By: Stephen M. Sweid
This is the era of rapid changes and disruptive innovations, and no startup, irrespective of size or industry, should be launched without a high degree of innovation and differentiation. This article is about the why, what, and the how— the systematic way to achieve this, based on the long international experience of the author, Dr. Stephen M. Sweid.
There may be a million reasons why a large number of SME startups fail within the first few years after their launch. Nevertheless, it is certain that a lack of novelty and creative thinking should be considered as one of the root causes of the problems faced by entrepreneurs. Very few SME startups realize their full potential through innovation.
A startup without a tangible touch of novelty and innovation is similar to riding a bicycle— everyone can ride a bike. What about driving a fancy car or even flying a spaceship? I am confident you would like to fly a spaceship rather than pedaling around the block.
This is the era of rapid changes and disruptive innovations, and no startup, irrespective of size or industry, should be launched without a high degree of innovation and differentiation, but also breakthrough and quantum leap in its essence.
Advantages of innovation and differentiation in a startup
An innovative idea is a great start of things, similar to finding a treasure trove; what would you do if you found a treasure trove in your garden?
It should be noted that achieving a strong business, individual success and indeed sustainability require a combination of many factors—a complex formula, an equation with many parameters, a recipe with many ingredients—and having innovation is not a guarantee for success, but it does definitely raise the stakes for success. Your undertaking can take off that much quicker with a more original, innovative product and business concept because you are offering unique features no one else is providing and you have a great competitive advantage as a first comer.
Why start a conventional project where you must compete head-on and right from the start with similar businesses who are already known and established, and where you will be struggling all the way?
Innovation in a startup
It’s not difficult to come up with something new and you can innovate in all aspects of your business, e.g. products, services, strategy, marketing, business model, partnerships, etc. For instance, it’s pretty straightforward to coin a unique fancy name for a website although there are more than a billion websites.
Innovation is not about offering a novelty, but is about responding to a tangible demand in the market…
However, innovation is about every day. Innovation is not about offering a novelty, but is about responding to a tangible demand in the market and offering benefits (added value) that make a difference. Innovation addresses the same needs with better solutions and can even create new needs. It does not usually cost more to be innovative: It is mainly about a different combination of resources available. Innovation is not always about new technology or new materials, rather about new ideas and imagination.
You should surprise your customers constantly and thus make them happier. This is the ultimate purpose of innovation. You should bring in novelties from other places, but also innovations of your own. You have to focus on a specific segment initially, since this will make it easier to innovate (e.g. specialization, your niche, product range, market, etc.).
There must be a high degree of differentiation in at least 40% of your product ideas and services. Ask yourself and your team where you can differentiate, keeping in mind that your innovative differentiations should be tangible and not just some impressions, and where you can specify exactly what they are.
On the other hand, you should focus on selling benefits and meeting familiar needs rather than promoting your novelties per say; people might be weary of your novelties if you are not a known name. Do not emulate only, but add value. You can also find innovative ways to collaborate.
A systematic journey
Do your homework to spot that promising novel business idea among many, and once you do, supercharge it with innovation and differentiation to reach WOW levels in all its facets; in particular its business concept, i.e. success formula (value proposition). Do not be tempted to get started with your project and to think about the details later. You have to let go if it is not exceptional. Even when you have great connections and numerous potential customers available, you still should strive to give them more than they expect, to be worthy of their trust and to keep them loyal to you in the long run.
You should go on a real quest to discover the hidden paradises and treasures which are definitely out there, but which just need finding or even creating (similar to the spectacular “The Palm” project in Dubai, seen to the right).
Innovation needs time; you might spend up to a few months exploring, thinking and experimenting before you decide to start your project. In essence, you have to go through a phase of divergent thinking, generating many new ideas and options before you start your project. Next you go through a phase of convergent thinking, selecting the best ideas and developing the project. You have to ask yourself what is new in your project: If you have to think about it twice then you should not start! Do not start a business if it’s not mostly original.
Basically, you have to complicate it first before you can make it into an ingenious simplicity. As an indicator, if you have not obtained multiple ‘WOW YES’ responses from potential customers regarding your value proposition do not go ahead with your project idea.
The crucial mindsets
A startup is not about pure logic but a lot of heart and attitude.
A startup is not only about pure logic and methodology but about a lot of heart and attitude. Before getting immersed in your project idea, you should self- transform in the span of a month or two in order to embrace diverse mindsets that are conducive to a quantum leap and innovative achievement. See the intro to my publication to get an idea.
