12th May 2014

Innovate - it can be fun and rewarding

When I caught up with a friend over a bite to eat recently, she ordered a "lettuce burger". When it appeared at the table it was just like a regular burger, except instead of a bread roll, the meat was wrapped in... lettuce. Riding on the latest low-carb craze this eatery had come up with a clever innovation to capture the palates of carbo-phobics.

Some people might simply consider this a gimmick. Whether you think it's a clever marketing ploy or a smart innovation in "product development" the reality is that the lettuce burger is now one of the most popular items on the menu of that eatery.

As small business entrepreneurs you are in the ideal position to spearhead innovation. Why? Because your time to market - the time between when you first think up an idea to when it's available on the market - can be much shorter than that of companies in the big end of town. You don't have to convince a sea of stakeholders, be accountable to shareholders or hope for approval from the board.

Taking risks and being flexible

The beauty about running a small business is that there's so much more flexibility when it comes to making changes and taking risks. When it comes to innovation, large companies can often stagnate as people can be too scared to go out on a limb in case of a very public failure. Or people aren't motivated or passionate enough to effect change.

Even though you are in a great position to innovate, the danger for small business entrepreneurs is that you can get too caught up in the day to day operations of your business - troubleshooting, planning for next month and simply doing the accounts - that we don't set aside time for innovation. At the very least, you need time for reflection to consider what you're doing right - and what you're not.

Time for innovation

But beyond this, most small business entrepreneurs can benefit from setting aside specific time to work on innovations - resulting in new and fresh products and services. The only way to move forward is to continuously improve and develop, which is why innovation is so important. If you kid yourself into thinking that your particular business model is going to work for several years - then someone with a simple (albeit messy) lettuce burger is going to come along and take away some of your market share.

So how does this work on a practical level? How do you "set aside time to innovate"? Some companies do literally that. Google - which was a small business once upon a time before they moved on to world domination and a ubiquitous presence on all our computers - have "20 per cent time". This is where Google staff are encouraged to spend 20 per cent of their time on anything outside of their core business. This means they get one a day week to work on new ideas, new strategies and new products - no matter how wacky they may seem at first.

It's a big call to suggest to any small business entrepreneur that they allow their staff to spend 20 per cent of their time on this. But empowering staff to contribute to your process of innovation is smart. Some of the best ideas for growth and product development may come from their creative solutions.

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La Trobe Financial Asset Management Limited

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