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America is uniquely famous for its entrepreneurial spirit and its pursuit of innovation. It has enabled our nation to lead the way with inventions and innovations for decades, from Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Innovation and the uniqueness it fosters propels a business forward, and indeed, capitalism itself. Innovation creates competition, which in turn generates jobs and new products/services for the public and other organizations.

A Constellation of Creativity

Small business has always been a part of that history.  According to an article in Inc magazine, small business invented the hard hat (1919), philips-head screws (1936), and shopping carts (1937).  Of course, much of today’s Silicon Valley started in garages. McDonalds began with a single location, as did plenty of other restaurant and store chains that are now household names.

Somewhere along the way, at least in America, the role of small business in innovation has diminished, and I’m not just talking about patents. Some critics have said that what Wall Street and the world of startups and IPOs call “disruption” is not actual innovation, but merely a different form of something that previously existed.  Indeed we can all think of cases when we were not impressed with someone’s reinvention. How did a toothbrush go from freebies at the dentist to nearly $4 each?

How can we expect our neighborhoods to “buy local” if we have poor service, lousy follow-through, too much red tape, and we show reliance on outside large-scale platforms for daily operations?  We need to give them a better experience in order to earn their business, and we need better capacity to provide it. After all, in many cases we are competing with national chains.

Some feel the patent system is not as approachable to small business as it used to be, and too slow. Others believe large companies have risen and squelched competition by outmarketing it, outspending it in patent court challenges, or simply buying them out. Some feel it’s a lack of investment funding or banking capital.

Innovation Shouldn’t Stop at the Patent Office

I’m sure all of these are true at some level, but at the same time it’s more than that. It seems to me that although innovation is still alive at small businesses around the country, many small businesses have gotten passive. They stopped trying. Stopped improving.

Too many businesses have worked out a system, or inherited it from previous owners, and they’re going to ride it all the way, no matter how inefficient it is. They’ve settled for whatever the system provides.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is too passive an approach in a competive market. By the time you realize it’s broken, you may not have the opportunity to fix it in time to keep the doors open.  Consider companies that didn’t keep up, like Sears and BlockBuster Video. Yet both companies offered something new and unique when they started.

In the patent article mentioned above, it seems to me that the decline in the patent rate among small businesses seems to coincide with the rise of big tech companies. This doesn’t mean the two things are connected, but what if they are?

When did you last read about a small company that had something original, but it got bought by one of the “big boys”?  Was it years ago?  No, it happens every month.  In fact, some big tech companies have done it so often that they are under scrutiny by Congress for “anti-competitive behavior”.

Stagnation

Maybe you are an employee at a company that essentially does things the same way it did 15 years ago, and you can see it fading away even as competitors modernize and try new approaches.

Perhaps your whole industry basically uses the same tools, techniques, and software, and the only distinguishing factor for your business or branch is the zip code.

Maybe you, as owner or a part of the leadership team, feel the only way to improve your business is to get more spend more on marketing to get leads and close more sales–especially if your business is fully independent, and not a part of a franchise or “family of companies”.

Is your marketing the only thing that’s distinct about your enterprise?

How about another way: a return to innovation.

An Eye to the Future

Innovation is more than just pursuing new patents.

Innovation is about applying new ideas to old problems. Challenging the status quo with a better solution. Beating the system by bucking against it.  Food trucks are a great example of this.  Their sudden rise in popularity in recent years has allowed small food vendors to get more of the lunch and event action without the cost of a booth or a pricey lease, and their customers get new and more affordable options.

Food trucks show us innovation doesn’t have to be expensive.

Investing in innovation can produce new offerings, energize and empower your employees, improve customer experience, streamline business expenses, and improve profitability through careful modernizing, streamlining and integration.

Some business problems can be solved with the invention or adoption of a new tool or manufacturing process, and if you can achieve that in a way that fits your business well, go forth and conquer! But of course not all problems work that way. Many challenges are more about the office than the factory floor, shop, job site, or the service truck.

How about more agility through fewer silos and better access to data your team needs, no matter where it is stored?

Consider taking a new look at the workflows that uniquely help your business or nonprofit do what it does, and which ones cause more pain than profit.

Pursue more awareness of issues and responsiveness to opportunity.

Some of your competition out there is huge–and relentless. You can’t afford to outspend Goliath in marketing.  You’ll need something more.  You need innovation.

Getting Started

So how do we approach that kind of change? Certainly, an outside consultant can help, but what if they gave the same solution to your competitors? Beyond the amazing expertise and commitment of your team, I believe your competitive advantage comes from two things:

Your Tools: A small business often starts nowadays with a handful of apps and platforms, but they seem to multiply by the month. But as your business grows, the uniqueness of your business and how it operates strains against systems that were built generically, often to solve a narrow set of tasks by making certain assumptions. Thus, you may find your tools shaping and limiting your techniques, instead of the other way around.

