Archive for the ‘innovation’ Category

Being Expert: Bringing Personal Value to Those Around You

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

I’ve written recently about how our economy is fundamentally changing. Everything seems to be disrupted and in a state of chaos. Normally routine business and established practices no longer function as they used to. Entire industries are being transformed along with the people in them. This brings me to the subject of today’s post, being an expert in your space and how you bring value to those around you.

In the past, our value was defined by how much we knew combined with the experience we accumulated over time. If you are truly an expert, every hour of everyday brings new experience and personal growth.

Those that find themselves in trouble today are the ones who learned their primary skill set a long time ago and have resisted learning more. They simply took what they were trained in and used it over and over, in a static kind of way. They would become more proficient at their daily performance and execution, much in the same way a golfer gets better at their swing if they practice the same swing over and over a thousand times. This is call “grooving.” Once you’re in a groove it is very difficult to get out of it. Grooving works very well when the skill does not require change to remain valuable.

In the knowledge or professional arena, our value was defined by how much knowledge we had and how specialized that knowledge was. If it was difficult material that took a long time to master, all the better. This meant we could charge more for our understanding of this knowledge. Think doctors, lawyers, and CPA’s. You could also think of master craftsmen as well.

This is the way we used to position ourselves and bring value, have knowledge that is hard to find, access, duplicate, and master.

Things are different now. With the rate at which technology, markets, and economies are changing, simply having the knowledge or experience is no longer enough. To remain an “expert” you must remain relevant to those you serve. To maintain your position of authority and value requires another skill set few truly master. It begins with the ability to be observational and recognize which elements of change are at work.

Simply observing isn’t the answer. The true answer is the ability to draw upon your knowledge and experience to synthesize new opportunities and solutions. This is an amazing time to be alive. There is so much disruptive change and technology around us.

The current recession and underlying permanent unemployment are perfect examples. The economies that are recovering quickly are the ones with low cost labor that can do many of the things our own skilled blue collar labor used to do. Now even our white collar workers are being outsourced by low cost offshore labor.

With rapid, pervasive change everywhere, we all have the opportunity to re-invent and redefine our value and skills. Our individual expertise comes from the ability to respond to these disruptive changes with innovative solutions that bring value to our customers and clients. As uncomfortable as change is, this is an amazing time of opportunity for those that can recognized and innovate new solutions.

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Why The Economy Isn’t Working Like It Used To

Monday, November 1st, 2010

We’ve all been through a very rough ride over the last two years. Some are surviving, holding on by their fingernails, others have failed, and still others have show some degree of growth. How is this possible? Being a student of life and an active observer, several things have become apparent and i’d like to share my observations.

First, there has been a fundamental change in the way we do things. It’s been developing for a number of years, but most of us aren’t fully aware of the significance. This has to do with change. In the old economy, our goal was to find a better way, prove it, refine it, apply it, and then make a gazillion widgets using these new methods or tools over and over until we made the next innovative extension of the idea. We’ve been doing just this for thousands of years, and it’s worked well because we’ve built our economies on the principle that knowledge is potential economic power. If guarded, and applied carefully, we can use this knowledge for our economic advantage.

Our patent system, professional trades, and even our higher education system are based on the controlled delivery of scarce knowledge. When knowledge was hard to find, and difficult to master, it was very easy to design an economy where knowledge could be exploited in this manner. We established an education system where the pure knowledge was hypothesized, fabricated, and proven. Later, often years later, this raw knowledge was commercialized and protected by the patent system so that technology originators could recover the development costs and profit in a protected environment for a certain number of years.

Today, all of that has changed. Along with the geometric growth of computer processor speed follows the same geometric growth of knowledge. Couple this blinding expansion of information with instant accessibility via search engines and we upset the economic model we’ve been using for thousands of years.

Things are moving too fast to achieve any real long term profit. In the printing industries it used to be that a company would buy a huge printing press (which we affectionately call “big iron.”) Their market would only be marginally established. Over a period of time, their huge investment in this big iron would pay off because of the opportunity it presented not only to the company, but to the marketplace. Simply having the capability was enough to attract new business. Often business would develop organically, independent of the actual marketing effort. Pricing was based on quality, service, and price. You could have any two of the three. Now, we need all three AND we’ve added smaller runs and faster turn times besides.

