Anyone who lived in the time of legends such as Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein could be forgiven for thinking everything that can be invented already has been invented. Of course, if we’d stopped there, we wouldn’t have the computer or the internet. The past century of our history stands as a testament to human ingenuity and our persistence to make things better.
While innovation still is possible, much has changed. Ford’s invention no doubt was heralded as something just short of a miracle. Today’s feature-laden minivans, hybrids and electric cars mean any new entrant in the vehicle market will also need to enable flight if it’s to be seen as anything other than an also-ran. Competition is fierce and becoming even more so in the current climate.
This trend has forced entrepreneurs and business owners to evolve their views on innovation. Innovation in the 21st century demands we retrain ourselves to find pockets of spaces within industries where we can create a more fulfilling experience for customers. Here are a few proven ways to leverage that inspiration to sustain or build companies.
1. Ease the burden of responsibilities.
Many people work more than one job to satisfy all their financial responsibilities. This makes it difficult to juggle work and family duties.
Even so, this shift has created a business opportunity: the errand-services industry. These businesses exist to make people’s lives easier. Services range from the exceptional to the mundane -- from dog-walking and grocery-getting to doing laundry, caring for elderly family members or performing concierge services.
All one needs to make a start in this industry is a willingness to do whatever his or her clients ask. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn how many people are willing to pay someone else if it means reducing their non-work responsibilities. After all, skipping hours on the job typically will be more costly for them.
2. Facilitate business operations.
In the words of Cova CEO Gary Cohen: “In the course of running a business, you will find that there are functions and responsibilities that you need to carry out to ensure the smooth and optimal running of your business. These services are usually such that even though they may not be increasing revenue, not handling them will certainly prove costlier for you.”
Third-party companies take care of many of these functions. Software-as-a-servic (Saas) companies such as Dropbox help people save vital business documents in the cloud. Many small businesses, in particular, rely on payroll and accounting software such as QuickBooks or payment-integration systems such as PayPal and Square.
3. Upgrade a product or service.
In the Babylonian era, toothbrushes -- or more aptly, chew sticks -- were made by fraying the end of a twig. In 1498, the first true toothbrush was made by rooting Siberian pig-hair bristles into a handle (typically made of cattle bone). The efficiency of modern electric toothbrushes would put all their predecessors to shame.
What’s the lesson? Upgrading a product or service has been a viable strategy for a very long time. And so long as creativity remains, this breed of innovation won’t become obsolete.
VitaCup’s CEO suffered a vitamin deficiency as a child. As an entrepreneur, he discovered a way to make conventional coffee and tea healthier by infusing them with vitamins. People now can get all their necessary vitamins in America’s most-consumed beverage -- without sacrificing taste.
Uber is worth billions today, but it grew from an idea to improve and streamline the transportation industry. Getting everyone in on the action is the perfect way to hitch a ride.
4. Create a meeting point.
People’s need for problems to be solved as quickly and easily as possible led to what I like to call “bridge companies.” In our digital world, these businesses often emerge as online platforms. Fiverr and Freelancer are among the industry’s biggest players. Both help people easily complete work-related or personal assignments.
Google Advertising spearheaded an online revolution that spurred companies such as Admitad -- which further specializes in marketing for CPA firms -- and a host of others. Each serves as a platform where advertisers can meet publishers who are willing to display their marketing materials.
In this model, entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to solve the problems themselves. Creating a convergence point adds value (and potential profit) enough.
5. Offer an experience.
Many times, people’s complaints about a product or service have less to do with the quality of the item or assistance received than with how the solution was delivered.
Hotels, for instance, are a massive part of the hospitality industry. People lodge in hotels for a myriad of reasons. But in recent years, a curious trend has arisen: Those who embark on casual travel for vacationing or sightseeing don’t like the idea of staying in hotels. They want to soak up the atmosphere, culture and language. In short, they want to feel what it’s like to be part of the community -- and many of them want to bring their pets along for the adventure.
A hotel, though, is loaded with constant reminders that they are visitors. Not so with the home-hospitality experience, whose owners list their primary homes or vacation properties with third-party rental agencies. Airbnb, Acmehouse and HomeAway fulfill this need internationally and locally while offering the full range of experiences possible in each locality.