The Innovation Toolkit

Even in a tough economy, there's one thing you can count on to keep your business afloat: Innovation. We asked these entrepreneurs and experts to reveal the secrets of their success-and how you can use their experiences to your advantage.

In a difficult economy, when small businesses have trouble finding capital, health insurance and nearly everything else, there is one element of business success that can still be had on the cheap: innovation. According to most economists, innovation remains probably the most important component of small-business success. Despite the downturn, smart companies are pouring more into research and development, and small businesses that continue to innovate, even in highly competitive fields, don't only survive, but thrive.

Here, then, are 18 how-tos of innovation every entrepreneur should consider.

How to convince people they need your innovation
Karl Jacob
Over the past year, many different technologies have come out for fighting spam. Using traditional advertising to differentiate yourself in such a crowded market just doesn't work. Instead, we make sure all the technical people at the big companies, like IBM, get a free copy of our software. Once people see the techs using it, they assume it's the best product and start using it themselves.
Karl Jacob is the CEO of Cloudmark, a company that develops spam-fighting technology.

How to translate your ideas to foreign markets
Jenny Hsui-Theleen
So many American companies just jump into foreign markets without a plan. Don't bring your business plan in and then hire people. Hire people on the ground first who can make your idea happen, and then bring your plan over.
Jenny Hsui-Theleen is the founder of ChinaVest, a venture capital firm focusing on China.

How to take advantage of new innovations
Bobbi Hansen
A lot of travel agents see the Internet as the innovation that is going to put them out of business. But why not draw on people's belief that the Internet always delivers lower fares, and advertise you can beat Internet fares? That bold statement draws customers. Then you deliver lower fares, and you have them. We check our internal booking engines so frequently, we get better fares than the online sites. Clients are shocked we can [beat] the Web, and they become repeat customers.
Bobbi Hansen is the president of Sunflower Travel.

How to create a new product
Rangaswamy Srinivasan
Allow everything in the environment around you to trigger ideas. In November 1981, I worked for IBM, working with lasers, cutting organic plastics. I was sitting at my Thanksgiving dinner table, staring at the turkey, and suddenly I wondered how a laser would cut organic matter like a turkey-or a person. I stashed a turkey leg and went into my office the next day. With no one around, I used the laser to slice through the turkey leg and then looked at the results under a microscope. I found it cut right through and could remove tiny bits of material without causing heat burns to the tissue. From there, I developed the idea of using lasers to cut eyes.
Rangaswamy Srinivasan invented laser eye surgery and is the 2002 inductee into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

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This article was originally published in the May 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Innovation Toolkit.

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