Remember the last time you had to “hack” something together because you didn’t have the right tools?

As a result, you and your team start creating workarounds–jury-rigging fields. You resort to printouts and spreadsheets regularly cobbled together from multiple systems in order to make daily decisions. You over-rely on emails, inadvertently hiding decisions in email threads that get hard to track and share consistently, which drive a need for more meetings to make sure everyone is one the same page. You re-enter data between systems or get yet more applications to glue things together.

Be assured, your larger competitors have unique and specialized tools they’ve developed internally over the years, often through their own IT or development team.

As a small business, you don’t have the budget to build your own tech team. Yet if you don’t explore a better way than what you’ve been doing, you’ll never reach your competitive advantage. You’ll never get ahead. Never win against Goliath.

Your Data: This is among the most unique and enduring areas of your business. If your data is scattered across various apps and platforms, you’re missing opportunities to leverage it, and paying rent to access your own data just makes your company all the more beholden to the constraints of outside systems.

Of course, regulations and security are factors, but  a company that has efficient access to its own data can solve problems faster than one scattered across the internet.

I’m not suggesting you buy a server and stash it in the backroom–I’m just saying keep it together and accessible, whether in the cloud or on-premesis.

Collaborate with your team about pain points, and see if they have ideas on how to address them. Read customer reviews about your business to gain more awareness of your company’s strong and weak spots. Evaluate what works and doesn’t work in your current processes.

Then do something about your findings. Invest in a solution.  Owning your data is definitely preferred to renting it–especially when you generated it!

Rediscover Your Secret Sauce

As someone once said, it’s not about what you have, but how you use it.

The solution might be rearranging tasks, or some new equipment purchased for specific purposes. Or it could include software to streamline and automate your team’s workflows and processes.

You could spend months trying out, setting up, and getting trained on apps and platforms, but locally-made custom software is not as expensive as it used to be, can be tailored to your team, and can be contracted with the same fractional approach you might already be using for human resources, bookkeeping, administrative functions, or marketing.

With a reliable, long-term technical partner like Turbine Web Solutions that follows best practices in software design and security, you can gradually introduce it to address particular pain points at whatever pace seems appropriate for your business.

I’ve personally written code more than once that has doubled productivity and even reduced certain tasks to as little as 10% of the original task time because it was crafted from scratch to address what was needed, and included nothing that wasn’t. It was built uniquely for the team, instead of the team shaping itself around the tool.

Not only does this reduce training churn and time spent on migrating between platforms, but you get to keep the code and extend it at your own pace, without license or headcount restrictions.  And you get to own your data, too.

Turbine reduces reliance on outside systems that can increase costs and fragility. With this approach, we have 10 year old systems in place with clients that are still doing their job with little to no SaaS expenses.

A Better Way

Early in my career, I built a web application in two weeks that reduced a large, tangled HUD grant application process for the City of Seattle to a streamlined web application.  It worked better for the City by giving them dashboards, better for nonprofit applicants by standardizing how they applied and giving them helpful hints along the way, and for the staff who assembled the final application by providing a smooth export process.

Instead of taking two weeks for one person to assemble the final grant application, it now only took a couple of days.

On another occasion, I wrote a software feature into an existing application that simplified the scheduling of emails into a generic, expensive platform that didn’t provide it.  With just a couple days of development, manually sending a complicated set of emails went from 3 days with 3 people to 1 person in 2 hours–a 90% improvement.

These are huge gains–bigger than you’d get from any platform, but without the subscriptions, price tiers, or renting access to your own data.

In another case, I doubled the productivity of a finance team by integrating QuickBooks into their internal software, thus removing the need for double entry.

Moreover, if the client needs to change accounting systems, they have all the data in one system and can rebuild their ledgers into any system without losing continuity. Thanks to our way of working with outside systems, QuickBooks has only a copy of the data, rather than being the only source of it.

If the team wants to look for patterns between vendors and client complaints, or vendor price changes vs reliability of that vendor, or even task efficiency vs whoever worked on it, we can do that. Any report is possible because all the data lives in the same spot.  We’ve seen cases were this advantage translated into needing only a third of the reports previously used, because Turbine can craft more relevant reports that are more actionable, and integrate them into the rest of the team’s software.

If you are ready to get serious about how to help your business move forward you’ll need a distinct, competitive advantage, not just a “unique sales proposition”. I encourage you to envision solutions that empower your team to uniquely get things done, and gives your leadership the comprehensive data to watch for issues and opportunities.

Turbine provides custom development to small business that can help you build your competitive advantage. Your business is unique, so it makes sense that the best platform for your team is ultimately your own.

Small business can beat the system by strategically bucking against it to build a better solution than what others are using. We’d welcome an opportunity to build those solutions with you and help your business own its own future.

Custom Software That Clicks

Looking for a development partner for the long-term?  Turbine Web Solutions is glad to help.

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