It's easy to think that technological innovation is all about silicon and software these days. But that's a narrow definition of a broad and transformative force.
Technology is famously disrupting almost everything, including how we communicate, how we travel, and how we work. Less attention has been paid to how it's disrupting very traditional ways of making tangible goods--but even those of us in seemingly low-tech or no-tech circles are benefiting from this innovation revolution.
It's unlikely that anyone would immediately think of Rickshaw, my bag-making business, as the poster child for modern innovation. But technology has fundamentally overhauled most of our processes and products--and enabled us to innovate along the way.
One of the biggest technological challenges we've faced in nearly eight years of existence involves thread. Yes, thread. Does it get any more low-tech than that?
For years, I searched for a way to make messenger bags that would be highly visible at night, but none of the fabrics I found produced the visual effect I was seeking. The reflective yarn used to make this sort of material is extremely expensive, so most mills use it sparingly. Eventually, I decided I had to weave my own.
At first, I tried consulting with our regular supplier, a mill that makes most of our custom fabrics. The textile engineers there are wonderful at what they do, but they hit a wall with this innovation: The reflective thread kept breaking, and the mill had limited time and resources to figure out how to overcome that (literal) snag in the development process.
Fortunately, we were rescued by another product of technology: LinkedIn. A little over a year ago, I received a message there from a man named Travis Oates, who owns and runs a third-generation family company with his sister, Molly Oates Sherrill. Their North Carolina mill, MWW Solutions, started out as a woodworking business and eventually branched out into weaving custom fabrics. Now, while browsing LinkedIn for sales opportunities, Travis wanted to know if my company had any custom-fabric needs. "Funny you should ask," I replied.
Still, I had my doubts. Rickshaw is a small-scale producer, and we don't buy huge volumes of any material from our suppliers. Would MWW really want to bother figuring out how to weave an expensive and technically difficult fabric if we bought only limited quantities? But Travis was up for the challenge. "My grandfather started this business selling wooden souvenirs to small stores, and we still serve many of them today," he told me. "We haven't forgotten our roots."
That was the breakthrough we needed to spark our long-planned innovation: the right partner, one willing to experiment until we could fully realize my original idea. Within weeks, we had our first reflective-fabric samples, which we used to make a few prototype bags. After six months of field testing, we started selling them through Kickstarter. An October campaign for our reflective knapsacks attracted 543 backers, raising $80,000--$70,000 more than our goal. Now we've added bags made with Rickshaw Reflective Tweed to the regular product lineup on our website, and we're developing additional colors and patterns for that fabric.
So you don't need to be an app developer, internet disrupter, or Silicon Valley startup to help revolutionize your industry. All you need to be truly innovative is a willingness to examine what you're doing, the initiative to ask if there's a better way to do it--and the perseverance to find the right partners to help you along.