Why Innovation Isn’t Just a New Economy Concept

Tech companies often get all the innovation kudos, but traditional companies are making headway of their own.

Photograph by Katie Diane.

The day Brian Scudamore had his house repainted he reinvented house painting.

It started when he met Jim Bodden, a business owner who promised to paint Scudamore’s home in just one day. That meeting led to one of those breakthrough entrepreneurial moments. Scudamore realized that when it comes to residential repainting, the client’s pain point usually isn’t paint or price — the biggest pain point is actually the inconvenience and disruption of having painters in your home for days — or weeks.

By the end of the year, Scudamore had purchased Bodden’s company and created WOW 1 DAY PAINTING. The company is now on its way to becoming his second multi-million-dollar franchise operation.

Like most innovations, this great idea didn’t begin with the search for an innovation. It started with paying attention and realizing there was an unaddressed pain in the market. It’s something Scudamore is very good at. After all, he is the founder and Vancouver owner of $150-million company 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

Innovation Isn’t Always Sexy
Solving problems is at the heart of innovation. Look at Amazon — it knows its business is not only about selling online but selling to the long tail. Victoria’s Flytographer totally “gets” the pain of making a huge financial and emotional investment in the trip of a lifetime only to come home and realize your vacation photos suck. So it connects travellers with professional photographers in cities around the world.

These are both big, sexy solutions. But innovation isn’t limited to new-economy businesses — it’s just as critical to old-economy businesses that actually need to be profitable to be viable (manufacturing, retail, services).

In fact, old-economy innovations are more often buried inside the cultural and operational fabric of successful businesses.

When Act Together Moving Services, a Victoria business that helps seniors downsize and move, onboards a new employee, it isn’t all doughnuts and policy-manual reviews. The company actually arranges for new employees to visit with happy past customers for tea and conversation.

Act Together knows there isn’t anything that inspires new employees more than hearing from seniors who felt safe, cared for and understood by the great work the business does. Those conversations are transformative in a way no training video, office tour and “here’s your desk” could ever be. This isn’t a hot app; it’s a quiet innovation driving a critical business value: loyalty and engagement.

Romeo’s Trucking, a Saskatoon-based firm that hauls across Canada, has a significant prejudice against modern trucks (Tupperware in trucking language). Their love for vintage rigs has brought them the attention of international customers and serves to attract drivers in a tight trucking-labour market. 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 organizations 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.

The Beginner’s Mind
All of these stories point to one common feature of innovation: looking at assumptions embedded in an industry or a business and taking none of them for granted. In the discipline of Zen, it’s called shoshin or “beginner’s mind” — and it’s about paying attention and seeing the world through a beginner’s eyes. It’s how Brian Scudamore  and Romeo’s saw what no one else saw.

Innovation and reinvention in old-economy businesses are not only possible, they are necessary. There is no growth in just doing more or just working harder. In a world of tight labour markets, nervous capital and bottom-feeding pricing by your competitors, doing things differently is the only way forward. And it begins with a beginner’s mind.

Get Intentional
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. Try to see with a beginner’s mind, without preconceptions about what can or can’t be done.

 Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. As Act Together Moving did, get past what everyone else does to hire and build a team. Go straight for the heart.

 Tread boldly. Fools may rush in where angels fear to tread, but so do entrepreneurs. Business leadership is seldom a place for cautious angels. 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 said there is no profit in a market’s long tail. Amazon saw it differently. Common sense also said old trucks have no business in a modern trucking business. Romeo’s didn’t agree.

 Pay attention. Most innovation is unplanned. Scudamore was getting his house painted, not looking for a new business. The HVLS Fan Company in Kentucky changed its name to Big Ass Fans (now Big Ass Solutions) because customers kept calling it that. There were no months of painful brainstorming with consultants, just paying attention on the way to becoming a $34M company with $2B goals and a 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. Here’s 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 those assumptions apart. There are no best practices. There are only successful and 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.

So 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 observe — and then put in the hours. Do all that, and innovation just becomes what you do every day.

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