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How to Be an Innovative Leader While Still Keeping the Lights On

To many small business owners, the word “innovation” might sound like too lofty of a goal compared to the daily rush of getting things done and making sales and serving customers. Even though small businesses are some of the most innovative people alive, it can be hard to find time to come up with new ideas and cultivate big-picture strategic thinking while dealing with the everyday urgencies and necessities of business.

We talked with a few small business owners about how they make time for innovation while still paying the bills and keeping the lights on:

Look Farther Afield for Inspiration

Claude_BurnsInnovation can come from unexpected places. Small business owners constantly need to keep renewing their creativity and imagination. Claude Burns is the CEO and Founder of Noble Brewer, an online beer club that connects subscribers with quarterly shipments of unique craft beers from the best homebrewers in the country. He says that he looks beyond the beer business to get ideas. “I get most of my inspiration from other businesses in different fields,” Claude says. “We’re doing something very different from a traditional beer company, from our business model to how our team is built, so applying creative solutions that businesses in other fields have used helps us stand out.”

This is a good point: just because your business is in a certain industry doesn’t mean it has to do things the same way as the rest of the industry – maybe you can get some inspiration for how to do your marketing, business model, or product design based on examples from totally different industries.

Claude also says that being a small business owner gives him a strong sense of urgency and freedom to try new things – he’s not afraid to try some ideas that other people in the beer industry might not have considered. “As a small startup, the right time to try a new way of doing things is right now,” Claude says. “We knew we couldn’t complete head-on versus traditional breweries who have built out relationships and distribution, so we went online and focused on a niche and supporting a core community.”

Read Tech Blogs

Jerry Lee is the founder of Story Leather, an artisanal leathermaker that produces customized leather wallets, phone cases, and bags and sells them online. Jerry says that one of the best ways to plan ahead and think big is to read blogs affecting your industry. “In order to plan ahead, you must know what’s ahead,” Jerry says. “I read all the tech blogs to stay in tune with the latest innovation in technology, online retailing, and online marketing; all areas that affect my business. Knowing the trends allows me to think about the possibilities for where to take my small business. Being a technologist by trade, I don’t waste time chasing fads and bleeding edge technology, I look for technology that I can apply 1-2 years down the road. Everyday I spend 1-2 hours reading blog posts to find inspiration.”

Make Innovation Mandatory

Fernando_GomezFernando Gomez is the CEO and Founder of SpargoConnect, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Honolulu. He says that even though his company is busier and growing faster than ever before, he still deliberately makes time for innovative thinking. “Introducing innovation is not an option – it is mandatory,” Gomez says. “Innovation sets you apart from the market and allows for real progress, and just like everything else in life, it must be scheduled and planned for. Dan Ariely has a great saying: ‘If you want to have a successful schedule, you must plan for procrastination.’ This goes for any new innovative thinking and implementing as well.”

 

Make Time to Experiment

Google is known for giving its employees one day a week, known as “20 percent time,” to pursue any creative projects of interest to them – in the hope that they will create new innovations. Fernando Gomez says that SpargoConnect adopts a similarly flexible attitude to give people time to pursue what they do best. “We want to get maximum efficiency out of our people, so we want them to work on the things they love most,” Gomez says. “Quite frankly, most people don’t know what that is until they start trying things out. So what we do is we allow a day where people can work on whatever they want and at the end of the day they pitch the ideas. If it’s good we’ll implement the ideas. But even more importantly, from a managerial standpoint, this allows us to understand how our employees like to work and what our employees are interested in, and as a result, we know how to position them better.”

Get a New Perspective on Data

Diane_EschenbachIn addition to reading blogs for the latest trends affecting your industry, many small business owners should consider analyzing data – market growth, consumer behavior, overall economic trends, and other numbers that affect the future of your business. But you don’t need to have a degree in Statistics to be able to analyze data effectively. Marketing consultant Diane Eschenbach says that small business owners can get ideas for innovation by taking advantage of a recent development in social media: the infographic.

“If you’re like me, rummaging through many numbers isn’t fun, but you like to get access to the bigger-picture ideas that the data describe,” Diane says. “Infographics are great because they show you tons of data in a simple, understandable way. If you are good at extrapolating ideas, just by looking at a certain infographic you will be able to figure out where your business fits into the overall trend, scheme of things, or future way of solving a problem. Today, statisticians are using infographics to combine art and numbers for us in a way that tells a story. Just by Googling ‘infographic for X,’ you will be easily turned on to new trends and interesting data, and you can get new ideas for what your company can do with that.”

In addition to looking at industry-wide data in the form of infographics, Diane also recommends that small business owners take a closer look at the data that affects their business on a closer level. “Innovation can also be stimulated by your own company’s data. Just harness it and review it so you can figure out what it’s telling you about the future,” Diane says. “Spikes of activity after an announcement on social media tell you one thing, drop in sales tells another, or sometimes even watching your competitor’s announcements will reveal an opportunity for innovation early on.”

Innovation isn’t just a matter of brilliant creative breakthroughs – sometimes it’s about keeping a finger on the pulse of the market and having a sixth sense to detect opportunities or anticipate risks before they emerge.

Go Offline (Sometimes)

Jason_ParksJason Parks is the Founder of The Media Captain, a digital marketing agency based in Columbus, Ohio. He says that even though he works exclusively online, he sometimes needs to disconnect and go out into the “real world” in order to get new ideas and a sense of renewal.

“Even though my business is digital marketing, as silly as this sounds, when I need to renew my creativity and imagination, I go to the mall,” Jason says. “I love seeing all of the branding taking place at different stores and the reaction that people have when looking at certain products. By walking around the mall for a couple of hours, I always get a sense of rejuvenation.

Ironically, it makes sense that a digital marketing expert would want to go to the mall to get new ideas and insights. After all, malls are a public theater of consumer behavior. There’s no better way to see – up close and personal – what people think about products, which brands are trending up or down, or which stores have plenty of buzz.

Jason also says that his company finds a spirit of innovation in the everyday freedom of working online. “Everything we do is digital-related, so there is never a wrong time to try something new,” Jason says. “If it doesn’t work, our clients at least appreciate the fact that we are bringing new ideas to the table. If it does work, then we are staying on the cutting edge. People at our agency are never afraid to fail. We pride ourselves on constantly testing new concepts, and I think having the right environment definitely helps to create an overall spirit of innovation.”

Innovation is not just for Silicon Valley gurus and marketing experts; it’s something that every small business owner is trying to do in his or her own unique way everyday. Solving problems, introducing new products, serving new types of customers, expanding to new markets – these are all examples of everyday innovation that small business owners are constantly trying to achieve. Perhaps this sense of experimentation, inventiveness and freedom to keep trying is ultimately one of the best aspects of running a business – small business owners, in their own small way, are helping to create the future everyday.

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Kabbage Team

The Kabbage Team is here to not only fund the small business loans you need, but to help you grow your business through free marketing tips, webinars, tools and more. Is there something you'd like us to cover or want to get your small business featured on our blog? Send us a note at content@kabbage.com.

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