Innovation has taken center stage lately, as President Obama argues that it is the key to America's economic future. Just how innovation plays out in the cubicles and on the laptops of America's small-business owners, however, is anyone’s guess. Balancing the need to be innovative while managing a business on a day-to-day basis can be challenging.
BusinessNewsDaily asked CEOs from a variety of industries how innovation factors into their everyday business plans. This is the second in a three-part series, offering insights into what’s happening in businesses across the country.
Joy Gendusa, CEO, PostcardMania — PostcardMania is one of the nation’s most effective marketing companies specializing in lead generation for small- to large-size businesses. It offers complete marketing campaigns based on proven results with graphic design, printing, mailing list acquisition, mailing services, website development and e-mail marketing services.
[Read part one of our series on CEO innovation]
[Innovation is] very important. You may not realize this, but PostcardMania was the very first direct-mail postcard company of its kind offering all services needed for a results-driven marketing campaign, done fully in-house at low cost — with no middle-man to the end user. This was extremely innovative, and we realize that the momentum we built at the beginning is what keeps us ahead of our competitors today. Sure, we've been copied by companies all over the country, and we continuously have to innovate.
One example of this: a few years back, we brought on post a full-time marketing professional whose only job is to collect and catalogue clients’ campaign results based on industry. The purpose of this is to share the successful actions of these clients with others in their industry, so that they don't have to start from scratch on their marketing strategy, so to speak.
There is not one other company in our field that does this. This one idea turned into a huge selling point for PostcardMania and also helps thousands of new clients be successful in their marketing, which builds their business and causes them to reorder from us.
We are constantly looking for ways to be different that is appealing to and needed by our customers and prospects. I am fortunate that I put an excellent executive team in place as we grew. I have very competent people running the day-to-day business affairs and delivery of PostcardMania. This allows me to constantly keep my attention on expansion and innovation. I get to truly wear my hat as “Goal Maker” for the company.
Gary Lee, CEO, mBlast — mBLAST is improving the way marketing works with its cloud-based solutions for marketers, PR professionals and “influencers.” The company’s applications enable better collaboration between marketing professionals and market influencers — those individuals who, through their online writing, social media activity, awards and events, shape what potential buyers think about a company and their products and services.
Innovation is the very core of our business. At mBLAST, our success depends on providing innovative solutions to problems faced by marketing professionals around the world. The marketing professions may be going through one of the most radical transformations of an entire industry segment since the invention of the assembly line and mass production. Marketing professionals used to enjoy fairly well-understood relationships with a group of “influencers” — those journalists, analysts, publications and networks who would help carry their message and influence their market through advertising and stories in television, radio and printed publications.
With the introduction of the Internet, however, that world was forever changed. The world of publishing is now scattered across millions of online publishers, blogs and even social media. Everyone has a voice, and marketing is therefore scrambling to make sense of all the voices talking at once about their company, products and services, and understand who to listen to, who to engage with, and where and how to market and advertise successfully.
Marketing has changed forever. And with these radical changes, innovative thinking about new ways to do things is required. That’s the opportunity for our company — provide innovative solutions that enable marketing professionals to thrive in this new world of marketing. That’s what drives our thinking. And without innovative solutions, we will not be successful in the market.
I am not sure who said “innovate or die,” but I like that quote a lot. We’re in a white-hot market ripe for clever solutions that work. So in all the roles I have as the CEO, I believe making the time to constantly evaluate our position in the market and try and stay five steps ahead through innovation is perhaps the most important role I have.
To do that, I’ve made sure I have a strong team in place who can think out of the box, constantly evaluate if we’re on track or not, and innovate daily. We have daily meetings as an executive team. And while we deal with operational issues in these meetings, we also spend considerable time evaluating where we are and having very spirited discussions about “what’s next” and how we can hit the market.
We have a culture that encourages our employees to speak up when they have concerns about an idea’s viability in the market. Part of innovation is also uncovering what is not working or will not be accepted by the market. We’re always questioning ourselves. We’re always asking if we are right in our thinking. And we’re very careful to not become so enamored with our own thoughts that we forget to test constantly to make sure we are correct. We have killed projects that were ready to go-to-market, writing off development costs. We have shifted new projects radically after uncovering new thoughts about better paths to the market. I believe it’s better for us to control our own destiny by constantly thinking about our presence in the market, than allowing our own myopic thinking to have the market kill us.
I personally make time to talk with customers — preferably face-face — to understand how they are using our solutions to handle the radical transformations in the way they approach the marketing profession. I read everything I can get my hands on from others tackling some of the same problems we are. And I am constantly thinking about various solutions and ways we can help our users be successful.
As such, I am always trying to innovate. I am always questioning if we have the right solutions for our customers. I am always asking for feedback from customers and I am always trying to see “what’s next” in the market. I view this part of my job as a critical part of being the CEO. I am responsible for our performance; and a key part of that performance is coming up with innovative solutions the market wants and needs.
David Stein, Co-CEO, Rypple — Rypple builds social software that makes workplace feedback easy and fun. Our software is built around people, not processes. Teams share more feedback and actually get things done. Managers don't waste time and abolish painful performance reviews. People learn and adapt faster and get recognized for great work.
Innovative thinking is important to our business, but executing on innovation is what really matters. Innovative thinking is the start of the process — coming up with great ideas. Innovative execution is a structured approach to turning great ideas into action. At Rypple, we develop social software for feedback, coaching and recognition at work. Innovation is at the core of what we do. Why? Because the problem we are solving — helping teams be more productive and engaged at work, requires a fresh approach. We have to really understand people's pain points and then build software that reduces friction and amplifies communication in a "natural" way. To solve this problem, we developed an approach to address both the generation and the application of new ideas. We have a few general principles that help make innovation part of our core.
