When I say “innovation,” people typically assume I’m discussing grand advancements in technology or major, trendsetting announcements that can impact the trajectory of an entire industry. While innovation can certainly be tech-focused, for small business owners and entrepreneurs, the thought process surrounding innovation can—and should—mean much more. Innovation—the development of a new method, product or idea, is at the core of all successful businesses but, at times, the term can seem overwhelming. Innovation is about a mindset, a desire to challenge the status quo. By challenging the mindset of, “This is how it’s always been done,” with an openness and a desire to evolve, businesses can uncover new opportunities to provide innovative solutions for newly discovered challenges.
But, the real question is how do you make that happen?
First, we must understand the challenges. Recently, the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) conducted interviews with members of our InventIllinois program, which is designed for companies focused on creating innovative products, to determine the top three challenges their customers and clients face when it comes to innovation. We identified three common challenges: increased competition, jobs replaced by technological advances and innovation and evolving products and services to remain relevant.
Understanding the challenges is just the first step of this process. We must then determine how to address them. Start by identifying the roadblocks between the challenge and solution. Look at what actions have been taken by competitors. Look at the role of technology disruptions in your specific industry and then move towards creating a solution.
Once you’ve identified the technological and innovative problem areas, it is time to determine ways in which you can adjust your business plan. Think about what you already offer and build your innovation strategy from there. Do you need to develop a new practice area? Purchase new equipment? Hire someone with a new skillset? Make sure you build in time to develop the skills, technology or workforce you need to serve your client.
From here, it is about executing the plan. Building into your business plan moving forward is a process to ensure that you are constantly looking for ways to innovate. By innovating and changing what you can offer to your clients, you can remain the top contender in your industry.
Now, let’s talk about what this looks like in action.
Cummins, Inc., a facilities management company, which manages the cleaning and maintenance of largescale manufacturing facilities approached the WBDC to help them develop an innovation plan. The plan would allow them to better service their health care facility clients. As a result of participating in our program, we concluded that the best innovation opportunity was to license technology from a federal lab and productize the innovation as a brand new vertical for their business.
The technology that the WBDC InventIllinois program helped Cummins, Inc. license allows for the design of a stronger, longer-lasting and more durable air filtration material that can target both chemical contaminants and biological ones. This is not a product Cummins, Inc. currently offered; but, through research and coordination with new partners at the Navy Research Lab, the company is now on the brink of a breakthrough, creating an innovative product that resolves this issue and directly meets a need for health care facilities.
As director of WBDC’s InventIllinois program, I work closely with many businesses like Cummins, Inc. that are actively working to anticipate and address clients’ innovation needs. We help new businesses with funding advice, such as advising on Small Business Innovation Research grant applications, in addition to investor-worthy business plans and presentations. Small business owners can utilize the InventIllinois program and have the opportunity to work with industry experts on how to maintain a competitive edge. They can also receive options for government funding, as well as effectively preserve their advantages in the marketplace. The program looks to help businesses create innovation roadmaps based on identified pain points of their customers.
The most successful companies are ones that embrace innovation and understand that creating innovative solutions to your client’s problem is the best way to grow. One way to do this is by working backwards from the problem and identifying pain points to then finding the best viable solution. Innovation is not about the type of company or business. It is a state of mind. Knowing when to innovate and anticipate problems is key to longevity for all small and mid-size businesses.
Although the term innovation may seem daunting, it is simply adjusting to needs and having the flexibility to make those changes, and addressing opportunities that clients note as pain points.