With more and more technologies out there and what we thought of as start-ups just a few years ago now becoming well-established incumbents, making big leaps and innovating on a large scale has not only been getting more difficult but also more expensive.
Just as an example, venture capital firms, according to PitchBook, are writing fatter and fatter checks, and more and more of their money is being used to fund follow-on rather than first rounds. Exit count has been flat at best while the exit value in 2018 has grown to the second-highest level of the decade.
That doesn’t mean, however, that innovation itself has to be difficult.
“Jumping to the next curve” innovation—e.g. going from snail mail to email or from gas-powered to electric cars—is, of course, important. It’s what keeps moving the society forward and has the power to affect the lives of millions if not billions of people.
However, even innovation on a much smaller scale, what many might not even consider innovation or call “innovation” (in quotation marks), is important. It’s what can turn aspiring business owners into actual business owners and, just like the larger-scale innovation, change the lives of people. Maybe not millions or billions, but certainly hundreds or thousands.
As such, before you give up on your business idea because you think it’s not too innovative or because “a similar thing already exists,” make sure to read through the below.
Innovation Doesn’t Need to Be An Invention
First things first, it’s important to get the definitions right.
Merriam-Webster defines “to invent” as “to produce (something, such as a useful device or process) for the first time through the use of the imagination or of ingenious thinking and experiment.”
“To innovate,” on the other hand, is defined as “to make changes” or “to do something in a new way.”
In other words, while invention creates something out of nothing, innovation improves—whether on a small or a large scale—something that exists.
Sometimes, the difference is clear cut. The lightbulb is clearly an invention. However, sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. Is the cell phone a new invention or just an innovation of the classic phone? Is the smartphone a new invention or just an innovation of the classic phone? Or an innovation of the computer even?
Regardless of which way you choose to look at the questions above, some things are certain: pure invention is extremely rare, innovation doesn’t require invention, and a successful business doesn’t need to invent.
After all, the iPhone was not the first smartphone to hit the market, yet it’s in many people’s pockets nowadays. Windows wasn’t the first operating system with a graphic user interface, yet it has been powering the vast majority of desktops and laptops for decades.
On a much smaller scale, Standart, a coffee magazine run by a friend of mine, was not the first coffee magazine in the world. Yet, it went on to win the industry’s well-recognized Sprudge Best Coffee Magazine award three years in a row.
Innovation Doesn’t Have to Be Complex
You might be thinking “sure, innovation doesn’t have to mean invention but innovating from a first-generation smartphone to an iPhone requires a certain level of genius…” And, you are certainly right. Not everyone can do what Steve Jobs and Apple did with the iPhone. Or what Bill Gates and Microsoft did with Windows. Or what Elon Musk and Space X did with rockets.
However, as I briefly mentioned already, innovation can happen on a much smaller scale.
Innovation doesn’t be complex.
It can be simple.
Take Standart Magazine as an example again.
My friend and his team weren’t the first to create a coffee magazine. They didn’t even do “crazy genius stuff” you would expect Jobs or Musk to do. They didn’t use blockchain, cloud, AI, or any other “advanced technology” to power their innovation.
No, they did what anyone else could do.
Instead of using cheap, thin paper, they decided to use a thicker paper that gives the magazine a higher-end feel. Instead of filling the magazine with cheap-looking stock photos, they opted to go for high-quality custom graphics. Instead of going online, they decided to be print-first.
Those little improvements, those little innovations combined with great execution created a product that thousands of people all over the world love and a company that supports the lives of multiple people.
To give you one more example, think about the sandbox—a place where children love to spend their time discovering the world and learning to be creative. And, think about children in wheelchairs for whom most sandboxes, being on the ground, are out of reach.
Comes the accessible sandbox—a simple innovation that takes a box of sand and elevates it to table-height by adding legs. A simple innovation that allows a child in a wheelchair to access it and play. A simple innovation that has the potential to change children’s lives.
And, again, it’s an innovation that is not complicated to implement.
It’s an innovation that doesn’t require the innovator to know any of the modern buzzwords or programming languages, or to have an MBA or a PhD.
All it requires is a bit of imagination and some wooden boards, a hammer, and nails.
Innovation Doesn’t Have to Be Product-Related
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, even though product innovation is the most obvious and perhaps the most talked-about area of innovation, innovation can come in dozens of other business areas too.
While there are many ways to look at this, a good place to start would be the marketing mix model which includes the seven—an expansion on the classic four— Ps: product, price, place, promotion, people, process, and physical evidence.
Take the Dollar Shave Club, a company that innovated in the men’s razor industry, as an example. It didn’t innovate by changing the product, the razor, itself. Instead, it did so by changing how the product was promoted and delivered.
Rather than people having to go to a store and buy their razors on an ad-hoc basis, it sold them as subscriptions that would deliver the razors to their doorstep on a regular basis. That simple innovation helped the company get a lot of traction, eventually leading to a billion-dollar acquisition by Unilever—one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies.
Or, take QB House, a Japanese barbershop chain. They weren’t the first barbershop in the market. They didn’t even invent brand new automatic scissors or anything fancy like that. Instead, they focused their innovation around their process and price.
By streamlining the process—using vending machines to sell their services and having standardized workstations optimized for maximum efficiency among other things—they managed to bring the price down and provide consistency across their hundreds of branches.
Finally, consider Seoul Plaza, an Asian supermarket in Slovakia, the country in which I spent the first two decades of my life. Their products are things that can be easily bought in supermarkets in Korea or Japan. However, their innovation came from bringing them to a market where they weren’t easily available before.
When thinking about how to innovate, how to differentiate yourself from the other companies that are out there, consider all the different aspects of a business, not just the product.
Think if there is a way to create value through modifying the delivery process like Dollar Shave Club did. Think if there is a way to bring a new pricing model and process to the market like QB House did. Think if there is a way to take a product that already exists and bring it into a new market like Seoul Plaza did.
Don’t Let the Idea of Innovation Paralyze You
If you want to be a “jumping the curve” inventor or innovator like Edison, Jobs, or Musk, go for it.
While the odds are very slim, you will have a chance of changing the world. A chance of coming up with something that the masses will benefit from or that will have the potential to move the entire humanity to the next level.
However, if you want to start a business to support yourself and your family but the thought of not being innovative enough or of other people doing the same thing that you are planning to do is paralyzing you, think again.
Think if there is a way you can take something that exists and make small, incremental improvements to the product itself or to one of the other pieces of the marketing mix. Think if there is a way to take what already exists and combine it into a new permutation. Think if you can take an existing business model and apply it to something else.
While it might not seem like that on the surface, doing those things is innovation.
If all that is stopping you from bringing your idea to life is your thought that you are not being innovative enough, give your idea a shot. Yes, you might fail—your idea might, indeed, not be innovative enough. Or it might not answer a need in the market. But you might also be pleasantly surprised by the results you get.