Innovation Lessons from Alessi

Recently I met with Matteo Alessi, Trade Marketing and International Development Director at Alessi, the maker of beautiful and functional housewares. He was in New York to unveil his (family’s) company’s newest products. We caught up at the Alessi store in SoHo, amid the new items. He said that the company was offering 200 new products in the fall, more than it has ever introduced in one season. Usually, the company offers 150-200 over an entire year. While this seems like an ill-timed tactic, Alessi says that it was fully intentional and actually in reaction to the worldwide economic downturn.

“We worked harder to create more products. We wanted to show our strength,” he said. “The best thing for us to do was invest in innovation at a moment like this.” In other words, the company is using the recession as a time to outpace its competitors, and be ready for when consumers might start spending again.

As I was speaking with Alessi, the designer Dror Benshetrit, who created a lovely new, highly “interactive” trivet for the new Alessi collection (see below), chimed in.

"Alessi is a company that is about longevity, and about pushing innovation in the long term by reinventing the past," he said. "The role of design is to be a forecaster. The approach stays the same" even when market conditions change, he suggested. That's because designers, and companies like Alessi that are very focused on design, are thinking about more than the current economy. And that's another lesson that perhaps executives in any industry might want to remember.

"Companies that focus on ROI [returns on investment] are thinking about the short term only," Alessi said. "But we take an approach of commitment to creating products that people invest in, goods that will last. We're not distracted by the short term."

Of course, Alessi [the company] can execute such a strategy since the firm is privately held and family owned. Still, Matteo Alessi says that the company asks that anyone bearing the Alessi name has to prove their worth before entering the business. In other words, they have to prove that their judgement is sound.

"You have to have a master's degree and work outside the company for at least two years," he told me. "Even then, you're not guaranteed a job with Alessi."

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