December 22, 2008
In the Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi once told his student Daniel, “Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later [makes squish gesture] get the squish, just like grape.”
to listen to Miyagi, press play
This fits nicely with my perspectives on innovating in tough times. In my previous blog entries on how to make your products/services more affordable and accessible, I discuss why the middle of the bell curve is a dangerous place to be in these economic times.
I was just speaking with a client of mine and we had the same conversation.
His Fortune 50 company offers a commodity item, but is considered to be a premium brand. They are never first to cut the price of their items (and they rarely cut prices), but they typically lead the charge in price increases. Their brand is associated with high quality and high performance. They are often focused on the right-hand side of the bell curve. They have been doing exceptionally well.
Their competitors fall into two categories.
Some are white label, low price producers. Budget brands. They provide a lower quality product that appeals to those with the least to spend. These companies are in the left-hand side of the bell curve. They seem to be doing particularly well now that people are looking for bargains.
Other competitors are in the middle of the bell curve. They provide good product at a good price. How are they going? These companies are being “squished” by the low cost providers on one side and the premium brands on the other. They are struggling. My client wonders how many of these companies will survive.
The middle of the bell curve is a dangerous place to be these days. If you aren’t careful, you might just get squished like a grape.
December 19, 2008
2008 saw the $4 gallon of gasoline and the start of the current recession. Although car sales are down from last year, millions of vehicles were still sold.
What car do you think was most popular? A hybrid? A fuel efficient car? An ultra-inexpensive car? A reliable import?
Interestingly, the two most popular cars were the Ford F150 (16 MPG) and Chevy Silverado (17MPG) pickup trucks with combined sales of nearly 1 million vehicles.
Why would people buy gas guzzlers when fuel prices are high and economic woes are running rampant?
According to Jeff Bartlett, deputy online editor of autos for Consumer Reports, when times are tough, “Buyers shift from what they want to what they need.” He continues to say that, “Pickups are a solution to a need” because they can be used for towing, off-roading, and cargo-hauling.
This is a fascinating point.
In a previous blog entry, I discussed how making your products/services more affordable and accessible is one way to beat the recession.
Focusing on what is needed versus what is wanted is another; sell the features that solve specific problems rather than the “nice to haves.” In the chart above, you can view the left part as the “needs” and the right part as “wants.”
This also plays nicely into my research on pains versus gains. The premise is that people take massive risks to eliminate their pains/losses yet will play it safe when it comes to increasing their gains. When times are tough, you must solve the pain first before the “extras” will be attractive.
What problem does your product solve? Can you provide a no-frills version of an existing product/service that focuses purely on eliminating a pain? In doing so, can you make it less expensive?
November 25, 2008
One of my last blog entries discussed the need to create affordable and accessible solutions as a way of staying competitive. Given globalization, cheap labor, and a damanged economy, this makes more sense than ever.
Here are three starter questions to ask to help you generate new ideas:
How can you productize a service? One way to make a service more affordable and accessible is to turn it into a physical or digital product; something that requires little or no human intervention. In my earlier entry, I talked about Cybersettle automating insurance claims processing. My Innovation Personality Poker enables people to recreate one of my most popular speeches/workshops. Self-assessment tools can reduce reliance on consultants. Remote diagnostic technologies can speed medical exams and pre-qualify patients before they come to the doctor. Legalzoom.com offers affordable legal advice for people who might otherwise not seek counsel. TurboTax simplifies tax filing. Experts convert their intellectual property into books, mp3s, DVDs, digitally delivered training (including eLearning) systems, or online databases. The possibilities are endless.
How can you offer a low-cost product/service? In an earlier blog entry, I quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, who once said, “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away.” I love that. Ask, “Why are people really using our products/services and what are the bare minimum ways of delivering the desired outcome?” $300 netbooks are stripped down computers because most people want to do word processing and surf the net. Tata is offering a $2,000 car in India (ok, maybe that is a bit too scaled down). Ernst & Young Consulting (now Cap Gemini) once offered a subscription service, Ernie, which provided small businesses with a low-cost alternative to high priced consulting. Dow Corning, the maker of silicone-based products, created Xiameter, an internet-based division that sells product only in bulk… with no call centers. Which features, services, or qualities can be reduced in order to tap into a new market?
How can I make my product addictive? Drug dealers know that if you get someone hooked on your product, they will come back to buy more. This strategy can be useful for attracting – and retaining – customers. Last month I spoke with the CEOs of three software companies. The one strategy that was pertinent to all three was the development of a stripped down version of the software…and potentially offering it for free. The idea is to get the customer hooked and using the software on a regular basis. Then as the customer’s needs grow, they will need to upgrade (note: this is not the same thing as offering something free today and then charging in the future). I worked with a major computer manufacturer many years ago where this concept was applied. Their flagship computer was (let’s call it) the “F” series. But that was too expensive for most companies, so they introduced a much slower and less expensive computer – the “E” series. Interestingly, the two models were 100% identical except a computer chip was added to the “E” to slow it down. The company knew that many customers would eventually want an upgrade, and they simply pulled out the chip and charged an exorbitant fee.
All three of these strategies move your innovation to the left-hand part of the bell curve (above) rather than the right. All three can be used by any company to augment their existing products and services. The point is to make your “core competency” available to a broader market – without negatively diverting energies.
I will be including more strategies in future blog entries.
November 20, 2008
Clayton Christensen, in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, discusses how disruptive technologies will kill incumbent technologies. Basically it is about how the crappy and cheap will eventually take over the sophisticated and expensive.
The well-worn example is in the computing world. The PC (which until recently cost thousands of dollars) killed the dominance of the mini-computer and mainframe (which then cost tens of thousands of dollars). The new $300 netbooks may eventually become the dominant computing platform. Or maybe a $100 mobile phones will eventually replace computers altogether.
