The word "innovation" gets tossed around a lot these days. You hear it in advertising, you see it in bold letters on almost every business's website. It's gotten to the point where the word has all but lost its meaning.

That is dangerous. To truly innovate means to change something--something established--by using new processes, tools, technologies, or concepts. Doing so helps companies stand out, compete, and create long-lasting customer connections. It can also be a powerful driver of growth. A glance at the Inc. 5000, the list of America's fastest growing private companies, will show you innovative companies are heavily represented.

Innovating isn't only reserved for Silicon Valley. Companies across all verticals are creating business advantages by challenging the status quo. Let's consider some applicable tips for innovating, using small businesses featured in Ford Transit "Hands of Innovation" series as inspiration.

Create tomorrow, today

Today's customers expect companies to not only solve their current problems, but to anticipate their future needs, explains Malene Lane, Fleet Brand Communication Strategy Manager at Ford Motor Company. She believes that if you can do that, you will create loyal brand ambassadors.

As a business leader, it is easy to spend all your "energy and resources on extinguishing the fires of today," explains Lane. It takes intention "to operate with one foot in today, and one foot in tomorrow." To stay forward-thinking, the Ford team lives by the mantra and mission, "Creating Tomorrow Together." Lane explains it is more than a nice saying--it informs their work each day.

Ford strives to offer features that matter to drivers. For example, the 2020 Ford Transit is comfortable, customizable, and spacious-- traits small business owners with a need for a vehicle know to look for. It also includes features drivers may not know about, including Pre-Collision Assist with Automatic Emergency Braking, which could reduce, or potentially even eliminate, a front-end collision, and Available Intelligent All-Wheel Drive to enhance handling and maximum traction.

Smaller companies can also make their mark by being future-focused. Like Ford, Deltec Homes, a home design company based in Asheville, North Carolina, is building with tomorrow in mind.

Deltec Homes president, Steve Linton, believes one factor that will matter to future homeowners is resilience--the ability to withstand extreme weather. By using circular designs, custom materials, and innovative building processes that combine technology and craftsmanship, Deltec builds houses strong enough to help withstand hurricane-speed winds.

Know the market, and your customer

Companies also use innovation to address unmet needs in the market. Take All Points Broadband, a Leesburg, Virginia-based company providing utility grade broadband to underserved markets--rural places major telecoms don't usually serve. They use fixed wireless and fiber technology to make high-speed internet a reality for rural communities in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky.

Lane explains, many Ford Transit customers are small businesses, much like All Points. These companies work diligently to keep their pulse on advancements that will continuously propel their ventures forward. Ford knows that input from these businesses and their drivers are imperative in understanding the real human impact of their products so they can create functional, comfortable vehicles. Many drivers of commercial vehicles are in and out of their vans all day long. With this knowledge, Ford built Transit with ergonomic enhancements targeted towards the long-term health of the driver--like maintaining a lower cab to ground clearance across all of their powertrain choices for an easy step in experience and added standard grab handles in door locations.

Same problem, new solution

Innovating often means coming at the same problem in a different way. This type of thinking helped Kathy Hannun, president and co-founder of Dandelion Energy, a New York-based home geothermal startup, build a business. Geothermal systems can substantially reduce heating and cooling costs, but installing the systems is cost-prohibitive for most homeowners.

According to Hannun, geothermal installations typically cost as much as $60,000. Dandelion's patented technologies, first conceived in X, Alphabet's innovation lab, cut the cost of a typical residential installation to an average of $18,000, after tax incentives.

Lane says that as the Ford team develops new vehicles and features, they challenge themselves to find new ways to make people's lives easier. For example, the 2020 Ford Transit includes an embedded modem that enables drivers to use FordPass Connect--an app drivers can download on their smartphone so they can lock and unlock their vehicles from anywhere.*

The Transit also helps improve business operations with Ford Telematics software that helps optimize running costs by monitoring fuel consumption.

More than tech

Innovation often has a technology connotation, but game-changing ingenuity comes in many forms. Luke's Lobster, a sustainable seafood company, is revolutionizing the restaurant industry by owning every aspect of it supply chain. Rather than working with middlemen, co-founder and CEO Luke Holden sources his food directly from fishermen and oversees every aspect of his food's journey. As Holden is a third-generation fisherman with deep ties to coastal communities, his model is hard for other companies to replicate.

Lane believes small businesses like Holden's have an inherent competitive advantage. "Small organizations are uniquely poised to be change agents," she says. "They are nimble, (under the radar), and make a big impact that can catch competitors off guard."

The Ford team pushes itself to adopt a start-up mentality, by questioning long-held beliefs and celebrating "a collective curious spirit," she explains. This approach helps them continually innovate to better serve their drivers.

The Ford Transit team is proud to support the innovative work of American small businesses. To read more about the new 2020 Ford Transit, visit Ford's site. To learn more about how the companies mentioned above are changing their respective fields, visit the Ford Transit hub on

* FordPass Connect (optional on select vehicles), the Ford Pass App., and complimentary Connected Service are required for remote features (see FordPass Terms for details).  Connected service and features depend on compatible AT&T network availability. Evolving technology/cellular networks/vehicle capability may limit functionality and prevent operation of connected features. Connected service excludes Wi-Fi hotspot.