Carol Roth, entrepreneur, CNBC contributor and author of “The Entrepreneur Equation”
The word “innovation” has the power to strike fear in some small business owners, while exciting and invigorating others. The first words small business owners think about in conjunction with innovation are “technology” and then “expensive,” said Carol Roth, entrepreneur, on-air contributor for CNBC and author of The Entrepreneur Equation.
But innovation doesn’t have to be “extravagant,” Roth said. “Embrace the concept that small changes can be considered innovation. In some cases, it can literally be simplifying the way you’re doing something.”
Serial entrepreneur, thought leader and author Faisal Hoque, agreed that innovation can be simple. “Even finding ways for your customer to interact or find you more easily is a process of innovation,” he said, citing the example of a small business owner offering customers convenient online scheduling rather than just the traditional call-to-schedule method.
And while innovation can be simple, it’s absolutely essential for small business survival and growth. “It accelerates the rate of change for business,” Roth said, adding “If you wait, and you’re not moving forward, you might end up being left behind.”
Hoque asserted, “If you’re not going to do it, you’re going to be out of business. It’s as simple as that.”
Everyone agrees that innovation is essential for small business success. Here are five tips from Roth and Hoque that make innovation tangible and accessible. Fear not—it’s easier than you think!
- Start innovation with the customer, Roth advised. “Put yourself in the customers’ shoes and ask, ‘What else could we be solving for our customers or delivering in a better or different way that’s going to build loyalty, build the relationship, have our customers spending more with us and advocating for us?'” Data analysis, surveys, focus groups and listening via social media are a few ways small business owners can better listen to customers, Roth suggested. “[These are] very easy and inexpensive ways to start the dialogue with the customers [to determine] what they want.”
- Calm down, prioritize and focus. To start the innovation process, “The first thing small business owners should do is get into a mode of calming themselves. It’s only when you are calm and collected that you can start prioritizing what’s important and what’s not important,” Hoque said. He advised small business owners ask themselves three questions: “Am I trying to gain new customers? Do I need better customer service? Or am I trying to gain new efficiency?” From there, he said, prioritize innovation efforts and focus accordingly.
- Make innovation part of regular strategic thinking. It’s something any small business owner can do if she carves out the time for it, according to Roth. “Whether it’s every quarter or a couple times a year, really think about how your business can deliver internally with employees and their processes or externally with customers in a way that may be different than it’s been done before,” Roth said.
- Keep an eye on the competition. Monitoring competitors within your industry and also players within a broader macro-environment is a key element of innovation, Roth suggested. That way small business owners “won’t find themselves caught in a situation where they are behind the curve because things are going so well and all of a sudden something changed, and they didn’t see it coming.”
- Use digital tools to innovate effectively. While technology isn’t essential to innovate, it can make it more convenient. For instance, cloud-based tools like Office 365 or Dropbox “make it easier to collaborate, share insights, store and access information and, ultimately, to innovate,” Roth said.
For more on innovation, read Roth’s advice on how to beat fear of failure, and sign up for the Manta webinar “Disruptive Innovation: How fresh thinking can propel your small business forward” with innovation expert Steve Di Biase.