Companies inattentive to innovation get left behind--or, worse, fail altogether. While those of us over 40 fondly remember starting our weekends with a trip to the video store, for example, the experience pales in comparison with conveniently streaming blockbuster entertainment from the comfort of your couch. While hailing a cab in New York City was fun the first time, there's nothing like the certainty of watching the map on your screen as a dedicated driver heads your way to pick you up. In other words, though one experience may have delighted us initially, a more innovative--and perhaps industry altering--option could be waiting in the wings to vy for our business.  

Successful brands are those that out-innovate the competition. They never settle for the status quo, always seeking the next differentiator for their category. They survive in today's highly competitive landscape by continually evolving to deliver better products, better services, and--most important--better customer experiences.   

Large brands can prioritize innovation, dedicating an average 50 percent of their R&D budgets to the task. For smaller organizations, that kind of commitment may not come as easily--but that's not to say it is impossible. Big or small, companies need to be built on a foundational customer-first approach. When this is done right, even a small business has the potential to become a startup success story where innovation naturally follows. Take a lesson from these three former bootstrappers that have built their multimillion-dollar empires from the customer up: 

Browndages: Flesh-Tone Bandages Healing Wounds Both On and Below the Surface 

 inline image

If you tuned into the 20th episode of this season's Shark Tank, you saw this customer-centered startup strike a deal with three eager Sharks: Lori Greiner, Mark Cuban, and Daymond John. Browndages is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Intisar Bashir and Rashid Mahdi, who sought to improve their own customer experience through reimagining the bandage.  

For 100 years (and only recently adapted), Band-Aid has dominated the bandage market share with adhesive bandages and fabric wraps that only match Caucasian skin tones. This has been widely accepted, with little thought going to those who have been severely underrepresented and underserved by this product. As Browndages puts it in one of their two amazing homepage videos, "Wounds, like people, come in all different shapes and sizes. And, just like people, no two wounds are alike. Some wounds may take a day or a week to heal, while other wounds may take years, or even a lifetime, to get over."  

In a world of endless options, representation continues to be overlooked as an avenue for innovation. Browndages offers one solution through its line of flesh-tone bandages and wraps, packaged in single tones or a variety pack for your diverse family. And for kids looking to show off their well-earned scratch from playing tag in the park, Browndages offers colorful bandages with images of Black and Brown role models, rather than the fantasy figures you see on most competing products.  

Bashir and Mahdi didn't go into business with a budget anywhere near the size of what Band-Aid works with year over year; instead, they created a company with a target audience in mind and let that mindset fuel innovative products to delight that audience. By first identifying an underserved market, and then building a product line centered on the needs of that market, they created a company bound for success. 

Safely: Helping Women Feel Safe and Be Safe by Harnessing the Power of People 

 inline image

Launched in 2019, Safely is a smartphone app that combines the power of modern technology and community to give women peace of mind when out  alone. Users can choose friends and family to act as "Guardians" within their own "Safety Circle." They can then create custom triggers on their phones that, when pressed, will alert Guardians that the "User" feels unsafe. Guardians then have the option to view a live feed to help watch over the User, contact emergency services with the User's exact location, or communicate with the User to check in.  

According to Safely, two in three women feel unsafe outside of their homes and one in three will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The company was born out of a need to address this problem and empower their core customer: women.  

While solutions already exist in the marketplace to empower women and make them feel safe in public (e.g., pepper spray, stun guns, self-defense courses, etc.), the field has suffered from minimal innovation. In addition, these solutions are rife with concerns, the most notable of which is the need to be in close proximity to one's aggressor in order to use them. Considering this, co-founders Justin Nesvanulica and Ross Fastuca sought out a better solution, and Safely was born. 

Every feature within Safely has been built around two clearly defined customer segments: Users and Guardians. How Safely messages it value proposition is dependent on the segment you fit into. Guardians "are the people who want to help a loved one when they are most vulnerable." The features developed for Guardians consider every potential scenario a Guardian may be in when receiving a safety alert and then make it easy for that person to act.  

When connecting with Users, Safely takes on a more direct tone with messaging that gets to the heart of the problem: "When you have to sprint to your car because it's too dark to walk comfortably, or you're clutching your keys extra tight, all you want in this moment is for your partner, friend, or loved one to be by your side. Safely means they can be." Every product feature considers the emotional and mental state of a User in that moment and, as a result, makes interacting with Safely as natural as breathing. 

By building a firm understanding of its two customer segments, Safely has been able to out-innovate the competition without relying on a large budget to do so. The company chose to create a product centered on a core audience, and let that audience guide every innovation decision for the product.  

Vivoo: Making Personalized Nutrition Faster and Easier to Access for All 

 inline image

These days, everyone is looking for ways to live healthier lifestyles without having to get a degree in nutrition to do so. Whether taking an at-home genetic test to learn about potential health concerns or using weight loss apps like Noom to improve our habits, there's always a new product or tool to try in this space. In such a crowded category, it can be hard to stand out from the competition. But sometimes an innovative idea spurs from recognizing moments of friction in the customer journey and seeking out the solution. 

Vivoo offers something its competitors don't: instant, effortless, and recurring answers. Genetic testing kits suffer from long wait times to get results, and often extra costs to receive health plans related to those results. Weight loss apps require active input from the user to work, such as tracking calories and exercise before receiving an analysis and plan. Vivoo, on the other hand, "turns your phone camera into a well-being tracker," allowing you to test your nutritional state weekly, get instant results, and receive a personalized wellness and diet plan in minutes.  

By solving some of the myriad customer pain points that exist in this crowded corner of the wellness industry, Vivoo has been able to create something truly unique. Rather than trying to outmarket or outspend the competition, the business was born from out-innovating them, thanks to their consumer-forward approach.  

Let Your Target Customer Inspire Your Next Million-Dollar Innovation Idea 

It can often feel overwhelming to try to build a successful brand in a world with so many seasoned businesses outspending any newcomers. But innovation shouldn't be dependent on big budgets. Instead, take the time to get to know your target customer before you build any product, brand, or service. If you make your customer your North Star, the innovations will naturally follow while your competitors struggle to keep up.