Today, that scenario is gone. Digital technologies are in continuous change. Products are obsolete as soon as they hit the market. Worse, the next generation digital is twice as fast at half the cost. It’s therefore an economic disadvantage to be the first one in. The only exception to this is if you have a fully developed marketing plan, with customers, and a backlog of orders in place. In this case you have a chance of success, but it is only fleeting at best.

The key to success in today’s information driven, expanding digital economy is to have a market that is expanding as fast as the technology. This has become an exceedingly illusive and difficult thing to find. In fact, it’s almost impossible to attain given the general state of the global economy today.

What will allow for success under these conditions requires a shift in our thinking. It’s clear we’ll need to do things differently. There are two things needed to enable this kind of growth. The first is to greatly develop and hone your skill of using Search to find and reach new customers. This is typically done through the use of keyword searches. Our ability to position our goods and services so that a big enough pool of potential customers can find you and buy your offerings will be essential.

In the old economy we did this by broadcasting who we were and how great we are. We would blast our messages out to the world in massive numbers, hoping enough potential customers would find us to sustain our business. That too has changed. Today, our customers are searching for solutions. To succeed, we must be seen as a relevant solution.

To accomplish this.

The second, and far more difficult challenge is to overcome what I call “legacy baggage.” These are the holdover thoughts, ideas, and practices of the old economy. This is tremendously difficult to achieve because our employees have been taught to learn once, use over and over. It is exactly what the old economy was built on. It no longer works. Today, employees must be retrained to be open minded and actively embrace change. It almost never happens that way. The reason is simple.

Most blue collar workers, and many white collar workers have abandoned continuous learning. School and learning threaten them. They don’t want to risk being exposed as less than competent. They don’t want t make a mistake or appear to be weak or dumb. In the process, there is a built-in resistance to anything new. The culture and environment of change is critical to your success. Yet, management rarely knows what they want to do, or how they’re actually going to accomplish it. They’re used to mandating by directive. That approach no longer works.

The resistance to change, or rather the resistance to the acceptance of new knowledge, is at the core of our ability to survive. This is why new start-ups and even offshore competition often get the new business. They don’t have the entrenched resistance to change. The one-two punch of “not invented here” and “we’ve never done it this way before” are the killers of innovation. The legacy baggage of the old economy are pulling us under. Look at your own organization and ask yourself honestly, it this isn’t the case for you. Recognizing the situation is the first step toward finding a solution.

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On Managing Internal Change

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I was having coffee with a couple of friends this morning and one of them said, “you know, you introduced me to a term a couple of years ago and I find myself using it all the time.” That term was “legacy baggage.” It was specifically meant to describe all the internal issues and excuses used by employees and people within an organization to resist change. Here are several examples”

    Not Invented Here
    We’ve Never Done it That Way Before
    We Tried That Once
    It Will Never Work
    That May Work in Other Places, But Not Here
    Our Business is Different

This is only the beginning of the the hundreds of excuses and obstacles thrown up to keep from implementing change. Our post today is about the root resistance to change.

In my experience with dozens of companies around the world, resistance to chance has it’s root in the learning culture of the individual or company. The old school industrial model taught the use of skills that would be used over and over again for decades. It did not recognize nor reward the continued improvement or continuing education of the employee. For professional practices, this is not the case. May certifications or license professions require ongoing education to keep the license current. The trades generally do not.

Most factory workers have a limited education. The dominant attitude is that they’ve done their time in school and they’re finished with that part of their lives. This is such a huge mistake and in direct conflict with what drives our world of commerce today.

We live in a world of constant change. If you aren’t positioning yourself or your company to face this head on, you are doomed. We cannot resist technological evolution. Resistance is futile. I cannot find a single example of an industry that has resisted change that is experiencing any kind of growth.

As a manager or owner, look at yourself first. How resistant to change are you? Do you read? Do you enjoy learning? If the answer is no, it will be very difficult to expect change within your control. You lead by example, and if you aren’t being progressive and forward looking, neither will your empolyees

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Earth Day, Waterbase Ink, Organic Shirts, Eco Friendly Business

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Today is Earth Day and every year we get inquiries about eco-friendly inks and t-shirts. There has been more and more interest in waterbase inks and organic cotton shirts, so let’s talk about them.

