Innovation isn’t always sexy
We associate innovation with the new economy world of tech start-ups. But in the old economy world of businesses that have to make a profit by making something, selling something, or providing a service, innovation is just as critical.
In the new economy, Jeff Bezos realized it is not about selling online but selling to the long tail. Victoria BC’s Nicole Smith of Flightographer fame ‘gets’ the pain of making a huge financial and emotional investment in the trip of a lifetime only to realize your pictures suck when you get home. Both powerful ideas driven by solving a problem. And they are both sexy solutions.Old economy innovation is often buried inside the cultural and operational fabric of successful businesses. When Act Together Moving Services, a Victoria, British Columbia business that helps seniors downsize and move, onboards a new employee it isn’t all donuts and policy manual reviews. They arrange for new employees to visit a happy past customer for tea and conversation. There's nothing as effective as hearing from a senior who feels safe, cared for, and understood, to inspire a new employee. Those conversations are transformative in a way no tour of the office, training videos, and here’s-your-desk ever could be. This isn’t a hot sexy app; it is a quiet innovation driving a critical business value: loyalty and engagement.
Romeos Trucking, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan trucking firm hauling across Canada, has a prejudice against modern trucks (‘tupperware’ in trucking terms). Their love for vintage rigs has brought them to the attention of international customers and local drivers. Attracting drivers matters when the trucking labour market is tight. It also turns out there are expense and balance sheet benefits to running older but reliable machinery. Not sexy (unless you are a trucker) but very innovative.
These are organizations that zig when others zag. Squeezing that innovation and reinvention out of a tired industry takes as much creativity and courage as creating a new iphone app.
A Painter's Tale
The day Brian Scudamore had his house repainted he reinvented house painting.
It started with someone paying attention and realizing there was an unaddressed pain in the market.
In the world of residential repainting every business until Jim Bodden (the business owner who promised to paint Scudamore’s home in one day) focused on price and quality. In his encounter with Bodden, Scudamore (the Vancouver, British Columbia owner of $150M 1-800-Got-Junk) had one of those breakthrough entrepreneurial moments: realizing the pain isn't paint or price. The pain is disruption and inconvenience.
The disruption of having painters in your home for days or even weeks was a problem no business owner had seen as an opportunity. Yet disruption is the biggest pain point for residential repainting customers. Out of that ‘aha’ moment Wow One Day Painting was born and Scudamore’s second company is on its way to becoming another multi-million dollar franchise.
All of these stories point to one common behaviour: looking at assumptions in an industry and believing it can be done differently. It is what the discipline of Zen calls shoshin or “beginner’s mind.” Who saw a competitive advantage in arranging for a new employee to share tea and conversation with an elderly customer, or restructuring the organization of a residential painting job? Someone with a willingness to pay attention and see the world through beginner’s eyes.
Innovation and reinvention in old economy businesses is not only possible, it is necessary. There is no growth in only doing more. In a world of tight labour markets, nervous capital, bottom-feeder pricing by competitors, doing things differently is the way forward. Doing differently begins with seeing differently.
Also Read: Can You Hear This?
Innovation for old economy business
If you haven’t explored intentional innovation as a strategy for growth here are some places to start.
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Like Scudamore, figure out what the real pain point is. Don’t assume it is the usual pablum of ‘quality’ or ‘customer service’. Dig deeper and ask real customers real questions. Learn to see with a beginner’s mind, without preconceptions about what can or can’t be done.
Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Like Act Together Moving, get past what everyone else does to onboard and build a team, and go straight for the heart.
Tread boldly. We forget common sense doesn't mean good sense. It means 'sense held in common'. That is, what everyone else thinks! Do your due diligence of course, but just because everyone else says ‘there’s no gold there’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pan the creek anyhow. Innovation rejects the idea of common sense. Common sense held there was no profit in a market’s long tail. Common sense has it old trucks have no business in a modern trucking business.
Pay attention. Most innovation is unplanned. Scudamore was getting his house painted, not looking for a new business idea. Romeo loves old trucks; that was never a business decision to start. The HVLS Fan Company in Kentucky changed its name to Big Ass Fans (now Big Ass Solutions) because customers kept calling it that. For BAS, there was no 18 months of painful brainstorming exercises with consultants; just paying attention to customers on the way to becoming a $34M company with $2B goals. And a really cool name.
Drive a stake through the phrase ‘best practices’. Read this column long enough and you’ll start to anticipate my antipathy for banal language ('common sense'). Here’s another one: ‘best practices’. Look at every ‘best practice’ in your industry and in your market and challenge it: pricing, delivery, talent acquisition, core products and services, who your customers really are or what they really want, and pull them apart. There are no ‘best practices’. There are only cautious, innovative, disruptive, unorthodox, successful or unsuccessful practices.
Innovation happens everywhere and at every level in a growing business. There is no growth without it. There is also no innovation without three things: paying attention, risk-taking, and hard work. Forget the programs and workshops on innovation. Learn instead to listen, to see with a beginner’s mind, to take intelligent risks based on what you hear and see, and then put in the hours. Do all that, and innovation just becomes what you do every day, in any kind of business.