The issue of mindset is essential and can make the difference between having a mediocre and an extraordinary project. There is no realization and no winning without it, as in sports or in battle. You need a diversity of mindsets because success is a combination of many elements; not just one. Each mindset triggers new ideas, and the diversity ignites creativity. You need to practice each mindset and make it into a habit. If you are a team, then the entire team should embrace the diversity of mindsets.
As an example, you should explore multiple perspectives: the entrepreneur who’s out doing things; the explorer pushing boundaries; the hang glider flying high; and the farmer’s mindset with his feet on solid ground. Be artistic and inventive as a habit. You also need the mindset of giving and generosity, this will provide a whole new perspective. You should also embrace the technology freak mindset, and many more.
Your startup is not only about the present but more about the future scene and you should be gearing up for the future. Can you imagine the future in 3-5 years or even longer and your place in it? Fantasize, and try to realize it now!
Global reach right away
You should go into the global business mode immediately and before you start, even if you are dealing with a very small startup project. Set your sights on 50/50, local/international right from the start. This will generate a lot of innovative ideas. Seek international collaboration in supplies and marketing and this will spark many WOW ideas.
Research for startup
Research is crucial for finding novelties, but also for testing your ideas in the real world.
You have to do your research homework before you start your project. Research is essential for gathering market intelligence and is therefore indispensable for success. Moreover, research is crucial for finding novelties and better ways, but also for testing your ideas in the real world. You can also use research for open innovation.
You should talk to suppliers, customers and users, they are interested in helping you and they will tell you a lot about the market, novelties, their needs, problems and more; this will surely ignite your innovation drive. You should talk to at least ten potential customers. Also check whether there are similar offers in the market. You might think you are the first but maybe similar products already exist. Research how others are doing similar projects anywhere in the world.
See what people are planning to do, and not only what they are doing now, especially customers and competitors. Immerse yourself in Googling. Confidentiality is a major issue in research, indeed for a startup project. Utmost caution should be exercised to avoid disclosure of the actual project concept.
The business plan
The business plan is not your purpose as such, but a means of inspiration and guidance. You should live your project in your imagination and on paper week-by-week and in minute details in the future, and pretend it is in the present. You have to be able to explain in two minutes why your project is special and why you will succeed!
How to be more creative and innovative?
Creative thinking (generating new ideas) and innovation can be learned and mastered through practice. You can become more creative every year, and you can be more creative than ever in your life. It will be very beneficial to get acquainted with the main 20-30 techniques of creative thinking (which are actually easy to learn) and make them into a habit in a month or so BEFORE you start your new project.
It is not hard to come up with innovative ideas. The first step being the drive: “I want innovative ideas”.
Testing your project idea in the market generates a lot of development ideas.
Here is a very small excerpt of tips for igniting your lateral thinking:
- Drop the first two to three ideas that come to your mind! They are usually not creative enough.
- Think how you can make a real difference and impact in the market and not how you can make money. This way you get so many great ideas first. The money issue comes later.
- Bring in creative people to the team, and people who love discovery, adventure and risk taking, and people who can challenge your thinking and assumptions.
- The Mindmap is a great tool for organizing thoughts but indeed for individual brainstorming.
- Group brainstorming done the right way can bring about an eruption of new ideas.
- It is all about inspiring questions. You should ask all the questions mentioned earlier, e.g. what the future will be like together with the many possibilities and scenarios, or what is missing in the market, or how to make customers happy, etc.
- Talking about your project idea to others and indeed to experts often generates many Eureka ideas. Still, it is essential to maintain discretion of the project idea.
- The test and trial of your project idea in the market (the real world) generate a lot of ideas for development and refining.
- Visit related conferences and exhibitions to boost your inspiration.
- Strategic thinking, SWOT analysis, and the business model canvas spark great ideas.
- Have long walks and think about all possibilities open to you, i.e. all options, but try to focus on one topic only in one walk. You should have a pocket notebook all the time to register ideas and remarks and observations when they arise.
- Seek analogies in different industries and learn from them.
- Experimenting is not difficult and one should not copy only but should be brave and do something quite new. You should set up an experimentation workshop even if very small and try new approaches and combinations.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen M. Sweid is a business and innovation consultant / trainer, with over 20 years consulting experience on the international scene: Europe, USA, Middle East and Far East. He has involved as expert consultant in technical assistance projects of international organizations as well as in consulting projects commissioned by multinationals. He is currently active in the UK and UAE. His consultancy focuses on strategic issues, quantum leaping, innovation and marketing.
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