Waterbase inks have been around for a very long time. They are the original inks used to decorate apparel. Plastisols were invented in 1959 and became very popular in the ’70s. I started printing with waterbase inks originally in 1970, way back in the day, because I had no way to dry the plastisols. I needed an air dry ink with good washability. Waterbase provided that.

The early inks we used were not actually pure waterbase. They were actually water-in-oil. They were an emulsion of water and solvent and could be cleaned from the screen with mineral spirits. These inks had better wash characteristics than pure waterbase inks which needed to be heat set as well.

A lot has changed with waterbase inks. The original formulas were very difficult to work with. They dried in the screen quickly and were very aggressive on the stencils. Since our production runs were short, this was not too much of a problem. Ironically, some of the very first designs I printed with waterbase were halftone images that were highly prone to drying in. Modern waterbase inks don’t have nearly the problems the older ones did.

The primary question is whether waterbase inks are ecologically more friendly than plastisols. Here the question is not so clear. Just because the inks can be dissolved or mixed with water doesn’t mean they are inherently safer or more eco-friendly. They are still resin based. They still have inorganic and organic pigments. There contain water miscible solvents that may not be so drain safe. The bottomline is, don’t be fooled into thinking that waterbase means you can do anything with the waste. These inks still need to be treated as industrial compounds, and handled accordingly.

Now, for organic cotton. This is a big area of interest. It’s no secret that cotton is one of the most pesticide and chemically dependent products. I have heard that it takes as much as 1/3 of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to produce a pound of cotton. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s a figure you see in a lot of places. Regardless, the trend is toward less chemically and water intensive processing of the cotton. There are many, many brands on the market that claim to be organic.

According to the fourth annual Organic Exchange Farm and Fiber Report 2009, organic cotton production grew an impressive 20 percent over 2007/08 to 175,113 metric tons (802,599 bales) grown on 625,000 acres (253,000 hectares). Organic cotton now represents 0.76 percent of global cotton production.

Organic cotton was grown in 22 countries worldwide with the Top Ten producer countries being led by India, and including (in order of rank) Turkey, Syria, Tanzania, China, United States, Uganda, Peru, Egypt and Burkina Faso. Approximately 220,000 farmers grew the fiber.

Here’s the rub. LESS THAN 1% of all cotton produced is organic! There are far more t-shirts produced claiming to be organic cotton than there is cotton being produced. Unless you have a clear knowledge about who is certifying a garment as organic, chances are it isn’t. You also need to know how much of the fiber in the garment is actually organic. It’s common to blend inorganic with organic and then claim the garment is organic.

Like most marketing driven campaigns, it pays to ask questions and dig deeper. There is usually more to the story than meets the eye. In the case of both waterbase ink and organic cotton t-shirts, this is clearly so.

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Launching Your Clothing Line

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Lately we’ve been doing a lot of shirts for boutique clothing lines. These are usually designers who’ve come up with a few clever t-shirt designs and want to market them. The questions are almost all the same and I’m surprised no one has really set out to provide meaningful answers. So this month I thought I would share some observations and answers to a couple of the more common questions.

The most basic one is: Where should I market my shirts?

I don’t mean to be obvious here, but the root of the answer is, to outlets that are thinking like you. Where do you shop? Where would you go to buy the designs you’ve just done? Start locally and work your way up. This is important for two really good reasons.

The first is that almost all the businesses or individuals that come in wanting to get shirts printed lack seed capital. This is the money you need to actually print the shirts to fill orders. Start with a sample run first. Get something physical in your hands. Buyers want to see, touch, and feel the merchandise. Your first objective is to get some market reaction. If you can’t afford to get shirts screen printed, have the samples done digitally (direct to garment.) This is a good idea anyway so you can see what DTG looks like compared to screen print.

If you find there’s a positive reception to your work, expand within your region. This would be a 50 mile radius of where you’re located, or the nearest larger city. I’m always careful about recommending rapid expansion. With too little capital, I’ve seen too many promising companies literally burn up trying to fund their growth. Take it a step at a time. Make sure you get paid right away for your product. Running out of cash is the single biggest reason new companies don’t make it.

