By Tammy Cohen, SHRM-CP: Founder & Chief Visionary Officer, InfoMart
I’ve heard many of my entrepreneurial peers say there’s no opportunity for innovation in their industry, and I want to shed some light on ways to identity those opportunities.
Businesses have been evolving through innovations for thousands of years. And before modern industry, there were simple, life-changing innovations like fire, the wheel, and the kitten heel.
Most entrepreneurs plan to disrupt an industry, not birth one. At 25, when I started InfoMart, I was young and inexperienced. I had no idea I was pioneering an industry. Over the past 30 years, I have seen all sides of innovation – from pioneering to missing the boat through bleeding edge innovations, and I have found great success built on a strong foundation of lessons learned.
InfoMart was founded in 1989, at the beginning of the modern era of HR technology. At the time, I had to convince employers there was a reason to invest in background screening.
Five years later, companies took pride in listing “background checks” as required criteria in their job advertisements. The basic background check processes we established in the infancy of our company are still largely in place industry wide. Our operations team crafted sound, compliant practices while our development team launched the first client-facing, paperless background screening platform. Had we focused only on the technology engine, we would have missed the need to develop the policies that would drive it.
Bleeding & Leading-Edge Innovations
I have stood on the edge of bleeding and leading many times. Timing is everything, as they say, particularly when it comes to being the first to market with a product or waiting for others to be first and learning from their mistakes. Leading edge innovations are the ones we all hear about – disruptive technologies and products that provide an organization a significant competitive advantage. Bleeding edge innovations don’t have an immediate population of adopters.
When we think of leading-edge innovations, we often think of technology or products that simplify and improve consumers’ lives. But some innovations that solve huge problems are just simple enough that we collectively say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Such is the case with SeeHerWork, a company that creates workwear specifically for women in commercial, industrial, and emergency response jobs. Founder and innovator Jane Henry solved a problem for women whose “unisex” clothing options were really designed with men in mind (think workwear that buttons on the wrong side, eye & ear protections made for male proportions, etc.). Henry’s solution not only makes women feel more comfortable and confident on the job, but most important, makes them safer at work.
Here’s a cautionary tale of bleeding edge innovation: I invested in the technology to develop a job board in the early 1990s. Turned out most people didn’t have a computer and had no idea what I was trying to do. I could have been Monster.com had I timed it better.
Pets.com is an example of bleeding edge, underestimating consumer adoption, launching their online-only service a full decade before anyone would be ready to buy online and have orders delivered. Had they waited for Amazon to redefine the way we shop or gone to market with a combination online + brick-and-mortar strategy, perhaps my dog’s food would come from Pets.com instead of arriving in a Chewy.com box.
Bleeding edge innovation doesn’t always have to be based on immediate adoption and can grow into leading edge innovation. In 2016, InfoMart disrupted the industry by adding ASAP ID, our mobile ID and biometric authentication tool. We were first in our space to deploy an onboarding service built on AI and biometrics. And while we may have been out early, we knew that adoption would be slow as we pioneered a new way of doing background checks.
Innovating for Change
Some innovations arrive out of a response to societal need or change. These innovations serve the greater good.
Already a successful business leader in the materials handling industry, Patti Massey, president of MYCA, responded to personal tragedy by starting a company focused on corporate learning and development courses designed to improve safety, prevent violence, and reduce incidents of harassment and abuse in the workplace.
Today’s socially conscious consumer will push for the proliferation of this type of innovation – from the TOMS Shoes model of one-for-one giving (you purchase, they give) to BetterWorldBooks, which has raised more than $18M for global literacy and local libraries through the sale of new and used books. Innovators are looking for ways to turn a profit while also making the world a better place.
Have you been reading this article and saying, “But there’s nothing new in my industry!”? Because if so, step back and look again. There’s always something new, and it’s often hiding in plain sight.
Annette Springer, CEO of Springer Equipment Company, saw an opportunity to bring innovation to her customer base by expanding her product line to include autonomous forklifts. Companies that require such industrial vehicles invest far more in the operator than in the equipment and its maintenance.
At InfoMart, hidden innovation came in the form of a compliance-related enhancement to an industry-standard database search. We re-developed the search and are still the only provider in our space to sell a more compliant product. Last year, a federal court decided a case that will now force other screeners to take the same step, but because we looked at the trees instead of the forest, we were able to launch it as an innovation, not a response to caselaw.
As your business matures, you often don’t realize which of your processes is revolutionary. Find the parts of your business that others would consider innovative, even if they’re just part of your day-to-day. You may find a whole new business line, just like Cathy Koch, president & CEO of K-Tec Systems, an industrial equipment provider. Cathy created training modules for her products using augmented and virtual reality simulations. They proved so effective that she now also markets the training simulators themselves for other businesses to apply to their own products/services.
I hired a CEO, and yet I still wanted my own C-level title. I left it to my C-suite and they promoted me to founder and chief visionary officer. My responsibility as CVO is to futureproof InfoMart and our clients. Most commonly, future proofing involves innovating in your space and ensuring that your business can keep up with changing demands. However, new innovations aren’t limited to the development of technology. Innovation is just finding a better way of doing things.
Look around you. Look in all the deepest recesses of your business or industry; look at the most superficial processes. Listen to the problems and pain points of your buyer community and supply chain. For you, innovation can be as simple as a unique differentiator or as complex as pioneering a new industry and blazing a trail for competitors to follow.
So, what will you do: pioneer, settle, or get out of the way?