Many of our nation's best innovations were born in the minds of entrepreneurs. In fact, large corporations have long acknowledged-even mimicked-the innovative spirit that's alive and well in smaller companies. Just ask Jack Gordon, 52, who blazed new trails with AcuPoll, a company he started specifically to help clients innovate. The Cincinnati-based market research firm predicts whether a new product will be a triumph or a turkey, whether an ad campaign becomes a favorite or quickly forgotten. Clients have ranged from The Coca-Cola Company and Pepsi-Co Inc. to NASCAR and Procter & Gamble. Some of the products AcuPoll has had a hand in developing include the Oral-B Indicator toothbrush, Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Bioré's deep-cleansing pore strips.
Through it all, Gordon has come to learn a thing or two about innovation. When he first started the company in 1990, market research wasn't what it is today. "Companies that wanted to innovate would come up with three or four ideas," recalls Gordon. "And this was at a time when 80 to 85 percent of the products being introduced were failing in the marketplace."
So Gordon's company, which has offices worldwide and just under 100 employees, devised a way to test-market 40 ideas at once-10 times the number clients were typically bringing in-and to compile and analyze the data for the client within seven days, versus the typical six to eight weeks. Now, AcuPoll brings in $10 million in annual revenues.
Why are small businesses so successful at innovation? They're usually close enough to their employees to ask for help in coming up with ideas, says Alan G. Robinson, co-author of Corporate Creativity and the just-released Ideas Are Free, both from Berrett-Koehler Publishers. With a system to seek out innovation, such as funneling creativity from employees, Robinson says, "the odds become a reality."
Of course, part of the trick of understanding innovation is to know when you see it. As Gordon tells his clients, while the market has to be there, "you also [need] something new and different. Let's say you have a new detergent, and it goes against Tide. When it comes time for the consumer to give up their Tide and pick up your product, why would they? You need something extra." Fortunately for many U.S. companies and consumers that want to be on the edge of innovation, AcuPoll has exactly that: something extra.
Get ready to celebrate with the SBA.
Your spouse or significant other probably won't send a card. Your parents probably won't call. Your friends aren't likely to take you out to dinner or to a movie. As a whole, the country never seems to really notice the 41-year-old holiday known as National Small Business Week the way they do Christmas, Thanksgiving and even Arbor Day. But no matter. The SBA obviously cares, because it's throwing its annual party in Orlando, Florida, at the Orange County Convention Center from May 19 to 21. Those interested in attending should visit www.sba.gov/50 or call (202) 205-8414. And if you can't make up your mind until the last minute, you can register the day of the event, provided it isn't sold out. Prices are $325 before April 17, $350 between April 18 and April 30, and $400 after that. The three-day extravaganza will include a business expo, a business matchmaking event, business seminars, a town hall meeting, and award ceremonies honoring women entrepreneurs as well as state and national small-business winners.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.