When is the last time you really changed something in your business? Was it a year ago or three years ago or last month when you really innovated?
Most likely, it’s not enough. A company’s go-to-market strategy and value proposition needs to be constantly evolving today. If you’re simply calling on clients in the same manner as two years ago or not giving customers new ways to purchase from you, you’re stagnating. Businesses that are standing still are actually falling behind.
In this fast-paced business climate, where technology drives us to buy products that didn’t even exist a year ago, innovation is imperative. The same business practices you used yesterday won’t produce the same results – instead, you’ll get left behind.
How can you look at your company with fresh eyes, and where can you seek inspiration for change? We asked four innovation experts to offer their own take on how to remake your business. It takes carving out your unique market space, using surprises to leapfrog ahead, unleashing creativity and attracting top tech resources.
Follow this guide to find places in your business that can stand a little touch of innovation.
Find Your Blue Ocean
Kacee Johnson founded her consulting business, Blue Ocean Principles, based on the key elements of MBA programs across the country – that successful businesses don’t battle customers in crowded areas. Instead, they create blue oceans of uncontested market space.
“Don’t [sell to an industry or market] that is already red – that has a lot of competition – there’s already a lot of vendors providing this same service,” says Johnson. “You’ve got to differentiate yourself.”
Johnson’s motto, “making the competition irrelevant,” doesn’t mean you don’t care what competitors are doing. Instead, research them and their call-to-action. Then ask, how can you stand out? “Do a competitor comparison and really understand the landscape of everybody else out there,” says Johnson.
In the competitive industry of promotional products, price wars are a losing game. Figure out exactly who you are and your target demographic. Johnson has found the business-planning software, LivePlan, useful in “opening up your mind to find new demographics that you never even thought were there.”
Become the expert in sectors such as medical, technology or accounting. Reach beyond your customers to learn what their customers values. Attend their conventions to know what excites these end-users. By being the specialist, you can share valuable knowledge with your clients about items that will have longevity with their customers. “Educate and the sales will follow,” says Johnson.
Next, listen to your clients, employees and stakeholders by seeking input through surveys. You get the most useful, unguarded information from employees through anonymous surveys where they can be open and honest, unhindered by not wanting to offend the boss.
For clients, reach out in surveys that offer something, however small, to thank them for their time. “I’ve had people send me a survey that literally has five crisp one-dollar bills to thank me, assuming that I’m going to do it. Now I feel bad if I don’t actually complete it,” says Johnson.
Tell customers they’re entered to win a $50 gift card or other item that incentivizes them to fill out the survey. Or have sales reps conduct a phone interview, and perhaps survey only the top 10% of your clients. “They’ve spent so much money with you that they want you to be better,” Johnson says. “Therefore, it makes them better too.”
Ask a broad section of stakeholders for feedback, from trade show partners to investors. And make sure to ask some open-ended questions, such as “What are we doing and offering that is working or not working?” to get feedback you can capitalize on.
“I’m a big believer that five minds are better than one, and 10 are better than five,” says Johnson. “So the more ideas you get from all these different perspectives – obviously you’re not going to use them all – but you can whittle them down to the winners.”
Johnson points to Cirque du Soleil as a company that carved out its own space. Instead of asking how they could compete with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, they combined circus with the arts and Broadway enabling them to charge exorbitant rates for tickets.
“You want a blue ocean where you’re the only provider at this time,” says Johnson. “People will follow, and you’ll have competition, but you’ll be the founder of it and you’re in an uncontested market space so you can charge whatever you want, vs. in a red ocean where everybody is offering the exact same thing.”
Leapfrog the Competition Via Surprise
The element of surprise and a new business model can help to remake your company. The key is to surprise your customers by adding value they didn’t think you normally provided. Define what you offer as broadly as possible by finding out what keeps your customers up at night. Maybe they are struggling with engaging their clients on Facebook, for example, and you develop a unique solution.
“You want to be able to positively surprise your clients by doing something for them, by offering something to them, by showing them that you have a capability that they didn’t expect,” says Soren Kaplan, author of Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs.
Kaplan’s book tells businesses how to leapfrog past current expectations and how surprises can be strategic tools to drive change. So, be open to the unexpected when creating a new business model. Step back for a broader perspective. When you begin the process of remaking your business, don’t expect to see the end goal.
“After 20 years of working in startups, a common thread for that process of really coming up with game changers is that you don’t know what you’re going to get when you start out,” says Kaplan.
Discover new business models by seeking inspiration beyond the “research report that everybody else in your industry is looking at.” Through his consulting firm, InnovationPoint, Kaplan has heard business people say, “I want the next big breakthrough but I don’t have time to innovate.”
His response is to set goals around doing things differently. For example, set a target that 20% of your company’s revenue in 10 years will come from products and services that you don’t currently offer today. It could be other marketing services like website design or social media consultations, or it could be redefining your business to a specific subset of customers that essentially helps turn your company into an ad agency. Ultimately, the key is to identify products and services that you could sell, but don’t currently market or sell to clients.
“That creates a goal around innovation and revenue generation,” says Kaplan.
Social media continues to drive the marketplace and needs to be a key part of any game-changing business plan. “Being able to create awareness, market and create thought leadership in this space using social media is interesting,” says Kaplan. “I haven’t seen a lot of companies using social media really effectively.”