2. Should I exhibit in tradeshows to get bigger exposure?

Beware of large tradeshows. I’ve seen this happen over and over. Young, inexperienced, innovative companies bring fresh ideas to the market. They have no way to capitalize on potential success if it really hits. Calculate in advance how much business you can handle. It’s one thing to get orders for 1,000 shirts. What would happen if you got orders for 10,000? How much business can you afford to book? If you can’t answer that, you need accounting help to get the answer.

The most common situation I see at tradeshows is getting ripped off by much bigger companies that already have deep distribution and lots of financing. Make no mistake, you are being watched. If there’s lots of buzz about your graphics and you’re actually writing orders, you run the risk of a very quick knockoff of your concepts.

While they may not copy your work exactly, the imitations will capture the look and flavor of your offerings.

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Great Ideas on Using LinkedIn

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I’m a huge believer in LinkedIn and other social media sites. They are, without a doubt, the next generation way to build our businesses. Today, I wanted to offer a guest blog post by Jim Gibson, publisher of Online Media Today. Jim’s blog post has created a great discussion in the Inbound Marketing Group on LinkedIn and I wanted to share it with you today. If you’re new to LinkedIn or want to get more out of using it, here are some great ideas. Enjoy.

By Jim Gibson - Publishing Partner, Online Media Today

Ten Tips When Using LinkedIn!

LinkedIn Tip #1: Have a Plan

Decide what you want to accomplish before you start. LinkedIn, like other business oriented social networking sites, offer a number of ways to generate the results you are after. Want to present your company? Looking for a job? Network with like-minded professionals? Need an answer? Want to establish yourself as a thought leader in your space? Each of these approaches present excellent opportunities to leverage professional online networks but make sure your plan is solid before you start.

LinkedIn Tip #2: Make Your Profile Easy to Digest

Tell your story but keep it brief. Short, pithy, sentences are more likely to be read than lengthy paragraphs. It’s like an elevator pitch (explained in less than 1 minute). Use bullet points. Readers often scan content and bullets help to highlight your successes. Provide details of your work history and make sure to highlight your special skills. Above all, make sure to check for proper grammar. Make sure to use important keywords when describing your professional experiences as these can help others find you more easily. And before you post your profile, read it aloud to yourself to hear how it sounds or better yet, ask a colleague to read it and tell you what they think.

LinkedIn Tip #3 – Your Profile Photo

You must have a picture! But make sure it’s a good one and shows you in a professional light. This is not the time to be too cutesy. Don’t upload the picture you took at your last toga party. For women, this is not the time to strike that sexy pose. Choose a professional and friendly picture that demonstrates your real personality yet shows you are here for business.

LinkedIn Tip #4: Give (and ask for) Recommendations
If you want recommendations on your profile, be prepared to ask for them. Look at those you are connected to and offer recommendations to those who deserve them. Make them short and to the point and be sure to include specific accomplishments – don’t be too general. The more genuine the recommendation you give, the more likely it is to be returned. Rule of thumb: if someone gives you a recommendation, thank them first then return the favor!

LinkedIn Tip #5: Join Groups

Be a contributor. Generate posts and respond to discussions. Group interactions provide you and your company great exposure. Check out other member profiles and follow their discussions. This is a great way to identify valuable contacts and network in meaningful ways.

LinkedIn Tip #6: Be the first to comment!

Clearly, it’s important to engage and interact with your audience. This helps to establish you as a valued contributor and can lead to more meaningful connections. But what most people do is look for posts that already have lots of comments and, only then, do they add theirs to the mix. The common thought, naturally being, posting where there are lots of people = lots more visibility.

Don’t get me wrong - that’s cool. But the important thing here is to support the post originator and there’s nothing cooler than to give that first (note: quality) acknowledgement. People post on social sites in order to get feedback and hate it when a post goes virtually unnoticed. The first one to post is a welcome sight (Ahhh.. someone noticed!) and helps to foster a new relationship with the person who started the discussion in the first place! This is the true meaning of social networking - one on one. But, by building relationships intelligently, one on ones ultimately lead to one on many.

Don’t be afraid to be the first to post a comment. A good post originator will thank you, appreciate you and most of all notice you. It’s done this way in real world social settings so why not acknowledge its effectiveness in the virtual world as well.