The dilemma arises because most companies focus their innovation energies on building faster and more sophisticated technologies: becoming bigger and better. That is, they move towards the right of the graphic above. Unfortunately, the newer, cheaper developments – even if they are lower quality (in the beginning) and don’t perform as well – will ultimately be the winners. Or in other words, the left part of the graphic above.
The US Economy Dilemma
March 13, 2008
As the economy continues to tumble, it is tempting to cut back on your investments in innovation. But now is the perfect time to increase your innovation efforts. Here are seven creative ways that innovation can help you recession-proof your business.
1. Make Your Products/Services More Accessible
Successful companies are now shifting their emphasis away from increased performance and sophistication to increased accessibility and affordability. This helps you tap into an under-served market. Low cost and ultra-portable netbook computers are outselling more expensive models. The Nintendo Wii has sold more boxes than PlayStation and Xbox combined. To learn more about specific innovation strategies, read our articles on The Innovation Bell Curve.
2. Use Open Innovation to Reduce R&D Costs
Sometimes it can be less expensive to have others do your innovating for you. Organizations like InnoCentive enable you to define the “value” of a new idea and then post your request to a large community of expert solvers. This moves innovation from an unpredictable cost (infrastructure, the cost of researchers, and other hidden costs) to a predictable cost (the posting fee and reward). Other Open Innovation option include asking your customers what they want. Check out MyStarbucksIdea.com. Open Innovation is a perfect way to reduce costs while growing the business. Learn about my own Open Innovation experiences…and dilemmas.
3. Use Process Innovation to Reduce Operating Costs
Innovation is not just about new products or new business models. It can also be focused on ways of reducing operating costs. Use my 7Rs of process innovation to help make your processes more efficient and more effective. I have seen companies reduce costs by 60% while improving responsiveness to customers by as much as 90%. If you can increase service while increasing margins, you are sure to recession-proof your business. Download my 7Rs worksheet and improve your processes
4. Use Innovation to Match Supply and Demand
Sometimes you only want temporary measures to help you ride out tough times. I worked at Accenture, the large international management consulting firm, for 15 years. During my time there we went through three recessions. Each time the pattern was the same: the economy tanks, customers reduce spending on consulting, Accenture lays off employees, the economy picks up, Accenture scrambles to hire talent. During the 2001 dot-com bubble burst, they used a different approach. Instead of handing out pink slips, they offered a leave of absence for a period of time. The employee on sabbatical would get 20% of their salary (plus benefits) and would be assured a job upon their return. This helped match supply with demand, while keeping morale relatively high. Sometimes a creative solution can help you smooth the ups and downs of the economy.
5. Solve Your Customers’ Pain
Although customers have reduced spending on discretionary items, they may be willing to invest in products or services that eliminate their pains. Problem solvers are always in big demand. If their pain is the need for cost containment, how can you do it for them – and take a slice of the action? In my business, I get more requests for speeches on ”recession proofing” than I do for those on general innovation. What pain do you solve? Or how can you make your customer aware of a pain that they may not have noticed? Learn more about why solving a pain is more powerful…during any economic condition. You may also be interested to learn why the ATM machine was headed for failure…until it was seen as solving a specific pain.
6. Fail Cheaply
If you are truly innovative, you will fail. If you don’t fail, you are playing it safe. Therefore, if you are going to fail, FAIL CHEAPLY. And no, this is not the same as failing fast. I am not talking about speed, I am addressing the cost to implement. To fail cheaply, you must embrace the “build it, try it, fix it” mentality. Build out your idea as a small experiment. Implement it. Learn from the experience. My Innovation Personality Poker was developed using this approach. I first created a simple spreadsheet to test for personalities. Next I wrote the words across the face of an ordinary deck of cards. Then I created home-made cards printed at FedEx Kinkos on card stock. Finally, when we knew it was perfect, we invested in designers and 500 decks of casino-quality poker cards. Eventually we “perfected” the words and process and printed 40,000 decks…and the commercially published book. Learn more about the “build it, try it, fix it” approach.
7. Before You Can Multiply, You Must First Learn to Divide
While in Asia, I heard a great expression, “Before You Can Multiply, You Must First Learn to Divide.” I now find myself using this saying nearly every day. The idea is that if you want to grow your business, you must learn to partner with others – and give them a slice (and a vested interest in YOUR success). This means you take a smaller slice of a bigger pie. With the economic downturn, this philosophy is even more appropriate. People are now hungry for new money making opportunities. When you help others make money, you make money. Read more about this powerful, yet simple concept.
BONUS: Use Innovation to Improve Your Suppliers’ Business
We often underestimate the value of our various business partners, and in particular the value of our suppliers. I once worked with a potato chip manufacturer. They were dependent on the quality of the potatoes grown by small, financial unstable growers. Instead of squeezing their suppliers, they helped the suppliers grow their business. They helped the growers buy equipment and fertilizer at reduced costs by leveraging the buying power of the large chip manufacturer. They gave them business loans at reduced rates. When the market gets tight, your suppliers may struggle more than you. But if you help them be successful, you might find you are more successful.
The Bottom Line: Use Innovation to Leapfrog the Competition
While others are tightening their belts, truly successful companies use the recession as a chance to leapfrog their competition. My favorite company, Koch Industries, increases their investments during difficult times. They know that if they focus on innovation while others are cutting costs, they will quickly catapult past everyone else. They must be doing something right. They have grown seven times faster than the S&P 500 for the past 40 years. This is a company that has proven it is recession proof. Innovation is a powerful tool that can help you ride out the tough times and position you for future growth. With the recession here, you need innovation now more than ever.
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