10 CEOs Who Are Raising the Bar of Innovation

Innovation is one of the words that gets thrown around more than it probably should, especially in the world of the CEO. While almost every product pitch in the last 100 years has somehow claimed to be innovative, it is the rarity of innovation that makes it so powerful. These are 10 CEOs who have lead their companies in new directions, designed products previously thought unthinkable and changed the very nature of their businesses and sometimes business in general.

Elon Musk

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has a simple 3 point plan to introduce his new electric motor to the general public. First produce a flagship roadster that is both elegant and fast as hell. Second produce a luxury sedan that can provide the same level of comfort as other high end gas-guzzlers. The third step is to release an affordable Civic-esque compact for the everyman who wants to save the planet. Tesla Motors is poised to completely revolutionize the revolution resistant automotive industry. After moving into the New Motor Manufacturing Plant (Nummi) in Fresno last May, the little engine that could (run on electricity) has made huge strides to bring about the electric revolution.

After releasing the Tesla Roadster 2.5, the fourth incarnation of the company’s flagship product, Musk is dedicated to transforming the electric car’s status from novelty item to universal must-have. And others believe he can do it. Musk retrofitted a German smart car for the company Daimler who has since gone on to partner with Tesla. Musk also got Toyota CEO, Akio Toyoda to invest $50 million into the then struggling company.

Photo via The Atlantic

Jason Fried

Over the last decade Jason Fried has led his company 37Signals away off of their initial web design focus onto the cutting edge of web application development. 37Signals’ tent-pole program BaseCamp helps companies with project management and team tracking.  Its unique approach to time and project management arise as much from time tested persoanl productivity principles as it does from fervent social networking with colleagues and customers.  Under Fried’s guidance, the company refuses to accept anything as a given, constantly reinventing its own products.

Besides turning his company into one of the leading web applications on the web, Jason has also become a bit of an entrepreneurial guru with his company blog Signals vs Noise providing a different style of corporate narrative more based on personal experiences and lessons rather than carefully crafted PR content. Jason has also become a favorite TedX speaker and is in high demand on technology speaking circuit.

(Fun Fact: 37Signals is named for 37 radio signals that exist but have no identifiable source, it is conjectured that these signals might be from extraterrestrials).

Photo via Inc. Magazine

Jack Dorsey

Innovation applies not only to how a CEO shapes a company, but how he shapes himself as well. Jack Dorsey has gone from naive genius ousted from his own startup to intuitive and thoughtful CEO of a new future-shaping venture. After his web application, Twitter’s direct involvement with the toppling of several governments around the world, the power of social networking has never seemed more tangible. The higher global profile has brought Dorsey back into the limelight, a light for which he is now ready.

These days Dorsey is looking at a different form of communication: Payment. He is co-founder and CEO of Square, a company that effectively empowers anyone with a smart phone to easily accept charges from credit cards at a flat rate. A small plastic square is inserted into the headphone jack of your phone and the software allows you to accept any card for 2.75% of the purchase. Again Dorsey’s focus is on making a powerful and universal tool while keeping it so simple the second you see it you wonder how it wasn’t already invented.

Photo by Joi Ito

Steve Jobs

After health concerns took him away from the table at Apple last year, CEO Steve Jobs delighted fans (and investors) by showing up for the iPad 2 unveiling in early March, taking the opportunity to both extol the iPad’s qualities and stick it to the competition by repeating a misquote from Samsung’s CEO about disappointing sales. While the Internet buzzes over the veracity of Jobs’ figures one thing is very clear, Apple has tapped into a new market again and the rest are struggling to catch up.

The new iPad was met with ravenous appeal. It promises not only to be another cash cow for Apple, but a significant step forward in the development of a new form of wireless interaction. With rumors of a likely iPohne 5 release later this year, Steve Jobs maintains his position as Grand Poobah of entrepreneurial innovators. And while his on stage hubris might not make him the most popular guy in the tech CEO locker room, Jobs deserves another victory lap for his foresight to bring Apple into the tablet market.

Illustration by Charis Tsevis

Jeff Bezos

The Kindle, Jeff Bezo’s book slayer, has been relegated mostly to the peripheral vision of mainstream consumers since its launch in 2007. But with the release of the 3rd Generation Kindle, the e-book has reached the tipping point and been embraced by the masses. The new Kindle is smaller, lighter and easier to operate with intuitive designs and Amazon’s patented e-Ink Pearl display taking it easy on the eyes of users everywhere.