LinkedIn Tip #7: Connect with Thought LeadersFind those considered leaders in your industry. Search by company to find the people who are true influencers and follow what they are doing. Research who your industry leaders are through existing trade publications and find them on LinkedIn. If they are and we share a contact I know well, reach out through the contact for an introduction.

LinkedIn Tip #8 – Selecting Groups

Search groups using industry keywords and related topics
Look at the groups of industry leaders, subject matter experts and top executives
Look at groups your connections are members of
Use pertinent Q&A category and ask what groups people belong to
Pose the question in your current groups: “What other groups do you find useful?”

LinkedIn Tip #9 – Use the Search Feature

Using the “Search function on your LinkedIn home page (upper right), you can “search” on People, Jobs, Companies, Answers, Inbox and Groups.

If you move to the right of the search box and click on “Advanced,” you can search on keywords, name, company (current and past), geographic location, industry, job title (current and past), school, groups, by language, by the interest of those being searched, when they joined LinkedIn, those in or out of your network, and by relevance – and any combination of the above.

Find the companies you want to do business with and the people you need to meet at those companies. With over 50,000,000 business professionals registered, your search results can pay big dividends

LinkedIn Tip #10: Use Applications

LinkedIn has teamed up with some of the Internet’s premier companies to offer registered users access to new applications that enable you to collaborate on projects, get key insights, and present your work to your audience in interactive ways. Have a Power Point presentation you want to share? Install the free SlideShare app and instantly share your presentation to a wider audience. Need to brainstorm with your team on a new idea? Load Huddle Workspaces on your profile and instantly collaborate with your colleagues. There are many apps to choose from and several are showcased at: http://learn.linkedin.com/apps/.

Friday the 13th - Superstitions

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Today is Friday the 13th, the third time it’s happened in 2009. A few of us were talking about it this morning and the topic of superstitions came up. It’s amazing how many people believe in them. It got me thinking how many superstitions we follow in our business. Most of them for no real reason other than this is what we’ve been led to believe to be true.

A superstition is really nothing more than an unexplained belief. Why do people believe that walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror brings bad luck? I’m sure if we researched each one we’d find some interesting stories, but no hard truth. Where I see superstitions at work is in the technical side of the business.

Most of the experienced printers in this industry got their chops by working their way up through the ranks. They started at the bottom and got promoted along the way as others were fired or left. Many of them have no formal printing education other than what they read in the trade press or learn at trade shows and conventions or from traveling company reps.

A common situation is to take this knowledge at face value, never questioning or challenging it. I call this “Tribal Knowledge” as it is passed down by word-of-mouth over the years. Each time it’s passed, something is added, deleted, or communicated incorrectly. After two or three generations it’s often difficult to justify what is being passed on as truth.

In all the time I’ve been involved in the industry, it still amazes me how often something we’ve been hammered on as “the way to do it” actually turns out to be the exact opposite of what we really need to be doing. I think a there are a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is that the knowledge may have been knowingly passed off as wrong to begin with. This often happens when a rep visits a shop and watches something innovative being done. When asked about it, the business owner fabricates a response he knows isn’t correct because he wants to throw the competition off track. The rep takes this information and willingly scatters it along his way, where it gets changed and tweaked each time it’s passed on. The original source passes the bad technique because they want to preserve their “trade secrets.”

Secondly, we have basic ignorance of how things work. Many of our production workers are true blue collar employees. They may only have a high school education, and often times they don’t even have that. Screen printing is full of these kind of workers. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just the way it is. The problem comes when they don’t have enough education to think about what is being told to them. They can reason why something should or should not work. There have been many, many times where someone, trying to be helpful, has passed on a technique or method with authority (this is how it’s done.)

When challenged as to why this works, they buckle. They can’t explain it and they usually will revert to citing where they saw it being done or who told it to them. In either case, we’re not getting the whole story. It is this blind faith that whatever is passed on is right that gets me. Simply asking why it works or how it works is all that’s necessary. If you can’t get a good, believable answer, I’d immediately be suspect.

What does all this mean? Simply, question everything. Look at your own business and see if you can find things you’re doing because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Ask yourself if there’s a better way. There almost always is.

