A person can't just sit down in front of a computer and expect to innovate.
Innovation comes about in many ways and in response to many things — real-world problems, conflicts, situations, complications or confrontations.
There is just no telling where the next new idea will come from.
Here are some amazing tips and insights just from among my mentors, colleagues and peers:
Vapor Corp.: CEO Kevin Frija introduced electronic cigarettes to a market saturated with traditional tobacco cigarettes. Vapor has achieved four consecutive years of sales growth since 2009, when Frija became CEO, increasing 33.6 percent year over year.
"We researched the product in China and thought it could find a niche in the U.S. because it was new to the market," he says, "but we discovered how innovative it was after seeing competitors sprout up overnight."
But innovation does not necessarily mean constant change in your core product, he says.
"If we were to completely change the technology in our e-cigarettes so that they would be different from the competition, we would lose our customer base and the curiosity of new users," he says. "Our goal has been to keep up with market trends, but continue to innovate in other ways, like making our products available on the mobile app market to connect ourselves to customers."
TravelSolutions by Campbell: This travel and expense solutions company was one of the first U.S. companies to deploy an online booking system. That's because, CEO Bill Campbell says, the company had to reinvent its business after the birth of the Internet and its radical realignment of the travel industry. By embracing robotics technology instead of running from it, the company gained a significant advantage over the competition. Many travel agencies went out of business while TravelSolutions by Campbell (then Campbell Resources) grew explosively.
"In the late '80s, robotics technology was just being introduced; however, it was very costly to install. We made the decision to reinvest in our business and used robotics to automate fare scanning to look for lower airfare opportunities. Today, we take a variation of this same software and blend it with a new invention called ChangeGuard to enable customers to secure even lower airfare post purchase, because ChangeGuard mitigates the heavy airline-imposed ticket change penalty."
TravelSolutions by Campbell says it is able to save an average customer an additional $30,000 in net savings per $1 million in air travel spend by eliminating change fees from airlines worldwide. As a result, it is quickly becoming one of the most successful corporate travel agencies in the country.
"We have always been innovative and driven by customer ideas,” Campbell says. "Following the airlines' commission eliminations and subsequently 9/11, our only chance of survival was to do something different. Now it is engrained in our culture. We are currently launching numerous new inventions, such as a Travel Command and Control Center and a hotel cluster shopping application" — steps he expects to create another "tidal wave" of growth.
Ultimately, the lesson Campbell learned was that when new technology threatens to change or destroy an industry, companies have to embrace, adopt and incorporate that technology and bend it to their needs.
Gigwalk: According to CEO Bob Bahramipour, innovation at Gigwalk — which gives fast access to a corps of temp workers via smartphone — occurred unintentionally, a result of the unreliability of job search sites. "The concept came about because I needed to find part-time, temporary workers, but I needed to get in touch with them fast," he says.
"The response time from Craigslist and other temporary job sites was often hours or days. So I developed the concept to connect my business to potential workers right away. And how better to do that than their smartphones?"
Between its low overhead and a nominal subscription fee, the company turned an immediate profit. It has reached out to more than 200,000 people since launch in 2011.
Headsets.Com: Founder and CEO Mike Faith created his business as an answer to a problem — but the innovation lay in combining a market, product and service.
"The innovation came as a result of unproductive work days, which were proving costly," Faith says. "As an independent consultant, I needed people to work as efficiently as I did, but it was unrealistic to request that. So I thought of a product that could help them maximize their time."
Since its launch in 1997, Headsets.Com has become one of the premier wireless headset providers and service providers in the U.S.
"Sometimes, it's more innovative to create the market for something rather than design the product yourself to profit," Faith says.
Polaris Project: The project was launched by Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center as a way to give child victims an easier way to escape sex traffickers.
"Our goal was to develop a free service for victims to contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center's hotline. Many trafficking victims cannot just pick up the phone and call for help, because of extreme isolation or constant monitoring by their trafficker," says Julie Cordua, the executive director of Thorn.
This innovation was named BeFree, a free SMS texting service that allows victims to text in short code directly to the NHTRC’s hotline database through a Twilio and Salesforce service cloud.
"We did not stumble upon the idea by accident," Cordua says. "But we could not find a feasible way to ensure free communications. So through careful research, we discovered that we had to develop it ourselves."
A common denominator among these business leaders became clear: Innovation is not mystical. My difficulties with innovation were the result of sitting at a desk and staring at a blank page, trying to wrest an idea out of thin air. The reality is that original ideas can come from anywhere for small-business owners — but mainly from the messiness of real life, not airy philosophizing.
"Innovation can come from replacing, repairing or modifying something that already exists," Frija says. "But whatever it is, it has to solve a problem."