Innovation and the Small Business

One thing I always tell small business owners is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. This is especially true vis-à-vis bigger businesses because they have far more resources – budgets, staff, etc. – than we do. And one of the things that those resources afford bigger businesses is the ability to innovate. Whereas many small business owners are so busy running the day-to-day operations of their business that they have no room for innovation, inventive bigger businesses – be it Apple or Concur or what have you – incorporate the idea of creativity and innovation into their culture.

Here is a great example: In 1968, 3M research scientist Dr. Spencer Silver was doing some work regarding glue and in one of his experiments, Silver stumbled upon a unique substance: An adhesive that was gummy, not sticky, but it remained sort-of sticky even after it was repeatedly used. Silver knew that he had invented a highly unusual new substance, but the question was - what to do with it? A glue that didn’t stick very well might have been considered a mistake at other companies, but at 3M it was something to explore.

And what is cool about 3M is that it gives its employees the room to do just that. 3M has a policy that allows everyone in the company to pursue what they call “15% time projects.” That is, everyone at 3M is allowed to use 15% of their time to follow their muse and innovate. Maybe not surprisingly, this sort of policy has become popular among other businesses, for instance, Google and Amazon have similar policies.

You may want to do something comparable as well. After all, who knows what genius is inside some of your employees?

And it was this policy that allowed Dr. Silver to pursue his dream of finding some practical use for his non-sticky glue. For the next several years, Silver gave seminars to his colleagues at 3M, extolling the virtues of this new adhesive. But still, no one at the company could find a good use for it.

That is, until 3M employee Art Fry had, what a 3M spokesman later called “a moment of pure ‘Eureka.’” On the day in qustion, Mr. Fry was in his church singing in the choir when he became frustrated that the little pieces of paper he used to mark his place in his hymnal kept falling out. If only he had some sort of sticky bookmark. And then it his him: Dr. Silver’s strange glue could make for a great bookmark!

Later at the office, attaching Silver’s adhesive to the back of some notepaper, Fry created some sample bookmarks. Although Fry thought he was building a better mousetrap, it was only when he attached the sticky bookmark to a report, and wrote on it, that he realized that he had not created a bookmark at all. According to Fry, it was then that he “came to the very exciting realization that my sticky bookmark was actually a new way to communicate and organize information.”

The gummy bookmark begat a sticky note.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1981, one year after its introduction, Post-it Notes were named the company’s “outstanding new product.” In 1990, ten years after their introduction, Post-its were named one of the top consumer products of the decade.

So if you want to take your small business to the next level, then post a Post-It and remind yourself to create a culture that values innovation.  

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