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Why innovation matters to small businesses

“Without marketing, there is no innovation.”


I heard Rory Sutherland speak at a conference way back in the first lockdown, and this was pretty much the gist of his talk. You could have the most incredible innovation in the world, he argued, but if nobody knew about it, what good would it do?

In my line of work, my role tends to sit relatively late in the innovation process: telling people about it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m working with a bunch of interesting, innovative clients at the mo. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been innovating in my own business. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking a lot about innovation lately. Not just the idea stage, but the execution and beyond – yep, the marketing.

And I started to wonder… what does innovation look like for small and microbusinesses?

Innovation isn’t just for big business

That’s what we tend to assume, isn’t it? Huge leaps for mankind. The James Webb Telescope, driverless cars, VAR… well, maybe the last one is questionable, but you get my drift. Titanic developments that rumble into town and shake things up.

For the likes of Google, innovation probably is defined as the next technological leap that'll take a global audience along for the ride. But for an SME or microbusiness, innovation could mean moving away from a paper-based accounting system. While the idea of digital accounting is not exactly earth-shattering, it does, as one of my clients recently pointed out, constitute innovation for that business.

What does innovation mean for small businesses?

My business is a micro-enterprise and so of all the costs associated with innovation, some affect me more than others.

Some of the ‘costs’ of innovation:

  • Time

  • Money

  • Energy

  • Resources

For me, the biggest ‘cost’ of innovation, is time. Time that I'm innovating is time I'm not working for a client and that costs the business. Of course, on balance, the cost is offset because the investment of time keeps the business relevant to clients. But in the here and now? Innovation costs time and – given that I’ve no crystal ball – I’ve no way to know in advance what will work, and what won’t. I can take an educated guess, but it’s still a risk.

The other biggest cost is, and this may sound odd… brainpower. Ask any self-employed person how easily they switch task from marketing to jumping on a client request, to onboarding a new client on an average day. Throw in developing something new, devising a plan to launch it, putting it across in a way that connects to people all while, you know, doing the day job… phew! That’s a lot of mental dexterity for the old grey matter.

What about the marketing part of innovation?

I often see this challenge play out with clients, too.

Whether my client is an established business launching a new product, or an entrepreneur creating their first-ever website, the challenge is the same: what is it, exactly, that they want to communicate?

It’s easy to assume that having an idea is the hard part, or the execution. People often underestimate the thought that goes into the marketing; not just on my part as the service provider, but for them as the business. As one client put it a while back, they ‘didn't realise the amount of effort it'd take to define their proposition’ – or communicate it effectively.

Innovation is worth it, even if it’s not easy

I can relate to the sentiment in my client’s words.

I've been innovating in my business too. Over the last year or so, there's been a lot of thinking, a handful of false starts and a whole lotta learning. Finally, after chipping away at ideas, taking one small action after another and yep, putting it out in the world, things have begun to shift. It's exciting!

My own experience of innovation gives me a deeper appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears clients shed when they attempt to capture in words the essence of what they have created. I hope it makes me a more empathetic collaborator when I work on client projects!

The risk of standing still

Innovation is a dicey business. SMEs and microenterprises can do research and take an educated guess about what’s right and go with it. But, as my false starts indicate, not all of them work out!

So, moving forwards is a risk. But so is not innovating! If we stay in our lane, never pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, if we never try anything new, we remain stuck. Like a plant that’s outgrown its pot, if we never move on we wither, our growth stunted; we don’t reach our full potential.

Our ability to adapt is our strength. Our willingness to take a risk benefits us in the long run – and those we serve. It doesn’t have to be a big risk. Like the SME moving away from paper accounting, it could be a small change that makes a big difference. And if we’re lucky, we’ll always evolve. Because as my client also said, innovation is a continual process. It never really ends.

So here’s to the micro-innovators, the brave, the bold and those just stretching a toe outside of the box. Let’s keep at it…

And if you need help to tell people about your innovation? Get in touch, I’d be delighted to help.


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