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The Value of Mastermind Groups

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

The first Thursday of every month is reserved for my Mastermind Group. This is a collective of 10 different CEOs from10 different industries. Each of us has a company ranging in size from about $3 Million USD to $50 Million USD in annual sales. None of us compete with each other and there are no conflicts of interest. We gather to discuss business in general and problems and challenges within our companies as a whole. I joined the group over 5 years ago and rarely miss a meeting.

What would cause a person to give up one business day a month to a group of guys that sit around and talk business? The answer to this question lies in the value each of us derives from the group.

Someone once told me your annual income can be loosely calculated to equal the average incomes of the five most influential people you associate with. If this is true, we can also look at the annual income of our companies in the same way. If you do business with a lot of small, local businesses, your business volume will reflect this. If you work with larger corporations, the size of your orders and your annual volume will reflect that as well.

The point here is, if you want to grow, you have to associate with those who are where you want to be. They’ve overcome the challenges you have and achieved a higher level. We can learn from their mistakes and experiences along the way. They can help us with insights on hiring, sales, production, administration, finance, and so forth.

Why would a bunch of larger companies want to hang out with a bunch of small guys? This is a very good question, and the answer lies in “agility.” Small companies tend to be very innovative and responsive. The larger a company gets, the more out of touch it becomes with its workers and the markets. This isn’t always the case, but for the most part the generalization holds true. These big companies are envious of the smaller companies innovative capabilities and their ability to capitalize and implement quickly. So their motivation is to see if they can gleen any wisdom or tricks that will speed up their own innovation cycle.

Napoleon Hill, in his landmark classic business book that everyone should be required to read Think and Grow Rich, proposed the concept of a Mastermind Group. He correctly theorized when you surround yourself with smart, successful, wealthy, experienced, knowledgeable individuals, their skills and influence would rub off on you. As a result, your overall skill set and capabilities rise as well.

It is a brilliant concept I fully endorse. Without outside perspective, we tend to become mired in our own thoughts and circumstances. We can’t seem to make out the difference of the forest for the trees. We become confused and lost in circular thinking. Solutions to problems evade us. What we need is fresh perspective. A Mastermind Group fulfills this purpose beautifully. Every business (or individual for that matter,) should be a part of such a group. The benefits are amazing as are the “AH HAH” moments or realization.

Finally, the Mastermind Group provides another valuable asset. It is accountabilitiy. This group of effective leaders holds each other accountable for things they’ve said and committed to. This need for accountability is crucial for entrepreneurs and business owners who do not report to anyone but themselves. They can’t run and hide behind anything to escape the scruntiny of the other group members. It can be uncomfortable at times, but it is a huge advantage to have this forced accountability. It speeds things up and makes it easier to get things done within the time frame you have budgeted.

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On Being Responsive to Customer Demands

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Not much time today, but I wanted to get this short post out before I’m off for the day. Right now I’m in Tirupur, India doing a one week consult at a large apparel company. During the peak of their season they produce 50,000 units a day. The company is very, very modern with about 10 MHM presses and a couple of M&R pressses including an 18c Challenger II. They have automatic coating, soon direct to screen and an up-to-date imaging and prepress department. I have seen this situation many times in the past. Basically a 3rd World location but facilities anyone in the States would drool over. This is not what I want to write about today.

One of the biggest challenges on the horizon in the U.S. and abroad for that matter is the PVC free, Phthalate free issue. Big companies like Nike and Marks and Spencer in the UK are demanding that garments screen printed be free of these chemicals. They are abundant in traditional plastisols. The contaminent levels are ridiculously low as in 0.1% or less. It is a major, major pain to make the switch to become compliant. I know I will probably catch some flack for saying that, but it is the truth.

The point of all this is, my Indian client has made the commitment to switch entirely to waterbase inks, scrub everything inside and out, completely strip all their frames, squeegees, and flood bars, and generally go to extreme lengths to eliminate ANY possibility of contamination. They are not required to do this, it is entirely a voluntary effort on their part. It is an extreme effort and very, very expensive. Why are they doing it?

The answer is very simply. The owners of the company are visionary. They see the pressures worldwide within the Green Movement and the rising consumer demand for accountability. They also listen very closely to their customers and what they are saying. This is their proactive response to position themselves as responsible and progressive for the mostly EU markets they serve. They should be commended for their efforts and we should all use them as an example of responsiveness.