The success of the reader paired with the company’s new foray into streaming video have increased the number of markets in which Amazon is making its claim. The ever growing number of verticals dominated by Amazon’s online shopping emporium led Amazon to post 12 billion dollars in revenue for the last quarter. In a statement Bezos points out “Kindle books have now overtaken paperback books as the most popular format on Amazon.com.” The record breaking quarterly report combined with warm reviews of his new Kindle put Jeff Bezos back on top only to have everyone realize he never left in the first place.

Photo via The NY Times

Mark Zuckerberg

After getting a shot of celebrity from the Oscar winning biopic, The Social Network, and from being chosen Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 2010, one could imagine Mark Zuckerberg taking a little time off to relax and enjoy his new found fame. But not one to rest on his laurels, Zuckerberg’s recent improvements to Facebook and resulting monetization plans have made it the most visited site in the known universe.

Facebook has long had to wrestle with the concept of user-privacy, releasing several different incarnations of the site’s oft debated privacy policy. In a sense, FaceBook sets the bar for how private are lives are (and more often aren’t) online. FacebookConnect has already become a raging success making FaceBook the catalyst to a user’s entire web experience. Despite his prickly portrayal in the Social network, Mark Zuckerberg is undoubtedly one of the most innovative people alive.

Photo via Time Magazine

Larry Page

When Larry Page and his partner Sergey Brin first designed a program that could “crawl the web” the two men were on the very edge of technology, providing the catalyst for the power of the Internet to finally emerge. Since that time Page and Brin have kept Google, the resulting company, on the crest of that breaking wave for 10 years. And after a long period where the two innovators were chaperoned by a CEO more experienced in navigating the waters of the business world, Page steps up next month as the CEO of the company that became a verb that changed our lives.

While Google has had its missteps along the way (I’ll send you a Wave about it), the company’s dedication to developing open code and extensive applications combined with the almost mythical Google algorithm, PigeonRank, continues to make the search engine one of the web’s most valuable tools.

Photo via Google

Marc Benioff

Marc Benioff not only founded a company but pioneered a whole new acronym, a goal of any self respecting E-ntreperenuer. SaaS (Software as a Service) was a key concept that helped to move people away from the traditional idea of boxed software. Benioff is also hailed as one of the early innovators of cloud networking, a concept that has become so ubiquitous over the last decade that it has almost been universally adopted as best practice for any kind of group organizing.

The latest innovation for the company is their Service Cloud 3, a reworking of the CRM setup that made the company famous in the first place. This incarnation seeks to gather all modes of customer networking into one easy and intuitive dashboard with special attention paid to networking through mobile devices. The company’s new Chatter service launched last year and featured in a series of commercials during the 2011 Super Bowl, lets team members share information and follow each other in the same way they have become accustomed to on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Photo by Eric Millette

Alan Mulally

It’s been a rough couple years for the American auto industry. Between changing fuel concerns, rampant global competition and an economic downturn that made people hesitate to buy a new toaster let alone a new car, the Motor city has really taken it on the chin. That’s why Alan Mulally’s deft maneuvering of the Ford Company has been so impressive. By making an early move to embrace better gas mileage, Mulally gave himself a little more wiggle room to deal with the bottom falling out of his industry in 2008.

An outsider to the motor industry (he was CEO at Boeing before his move to Ford), Mulally has made it his goal to unite the massive and often fractured Ford Company by focusing it on Focuses. Mulally sold off the luxury brands Jaguar, Aston martin and Land Rover to help the company put its entire weight behind developing smaller cars with more MPGs. The result? Ford was the only one of the Big 3 that didn’t have to get a bailout from the government. Ford reported that 2010 was it’s highest grossing year in the last 11 years.

Craig Newmark

Craigslist has been a beacon of simplicity for the last 16 years. The site’s spartan design and straightforward features have flown in the face of every programmer who tried to pitch a site more complicated than it absolutely needed to be. Craigslist has survived and flourished not because of slick graphics or bells and whistles, but because Craig Newmark took customer service to whole new levels spending as much as 6 houras a day personally dealing with posters and their concerns. He has shown how a web service is really just that, a service that extends much further than the site itself.

Craig Newmark’s vision has been redirected from his first namesake site to a new one: Craigconnects. The concept behind craigconnects is remarkably vague: “Craigconnects is Craig’s initiative to unite the world for the common good using the Internet.” (1) If it was anyone else besides Craig Newmark behind it, the idea would seem to amorphous to ever really take shape. But helmed by the man who turned an online bulletin board into a tool that has shaped the entire landscape of the internet, it might just be the best goal ever. Newmark has stated that he plans to spend the next 20 years on this endeavor. In the amount of time it is no doubt that web innovator will find some way to change the world again.