A flat organizational structure:
Flat means allowing the free sharing of ideas, priorities and feedback across all levels and departments in our company, without needing permission.
For example, we use our own product internally every day. Anyone can use our "Company Feed" feature (similar to a wall on Facebook) to share with everyone a key action they want to take. Everyone sees that action and can provide feedback and advice in real-time. Strong ideas build up momentum and people end up volunteering to take them on. No committees, no bureaucracy — it's democratic in the best sense of the word.
Listening religiously to our customers:
We survey our customers every week and use their feedback for everything from our website messaging to which features and functionality to add. Collectively, our thousands of customers are more innovative than our 30-odd employees can be.
Less is more: Refine, refine, refine.
Innovation isn't about cranking out a lot of features. It's about thrilling the customer by making one thing that used to be hard much easier. This means doing less...a lot less. Sometimes narrowing your focus actually spurs innovation by making you ask at every step not "what new shiny feature can we add?" but "what can we take away that will make this experience even easier and more intuitive for our customers."
Ben Federman, CEO, 1SaleADay — 1SaleaDay.com, is a daily deal website that offers the deepest discounts on a variety of merchandise with a new deal posted every day at midnight EDT. With Deals of the Day in five categories, including Wireless, Watch, Family and Jewelry, 1SaleaDay leverages its global buying power to offer discounts up to 90 percent off retail prices for electronics, collectibles, housewares, toys and more.
Innovation is crucial for setting ourselves apart at Internet retail. It's what brought us to being the largest independently owned daily deal website in the world, while spending almost no money on marketing. We made a decision to offer consumers products they love, at the lowest price available online, and in order to accomplish that, we have to be innovative every day.
We're constantly encouraging our employees and suppliers alike to stay innovative to enable us to keep offering our products at our deeply discounted prices. We also make sure to provide our employees with a free-thinking and comfortable atmosphere that allows them the space and freedom to be creative. We keep our suppliers innovative by showing them how we can move more of their product in one day than any other retailer, if they can get their price low enough to thrill our customers.
Our customers’ appreciation is a strong motivator in keeping us innovative on a daily basis. When we push our limits to bring an item that our customer's love, to market at a price they can afford, they let us know by telling their friends and family about us, and grow our business exponentially that way, every day. I love our customers, and always prefer to spend our marketing dollars by offering them even steeper discounts and letting them organically spread the word, as opposed to traditional marketing.
Adrian Comstock, CEO, Storitz Inc. — Storitz.com rents available storage units across North America, via a vast network of participating storage operators. Storitz allows consumers to not just reserve, but actually rent a storage unit online, all from the comfort of their own computer, smartphone or Web-enabled device.
Innovative thinking is vital to our business. First, the idea for Storitz, which is being the first and only self-storage directory where tenants can actually complete a unit rental online, is entirely unique in and of itself. That said, the initial concept for the company was just the beginning of the innovative thinking that goes into our business. After 20 years of experience in industries as varied as car sales, international debt note trading and being an agent in Hollywood, I now find myself in an industry niche that is as close as I’ve ever been to a blank slate. Self-storage is a traditional business that is 80 percent dominated by small-business owners whose advertising campaigns have been primarily limited to direct mail and yellow pages, and who utilize simplistic software systems as the pillars of their companies.
However, two recent factors have forced the facility owners to recognize that they must use the Internet to compete and attract new customers. These include a consumer mindset that is increasingly oriented toward Internet purchases, and the global commercial real estate downturn, which has not only given the self-storage industry its first years of negative growth, but also a wake-up call.
At Storitz, we offer a potent combination of the most advanced Internet technology and pioneering concepts in the areas of client transactions and customer experience, in order to help consumers more easily find and acquire self-storage. At the same time, we are operating within an industry that is, in many ways, taking its first steps into contemporary operations. Thus, we must employ innovation in the way we find and attract new customers, of course, but also in how we communicate with our vendors (the storage property owners), and in the way we compete against other online self-storage marketers.
We must be most innovative in the ways we relentlessly check, rate and assess our competition, and their progress. This is part of the paradox of the blank slate. The good news is that the opportunity to market self-storage on the Internet is wide open. The bad news is the opportunity is wide open and a number of other sophisticated and determined players are going for it at the same time. While there are tools we can use to quantify the relevance, traffic, rankings and ratings of our competitors, they are vast; therefore, we must use the skill of educated data interpretation to continually assess and adjust our strategies accordingly.
There is no conflict between innovation and day-to-day operations at Storitz. In addition to the conceptual and technological innovations on which our company was founded, we try to be innovative in other ways, such as our daily operations and processes. For example, we hold a weekly company meeting to keep everyone informed of objectives and accomplishments, but for ongoing projects and immediate needs that arise throughout the week, we hold “micro” work-sessions, enlisting only the people and resources required so that others can be moving initiatives forward. This is in sharp contrast to most of the companies where
I’ve worked in the past, which held numerous large meetings with high frequency. The “startup” culture of our office with open spaces and open doors means that we are constantly collaborating, troubleshooting, spit-balling and brainstorming as a team, even when we’re not in meetings. Though we’re not in a traditionally “creative” industry, this kind of environment fosters creativity and ideas from which new avenues of innovation can be explored, developed and ultimately implemented.