What are your customers trying to tell you? What are they saying about you? Do you really know or it is a best guess on your part? A great exercise, and one that will add credibility and value to your relationship is to ask them what’s important to them. Don’t let them off the hook. Formulate 5-8 questions that will really get them thinking about why they use you and what you could do better. After you’ve asked 20 or 30 of your customers the SAME set of questions, and had a conversation with them about the answers, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the pulse of your market is. This will give you the fuel, and starting point to proactively take a leadership position in delivering goods and services that go beyond just a printed garment.

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How Innovative Do You Want To Be?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Innovation. One of the key things that’s supposed to differentiate you from your competition. It’s one of the things we value the most about being in business for ourselves. We’ve been told “If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.”

I used to believe this. It’s been one of the things that’s driven me and my businesses over the last 35+ years. But when I sit down and really look at the history and experience of the innovations, and the resulting business that’s resulted from those innovations, I have to take pause.

Personally, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from innovation. I love solving problems and finding a better way of doing things. But there’s a problem with it. Often the problems we choose to solve are only problems for us, and not others. At least, it isn’t a problem for them yet. And there in lies the dilemma.

People and companies that make innovation a key part of their existence position themselves at the front of technology, the market, or whatever. They’re at the cutting or bleeding edge. We used to joke about it, but when times get tight, business is off, and cash needs to be conserved, being on the bleeding edge can be dangerous to your business health. I don’t think it’s any coincidence the companies that innovate the ideas and introduce them are rarely the companies that make money with them.

Here’s the problem. For those on the edge, the problem is apparent and this triggers the need to solve it. For those not on the edge, well, they many not even know a problem exists. When this is the case, the innovators have to take valuable time and spend a bunch of money to educate the market to the extent and need for the problem to be solved. This diverts resources away from the innovation. Since the problem isn’t compelling for them, it’s easy not to embrace or invest in the solution.

Over the years, on more than one occasion, people have approached me at seminars, workshops, tradeshows, and so on and said something to the effect: “Mark, most of the time I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I know I’m going to need to know about in the future.” I used to laugh at it, but it got me to thinking what they were really saying.

It comes down to this. New, innovative ideas, inventions, procedures and the like are of little or no value unless they are tried, implemented, and embraced by the market. We all want a competitive advantage, but it is a thin line we walk between being too far out and having an advantage.

One of the main reasons I write and speak is to expose ideas. I’ve been criticized for this in the past as giving away my “secrets.” I laugh at this because there really are no secrets. Secrets usually mean some shortcut or quick fix to a problem that doesn’t require much effort. Most secrets are just incremental efficiency improvements.

My response to this charge is that it’s dangerous to be too far ahead. It’s a lot like running a long distance race. If you’re a good runner, it’s easy to separate yourself from the pack and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be too far ahead before you realiz you’ve missed a marker and you’re off course. By the time you realize you’re out of the race, you may not be able to recover.

Such is the case with innovation. Especially when it comes to technology. All those new cool gadgets and gizmos, all the new software and operating systems do no good if they aren’t reliable (meaning they work when you need them to work,) or there are other alternative innovations competing with them.

I’m not saying to stop innovating. That would be fundamentally wrong. What I am saying is to make sure the innovation is just slightly ahead of where the market currently is. If it’s an incremental improvement, pretty much everyone will “get it” and it becomes a no brainer to adopt.

It’s the truly innovative, industry changing innovations that are dangerous. Keep an eye out for who is adopting. Open a dialog with them. As long as you aren’t competitive in the same market, they’ll welcome your inquiries. You’ll give them someone else to commiserate with when the dang things break down or don’t work the way they’re supposed to.

For those with true innovations, the path is the same. Create a breadcrumb trail of steps toward the new innovation. The breadcrumbs are the small, babystep innovations that are the no brainers. Introduce them fairly quickly over a few months and you’ll have a much better chance of acceptance.

Adopting new ideas is a dangerous proposition. The inherent nature of people is to be risk averse. Change scares them. Business owners are especially prone to this. They don’t want to mess with something unless it’s broken. Why move ahead when we’re making money doing what we’re doing? That’s the subject of a whole new post.

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