Big ideas get a lot of press. But there are plenty of small ideas waiting to be big businesses.
I'm always a little saddened when I see people who are unhappy with their jobs and spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for the next big idea to drop into their laps. Sometimes in conversations with these people, I find myself thinking of how thin the line really is between praying and whining, and how easy it is to cross.
These people are thinking too large. They're trying to invent some new killer product or service, which, in many cases, they would be unprepared and unqualified to develop and deliver. They don't realize that there are substantial opportunities for important and lucrative changes sitting right in front of them. These are improvements in their businesses--good, smart, simple, and “small” ideas that could be winners for everyone involved and that they are already experts on. The trick is always the same: How little of the current way we’re doing things can we change to make a big difference?
This is the critical distinction between invention and innovation--two completely different, and basically unrelated, endeavors. In almost every case, innovation is quicker, easier, and more profitable than invention. Invention is about bringing new things into existence and hoping that the dogs will eat the dog food. Innovation is about applying existing and proven tools and technologies to traditional business processes in new ways in order to create new value.
By and large, no rocket science is required. You don’t have to study Ruby on Rails or learn a new set of skills on the fly in order to succeed. Innovation is about “small ball”--a succession of base hits and quick scores rather than swinging for the fences and hoping for home runs. As Warren Buffett said a long time ago: “I don’t like jumping over 7-foot hurdles: I like to find 1-foot bars that I can step over.”
The most striking thing about this process is, in many cases, not how different the new approach or solution might be but how similar it is. Of course, that’s what the best entrepreneurs do--they identify and implement solutions where other people don’t even see problems. Effective innovation is about seeing what everyone else may have seen and thinking what no one else has thought.
It’s not as easy as that sounds, but it’s a lot easier than you might expect. This is a process--a continuous search for low-hanging fruit, easy targets and ways to apply tiny bits of existing and proven technology, or a better approach, to inefficient procedures that have “always been done a certain way,” even though no one can remember why.
Let me give you a simple example. Insurance companies are desperate to know how many miles you drive in the course of a year. That data has a direct correlation to the risks of your vehicle being in an accident, and therefore to how much you should pay for your insurance. Even aside from fraud and sheer laziness, self-reported odometer information is woefully inaccurate. So the insurance companies continue to try to develop incentives and other ways to get their policyholders to give them this critical data in a timely and accurate fashion. New smart start-ups like Atlanta-based Vehcon (www.vehcon.com) are working with major insurers to develop mobile apps to help address these types of issues. But, to date--no such luck.
Now here’s where innovation comes into the picture. Who else already has this data? Car dealers. Car dealers record your mileage every single time you take your car in for service. They also capture the same data every time a used car is bought or sold. They are fully automated. The data is sitting there just waiting to be retrieved electronically. Just two vendors supply about 85 percent of all dealers, and their systems already connect to the Web.
How easy would it be to build a retrieval system that polled, and paid, all these dealers on behalf of all the insurance companies and provided timely and current mileage on every car in America to the insurers? Pretty darn easy. Every single component of the new solution is tried, tested, and already up and operating. The trick is simply shifting around a few of the parts of the equation to create a whole new service and a large and profitable business.
It’s just not that hard. And there are a million more opportunities just like this in every market, in every industry, and in every business, just waiting to be discovered by smart entrepreneurs. It’s not about strokes of genius. It’s about steady, consistent, step-by-step improvement that creates real long-term value.
HOWARD A. TULLMAN is the CEO of 1871 – Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman @tullman