Dan Kim is the founder and chief concept officer of Red Mango. He has a successful track record leading new product introductions, innovative brand partnerships, creative marketing campaigns, and social media advertising; he also has in-depth technology experience developing Web and mobile solutions for business services. Dan is a frequent speaker and author, as well as an adviser and mentor to colleges and universities.

In the world of small business, innovation is often perceived as the catalyst that ignites the creation of new companies. By enabling the discovery of novel or disruptive solutions for the things people need, innovation can turn interesting ideas into viable enterprises.

But just as companies can successfully come to life as the result of innovation, they can also fail if they do not continue to innovate. Why? Businesses that commit to innovation are well positioned to develop goods and services that continuously meet shifting social trends and preferences, while those that avoid innovation face an ongoing risk of becoming irrelevant.

As obvious as that may sound, exposure to this risk is significantly higher for the small business owner, for whom the idea of innovation is too often overshadowed by the demanding responsibilities of actually running a company.

How we made innovation a core commitment at Red Mango

I experienced this challenge myself with Red Mango, the frozen yogurt and smoothie franchise I founded in 2006. I started Red Mango with a desire to make frozen yogurt in an entirely new way: I wanted to change the then-current perception of frozen yogurt as a soft-serve ice cream into an elevated one that positioned the product as real dairy yogurt which could be enjoyed softly frozen.

The concept quickly became popular, especially among the rising number of health-conscious eaters who had started to look at food labels and ingredients. But its popularity also quickly triggered unprecedented industry competition.

Despite the intense rivalry, Red Mango has been fortunate to maintain a leading market position, with more than 350 locations throughout the Americas. While our commitment to product quality and wholesome ingredients certainly helped us secure that position, our success was equally the result of our persistent commitment to innovation. Some of the most impactful actions we took included designing flexible real estate models that allowed Red Mango to open in nontraditional venues like airports and colleges, and, most recently, developing a menu of lighter, ready-to-eat meals that pair well with juice and smoothies. These initiatives led to the evolution of a frozen yogurt shop into the diversified Red Mango Café concept we introduced earlier this year.

As an organization, we believe the strength of our concept relies heavily on our desire and willingness to do the same types of cool things we did to frozen yogurt (pun intended). Today, our corporate mission is to push continuously for the evolution of treats, snacks, and light foods into healthier, tastier, and more convenient options that meet the increasingly sophisticated needs of consumers.

We didn't get to that conclusion easily or haphazardly. Like many startups, we made our fair share of mistakes. Today, our framework for innovation is based on three guiding principles, which I believe can benefit many small businesses that may be interested in leveraging innovation as a growth platform.

1. Innovation is not the same as invention.

Many people conflate innovating with inventing. While there are similarities, we think of innovation as a way to find more appealing ways to do or make things that already exist, and invention as the creation of something that never existed before. One of my favorite quotes on the subject comes from Mark Twain: "There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages."

I believe that if more companies understood the difference between innovation and invention, they would be much less afraid of innovation as a core value, and much more willing to embrace it. Red Mango certainly didn't invent frozen yogurt; we just made it better tasting and better for you by improving the ways frozen yogurt is made, and by helping health-conscious people better understand the benefits of things like all-natural ingredients and probiotics.

2. Always have a chief innovation officer.

Nearly all companies these days have chief executive officers, chief financial officers, chief information officers, and the like. Some of the more forward-thinking organizations have positions such as chief people officer and chief sustainability officer. I love these types of unique titles because they represent social or managerial values that are typically more untraditional in business but happen to be very important to the people who run those companies.

I believe that a business that values innovation needs to have a chief innovation officer (or at least a leading person of influence tasked with that responsibility) who not only drives the innovation initiatives of the company but also works to embed the paradigm of innovation into the company's vision and culture. Founders of companies such as myself are in a unique position to take on this type of role (my title at Red Mango, for example, is chief concept officer), but I've also seen titles like chief storyteller or chief idea officer, both of which can fluidly incorporate the responsibilities of innovation leadership.

3. Customers must drive innovation.

I believe innovation should drive company strategy, but I also believe customers should drive that innovation. Companies must innovate in ways that make sense to their corporate missions and values; if they break their brand promise to consumers, they can easily lose credibility and trust. Most of the time, there is a well-defined line between innovations that make sense and those that don't. For example, it would make sense for Apple to come out with their own line of audio equipment (which they essentially did with the acquisition of Beats by Dre), but if they decided to introduce lawn-care products, it might leave a lot of people confused about what Apple means to them.

But there are also situations in which that dividing line is much harder to see: The launch of an Apple clothing line may not immediately make sense to a lot of folks, but a quick study of the huge opportunities within the wearable tech market may explain why Apple earlier this year hired talent like the former CEOs of Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent, and the former Nike innovation director who helped develop the Nike FuelBand wristwatch.

Undoubtedly, innovation opportunities do come with risk-reward models, but if companies can develop and execute the right ones in ways that meet their customers' needs (and, more poignantly, what their customers will need but don't know just yet), a lot of good things can happen.

Red Mango will probably never introduce headphones or weed killers, but many of our customers still do ask for the branded athletic wear we designed last year.

Published on: Dec 12, 2014
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