November 2014

aosstoreI was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently and “discovered” The Art of Shaving. It’s an upscale mall store that is dedicated to one thing and one thing only…the perfect shave for men. As it turns out, I could have discovered it in any one of dozens of malls nationwide. The company has been around since 1996 and its history is the perfect example of the power of innovation.

 

“There’s got to be a better way.”

That’s how good innovation starts. Co-founder Eric Malka said to his wife, “There’s got to be a better way to shave,” and the two of them set about finding it. Over time, they developed a four step system that lubricates, lathers, shaves, moisturizes, and turns the entire shaving ritual into something a man can actually look forward to. When I am finished shaving, my face feels so good I wish I could shave again. Sometimes I do.

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Innovation is Worth More

People are willing to pay more for real solutions, especially one-of-a-kind solutions. AoS virtually owns the high-end shaving market and they get a premium for their products. This is the real value of innovation. Higher margins, better sales, and loyal customers. In 2009, Procter and Gamble (owners of Gillette) bought The Art of Shaving and the company continues to grow.

Like I said, innovation is worth more.

Innovation guru Doug Hall says that every business, every product, every service is on a continuum somewhere between Monopoly and Commodity. At one end, you own the market (for the moment) and at the other, you compete with the rest of the commodities. I think it is the difference between Distinction and Extinction. At the Distinction end of the spectrum, sales, margins, profits, market share and brand recognition are all high. At the other end, the opposite is true and when you compete on price, you never win long term. For the record, WalMart does NOT compete on price.* But that’s another post for another day.

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Innovation is the difference.

Companies that offer true innovation offer unique solutions to customer problems, provide real value, and raise the bar for their industry. Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are stepping stones to larger innovations. Some (like the mouse, the mp3 player, and the touch screen) go unrealized until someone like Steve Jobs comes along. It’s not the size of the innovation that matters, it’s the relentless pursuit of innovation and the marketing of that innovation that yields results.

 

* A 2012 study by Bloomberg Industries showed that Target, Aldi, even Kroger, had better prices on many products.

dgthinkerThought Leadership may be the fastest growing “sub-industry” in the world. There are over 150 million blogs covering every subject under the sun. Everyone is clamoring to be THE Thought Leader in their respective fields. (Including yours truly, of course.)

While thought leadership is good, it can also be a trap.

In a popular 1960’s TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” the hapless hero, Dobie would find himself in the shadow of The Thinker statue while he contemplated his life. Week after week, he “thought”. Week after week, his life, his love, his troubles remained the same. He never changed. This happens a lot in business. We think, we study, we assign committees, we study some more…..

Be a Change Leader.

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Companies that are change leaders are as much about doing as thinking. They actively search for problems to solve…their problems and their customers’ problems. When they solve one problem, they quickly move on to the next. Like a shark, they never stop moving. They never stop changing and innovating. Never. Companies that look for stability or equilibrium soon find themselves falling behind the change leaders. They start to look for ways to “save” rather than ways to “make”. And as my friend Chuck Verrett often says, “you can’t cut your way to success”. Once they start down the path of cost cutting and price cutting, they soon become a commodity, margins shrink, sales shrink, customers leave. Ironically, they stop providing the quality and service that made them successful in the first place.

Opportunity is everywhere.

Whether your business is young and fresh or old and mature, there is opportunity for innovation and change. We’ve seen it with mop manufacturers, banks, industrial contractors, and oil heating products. You just have to look for it. Start by looking for problems. Solve them creatively and you’re on your way to being a change leader.

I spend a lot of time on a sailboat so I’ve seen my share of sunsets. Glorious sunsets. Average sunsets. Lots of sunsets. It occurred to me recently that innovation is a lot like a sunset.

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1. Sunsets can surprise you.
You know the sunset is coming but you never know how it will appear until it happens. You have to always be on the lookout for innovation.

2. Sunsets appear and then they are gone.
If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss the insight that leads to innovation.

3. Sunsets can be average. They can be spectacular.
Innovation is not always earth shattering. Small innovations can be valuable, too.

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4. No two sunsets are alike.
Save all your innovation ideas. Compare and contrast them. Build upon them.

5. Sometimes the best view is behind you.

Often the view 180 degrees away from the sunset is even better than the sunset itself. Look for innovation in non-traditional places. Be prepared to be surprised.

6. Sometimes a sunset can distract and take you off course.
A flashy idea can sometimes obscure an even better idea or solution. Don’t let a pretty or easy idea distract you from your primary problem.

7. Sunsets are a lot like sunrises. Just different.
Sunsets mark the end of the day. Sunrises mark the beginning. Some innovations solve problems. Some cause problems. Make sure your innovation fits your overall vision and mission and adds value to your offering.

Innovation opportunities exist in every business, in every product or service. If you look for it, you will find it and you’ll have something to market that will really matter to your customers. When you market innovation, it’s like a beautiful sunset. Everyone that sees it likes it and wants more of it.