need to be solved now in order to lead in that future context.

Like Satya Nadella, current CEO of Microsoft, who joined Microsoft as one of thousands of engineers, and wondered early on: how do I set myself apart? Engaged in what we might call mental time travel, he asked the question: what will be important for Microsoft's future?

Back then, Microsoft made its living off of its consumer products, which was basically the Windows operating system and Microsoft Office. He joined a division for at that time, an unpopular service because he thought what we now call the cloud is going to be important for the delivery of software and services. He ends up leading Microsoft's tiny cloud business, which eventually led him to become Microsoft’s CEO.

So long as you have this ability as a baseline, there are strategies to gain visibility, attention and credibility even if you don’t have a track record. These can also be thought of as ways to better explain a radically new concept so that its value can be clearly discerned by those in a position to advance it.

Impression Amplifiers: Actions to Gain Visibility, Attention and Credibility


The first amplifier is comparison: using clear analogies between something the listener is familiar with and your product. This exploits our tendency to use mental heuristics to shortcut complex thought processes. For instance, Zipcar’s founder Robin Chase analogized her service to ATMs. Just as an ATM provides access to cash where and when you want it, so Zipcar provides wheels at times an in location convenient to its subscribers. Her tagline “wheels when you want them” unlocked the investment Chase needed.


The second amplifier is storytelling: creating a compelling narrative, using characters, conflict, and a resolution. All humans are drawn to powerful stories, well-told, which engage our empathy. When David Hieatt left a lucrative job in advertising and moved from London to rural Wales, he discovered an opportunity to revitalize both his own life and the local denim manufacturing industry. He did this by launching his own jeans brand, Huit Denim, and re-employing 400 local workers laid off from the defunct Levi’s factory (10% of the town’s population). The story he tells about this adventure is emotional and compelling.

Like all good stories, the selling proposition should readily boil down to both a 30-second elevator pitch and a short tagline. If your USP statement can leverage human empathy by having emotional resonance, you’ve given yourself a significant advantage.

Remember, you are not just selling a product or service, you are selling life improvement – in what way will your innovative idea make your intended buyer’s life better? Don’t be shy about digging this deep into what your idea really means.


The third amplifier is building legitimacy through association with trusted others. We tend to trust those with trustworthy affiliations – this is called the “bandwagon effect”. By creating links with already-successful influencers, you can build confidence in your brand. After all, nobody wants to be the first in the water. Placing articles in trustworthy publications, such as Harvard Business Review, or getting well-known entrepreneurs onside to act as advocates, are both good signaling options.

The “bowling pin” approach can sometimes be used to reach the angel investors you need. You pitch your idea, using the above strategies, to intermediaries you do have access to. Once convinced, those parties become allies; they help you gain access to your intended sponsors.

Social Pressure

The fourth amplifier is social pressure. This strategy manipulates investors’ FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The notion that you are offering a short-term window into a potentially hugely lucrative idea, can play upon this common fear of missing an opportunity.

Tone here is vital. You can demonstrate excitement and show how many other investors or collaborators have come on board but beware of making outlandish claims or seeming too aggressive in suggesting that an opportunity window is rapidly closing, when it truthfully isn’t. Experienced investors can see through such exaggerated hype.


The fifth amplifier is committing. As an entrepreneur you must be making a credible commitment to your idea. If you expect others to get on board, they must believe that you are 100% committed to your innovation. By putting everything on the line, you are demonstrating how much you care, and by extension, how much effort you’ll put in to achieving success.

A tip for generating additional belief in you as an innovator is to be the founder of something, whether it’s a course, a not-for-profit, a publication or website. So long as there’s a tangible entity or initiative which you brought into being, and which persists, this counts towards your store of human capital.


The sixth amplifier is materializing. Regardless of how intangible an idea is in the early stages (such as a FinTech offering or a new service), you must find ways to visually represent it. You can use images, video content, landing pages, animations, slide decks and more. This technique works on the “seeing is believing” principle. It’s the reason what architects build models and 3D walk-throughs to help sell their dreams. It’s also why Tesla’s Elon Musk, despite his existing reputational capital, made an animated video to sell his notion of boring tunnels under cities for rapid-transit purposes.

There may be ways to materialize your proposition for very little money. Using the psychological strategies outlined above, create visual content which will accompany your verbal pitch. In this way, you aren’t relying on words alone to sell a bold new idea. Making your innovation concrete using something visual will always help your innovation feel more tangible.

However, beware of broadcasting your ideas beyond the confines of your pool of potential innovators. Both Quibi and Segway are well-known examples of very public “failures”. Because they accrued a lot of excited publicity prior to launch, when they did not perform as projected, these brands’ founders ended up with “negative capital”. Having said that, it should be noted that Segway currently has a market capitalization of $816M and Quibi’s content has been bought by rival platform Roku for a little less than $100M. In a way, both brands have salvaged something from their respective fiascos.

Using the above techniques for developing and selling an innovative concept is still hard work. But if you don’t have the “innovation capital” already to get sponsors on board early on so you have the resources to test, validate and reduce uncertainty, that’s just what it takes to escape from the innovator’s paradox.