In a business climate that is becoming commoditized, companies can differentiate their service with new offerings. For example, Rent the Runway, which is like the “Netflix of haute couture,” has turned formal wear into a service business by renting luxury dresses online for special events. They see themselves as a “fashion company with a technology soul” that didn’t disrupt an existing market, but rather created a new one. Or there’s the movie theater Kaplan visited in Paris that offers a monthly pass for “all-you-can-eat movies,” bringing a subscription model to an unlikely place.
Seek the unexpected and gain insight from it. Stir things up. And remember that failure is learning. “You’re going to need a portfolio of failures to get a portfolio of successes,” says Kaplan.
Spark Your Team’s Creativity
Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work, coaches business leaders on how to spark creativity in their teams and foster an environment that supports innovation. Naiman’s whole-brain teaching methods result in fresh thinking, which increases a company’s competitive advantage. Also, meetings conducted this way are a lot more fun than traditional get-togethers.
“Make your thoughts visible by building something, drawing pictures, building structural prototypes out of found objects and then show what you mean instead of showing a boring PowerPoint,” says Naiman. “These are ways to wake people up and ignite the creative spark.”
Showing data isn’t going to kindle the imagination or engage all the senses. Naiman encourages interactive meetings by asking teams to bring random objects from home and combining them to invent a game, a new service or product for their customers. Or, she’ll give employees clay so they can mold their idea. Also, she has groups take on the personas of various customer groups so they make an emotional connection and discover what that demographic truly cares about.
Naiman’s ground rules for running idea-generation meetings is to encourage others rather than shoot them down. “When people are presenting an idea, listen for their brilliance, not for what’s wrong with the idea,” says Naiman.
In Naiman’s approach to creative meetings, she often finds business groups over-represented in analytical and operational thinking while vision or artistic skills are lacking. Imaginative and big-picture thinking is a crucial yet missing piece. “It has become vitally important,” says Naiman, to operate with creative approaches, because companies need to fight the urge to keep the status quo in their operations.
Luckily, people can build these innovative thinking skills. Naiman says interviews with CEOs who have disrupted their marketplace (think Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) show they practice innovative behaviors rather than it being innate. “I found that really interesting because it takes out some of the magical thinking about creativity and it makes it accessible for anybody to develop,” says Naiman.
Question the status quo. Track trends outside your industry. What’s new in entertainment, popular culture and technology? And, as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says, mind your ABCDs -Always Be Connecting the Dots.
By observing trends, Naiman noticed gamification, where marketers engage customers and make emotional connections. For example, in Heineken Departure Roulette, the beer maker asked airport travelers to drop their current plans and play roulette for the opportunity to visit a more exotic destination. The company posted happy traveler videos on YouTube, which got millions of views.
“It’s making connections between things that are not normally related that helps you come up with novel ideas,” says Naiman.
Leaders can foster a culture of innovation by removing barriers such as too much red tape or “we’ve always done it this way” thinking. Also, if perfection is too important in a culture, employees will feel afraid to experiment.
“Set an example of encouraging, of taking risks, of creating an environment where people can learn,” says Naiman. “Innovation isn’t only about new products, it’s also about streamlining processes, it’s about service, it’s about the way you connect with the customer and improve their experience from start to finish.”
Develop Your Technical Talent
Nate Good helped drive ShowClix, an event ticketing platform, from a three-person organization to a company with more than 40 employees in five years. The company has beaten out larger competitors like TicketMaster to capture big name clients such as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show and Comic-Con.
In its short life, ShowClix has already remade itself. The original plan was to be a search engine for events. Then the founders realized clients wanted a way to capture revenue online, so they developed a merchandising system to sell T-shirts, CDs, digital downloads and other merchandise to ticket buyers. The company filled the gap before others could, but then competitors moved into the space. Good says a key to being able to innovate quickly is to recruit the best tech talent.
“It is becoming more and more rare to find a company that needs no technical support at all,” says Good, chief technology officer at ShowClix.
While promotional companies might not have a hiring mindset like Facebook, they still need to attract tech talent to stay relevant online and in social media. Good recommends associating your company with the tech community through events such as MeetUps.
“If you’re a small to medium-sized business and you don’t have a strong technical foundation yet, get involved in local tech events,” says Good. “It’s your job to compete with the Googles and the Apples and other behemoths in this space when it comes to building a team and recruiting and getting people to believe that it’s worthwhile to work for this seemingly small organization, likely taking a pay cut when they could be working for these giants.”
In the beginning, ShowClix needed to attract top talent but lacked the thousands of dollars a month to work with recruiting agencies or to pay for high-volume ads. So, executives played up the company’s fun culture by creating Engibeering events to lure technology people into their office. They teamed up with a local craft brewery in Pittsburgh and highlighted their employees along with outside experts to offer tech talks. They pushed it out on social media, billing it as a networking event. Even though they have a bigger recruiting budget now, Engibeering lives on.
Good says that while companies know to manage their external brand, you also need to give thought to building your “sub brand” to the tech community, or the characteristics that you want to portray to them.
Thanks to its tech team, the company is prepared to pivot again whenever they hear feedback from customers and the marketplace they want to act on. “Listen to what the market is saying,” Good says, “because it’s easy to get stuck in your own bubble or your own silo.”