You Don’t Have to Be a Tech Company to Foster Innovation

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Innovation is one of the hottest buzzwords right now. Technological advancements — from crowd-sourcing to 3D printing — make it cheaper and easier for anyone to experiment, reinvent and develop without a huge budget or fancy equipment. Turning our wildest dreams into business success has never been more possible.

To learn more about how a small business can harness innovation and foster creativity at work, we asked Daniel Reilly, Staples’ director of design and innovation, to share his insights. With more than 15 years of experience in consumer product design, development and launch, his responsibilities at Staples include user-centered research and design projects.

Everybody’s talking about innovation these days. What does the term mean to you?

For me, innovation is a transformation. There’s a complex process to change what something is today and deliver on a vision for tomorrow. I’m not sure it’s necessary for all small business owners to embrace innovation, but they should be keeping pace with change in their industries. Most small businesses that have staying power have likely innovated because, eventually, doing the same thing isn’t good enough.

That makes sense, but if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. What do you think are the main barriers to innovation?

I head up a team focused on innovation, and even I tell my boss every time I see him that I don’t have enough time for innovation and my budget is too small. You need to find a way to work within your constraints.

Right — time and money! How do you overcome that?

I often ask customers and suppliers to work with me on a project that they will directly benefit from. Asking your customers to submit ideas or asking your suppliers to find new materials expands what you can do with your limited resources. Starting the conversation and keeping it moving is important because there will be a lot of things that may not fit.

It sounds like it’s a good idea to work with your network of potential partners and contacts.

I share the vision I have for my business with consultants, crowd funders, investors, technology suppliers and many other partners to ensure they’re bringing opportunities to me that are based on my goals. It’s a lot easier and you can cover a lot more area if you have a great talent base out there with a vested interest in your endeavors who are considering opportunities for you.

For example, if you sell organic produce, don’t settle for a supplier that supplies this as a small component of their assortment. Find the supplier that aspires to own an organic farm themselves someday. Having this type of alignment ensures that you’ll have a colleague to discuss challenges with and someone innovating for you in the space that’s important to you.

It’s easy to think of innovation as the purview of tech, product and scientific companies. Sounds like you see it differently.

Well, it is actually quite the opposite. Innovation takes place more often without a new technological development or scientific discovery. Look at Starbucks, for example. Starbucks changed the coffee culture in this country and they continue to force change in their industry. They did not have a technical or scientific innovation at their inception. They innovated through brand and customer experience. Technology advancements are great, but you don’t need a bunch of PhDs to innovate.

What’s one way we can drive innovation in this way?

You can leverage customer interactions. For example, when I was young I used to visit a bakery, and the owner’s father was a pilot. He traveled around the world with his father to many countries. He used to say “thank you” in a different language almost every time I went into the bakery. I still remember many of his phrases. This simple gesture created a unique experience in his store where customers would talk about the places they visited abroad and — most importantly — they waited patiently for their orders! Is this innovation? I think so, mainly because there were four bakeries in the same location before he arrived that could not find a way to compete with fast-food chains. He transformed the experience and built a legitimate business in a location where many failed.

Any other innovation advice for small business owners?

Take on the challenges as they come along and continuously experiment. Putting things off will only require a greater transformation in the future that will require more resources and disruption to your customer base.

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