By James Hurley
“We haven’t got the ‘not invented here’ mindset,” says Richard North, founder of Midlands toy business Wow!Stuff. “Our attitude to innovation is ‘whoever, wherever’ – we don’t care who comes up with the idea, or where they are inthe world.”
Even on the side of a mountain in Vermont. This is no imaginary example – it’s the strange, isolated home of Jaimie Mantzel, an inventor that North is hoping will help him deliver a hit toy this Christmas.
Mantzel spent a decade flipping burgers, painstakingly saving up $22,000 to buy a remote piece of land that would be his escape from the rat race. Once he’d found a 20 acre plot on the side of a mountain, he designed and built an “off grid” three-storey dome structure from reclaimed materials to live in.
Deciding he wanted to build a workshop, he obtained a disused aircraft hanger and transported it up the mountain by foot, piece by piece and reassembled it. With a better way to carry materials to his new base clearly required, he started work on an off-road vehicle. Building a DIY 4×4 would be impressive enough, but Mantzel is a man who likes to put his imagination to work: he started creating a giant, 12 foot tall robotic spider from scrap aluminium that he could pilot.
Documenting his singular lifestyle and esoteric creations on a blog and, crucially, on YouTube brought Mantzel a global audience. The giant robot proved a particular source of fascination. One of those who followed Mantzel was a robot scientist working for Wow!Stuff and fascinated with the eccentric inventor, he told North.
As it turned out, Mantzel had already spotted the potential of toy versions of his giant arachnid – but had bad experiences with American toy giants. North and his team eventually convinced the reclusive creator that they could enjoy a fruitful relationship.
The result is Attacknid – a six-legged “battling machine” that North is convinced will be the number one boys’ toy this Christmas, with all of the UK’s major toy retailers having agreed to list it.
Wow!Stuff has a knack for coming up with toys that capture the imagination. Last Christmas, it sold 400,000 Air Swimmers, a giant inflatable radio controlled fish that ‘swims’ through the air. Another hit was My Keepon, an interactive robot that dances in time to music.
Its origin? YouTube again. Wow!Stuff workers spotted a video on the site starring a dancing robot designed by scientists to help therapists improve the social development of autistic children. When North watched the video, he saw the potential of the £20,000 device, which had been developed by US company BeatBots.
The lesson, North says, is that no amount of market research and analysis of trends can substitute simply recognising an inspired idea.
“You’ve got to back your hunches. Research won’t predict the next big thing. If you’re growing a business you can have a perception that all the ideas have to be generated internally. We’ve realised you have to look outside.”
The company – which has won a National Business Award for its approach to innovation – also uses the internet and social media to find new ideas and inventors, which North says can come from any industry and any location.
“You have to cast your net wide. The people we employ are people who share ideas freely and aren’t selfish – innovation has to be in everything we do, not just toys. There’s a world out there full of ideas, so it’s your job to capture that, not think, ‘we have all the ideas here’. It’s about being free and inclusive.”
If that makes the process of product development sound easy, North is at pains to point out that the pressure in his industry to innovate quickly and accurately can be “brutal”.
“When we started out I remember talking to people in the industry. Everyone had the same remark – it’s one of the hardest industries to do a start-up. Even the biggest toy companies, with millions to spend on development, research and focus groups say 50pc of their toys won’t work commercially. It’s like being a venture capitalist – you know a lot of what you do will fail. And the amount of start-up capital you have to invest upfront can kill you quickly if you get it wrong”.
With toys taking between two and three years to develop, the moment they’re presented to retailers is “nerve racking”, North says, with some understatement. He’s just back from toy fairs in the US and Hong Kong where he’s been doing just that. Unusually, all of the toys that Wow!Stuff presented received orders or interest.
“That never happens. It’s the best we’ve ever done. At the point of the first reveal, you’re hoping people get it. Sometimes you’ve just missed the trend, sometimes you’re too far ahead – predicting something that hasn’t arrived yet,” he says. “We saw a lot of companies doing toys that worked with mobile apps. They’re probably two years ahead of the consumer. Next year is when we think the timing will be right for that.”
When I tell North that the way he describes innovation makes his company sound like it is run by Tom Hanks’ character in the 1988 film Big, his response is telling: “I’ve never seen it but people keep saying that to me.”
In the film, a 12 year-old boy is granted his wish to be given an adult body. He gets a job in a toy firm and becomes an unwitting nemesis to an experienced product developer by rubbishing his ideas and coming up with much better ones of his own.
“The industry is like that – there are lots of clever people trying to justify their jobs by relying on research and numbers. The truth is, the answers are out there, not in you. The minute you start getting hierarchical is the time you lose your innovation. You need to think like a kid, be like a kid – before you were indoctrinated by life and educated in the supposed right and wrong ways of doing things.”
However there is no one single way to innovate; companies will invariably take different approaches to it as is evident within BGF’s own investment portfolio. The important common denominator is that innovation is high on the corporate agenda for them all.
At M Squared Lasers in Scotland, backed by BGF this year, thinking like a child is not on the agenda – they have to take a rather more structured approach to innovation. The company develops lasers for a huge array of industries, and for a wide range of applications – from advanced scientific research to sensing hydrocarbons in oil and gas production, sensing explosives and chemical warfare agents and computer chip manufacturing.
All of the industries that the company sells to demand both speed and accuracy – and constantly changing demands means M Squared needs to come up with new
products all the time.
“Our term is dependable innovation,” says the company’s chief executive, Dr Graeme Malcolm. “They’re novel processes but solving a real problem, so what we produce needs to be robust as well as quick. The customers don’t want flaky prototypes.”
In one sense, however, the approach M Squared takes to achieving that aim is strikingly similar to Richard North’s“whoever, wherever” philosophy. “We can sense chemical agents from hundreds of metres – that’s unique to us. What we’ve done to get that advantage is take a collaborative approach with supply chain partners and universities. Typically, our big publicly listed competitors take the ‘not invented here’ approach to life. We’re smaller and more agile, which gives us a bigger research and development group – because it’s not just us coming up with the ideas.”
Working with a multitude of partners is not a soft option, however. “You have to think harder about intellectual property this way,” Malcolm warns. Detailed agreements are made in advance so partners know where they stand on ownership if something commercially valuable is created. Working with academia as a small, fast growing company presents challenges of its own but Malcolm says it’s less of an issue than one might expect.
“We try to work with the most like-minded groups in universities – there are agile parts that are already working with industry. The rest, the more research-based academic parts, can be worked with for longer term projects,” he says. “We license a lot of technology from universities – that makes the relationship last longer because they’ll come back to you.”
For Malcolm, the hard part about innovation isn’t coming up with good ideas – it’s bringing them to market. “There’s often much more innovation involved in the process than in the original idea,” he says.
“Some of the things we’ve worked on have been groundbreaking. But 1,000 times more effort goes into rigorous engineering and developing a new market, and educating a new customer base. That’s the bit that’s underestimated – the light bulb moments can be obvious.”
To make sure innovative ideas quickly result in physical products, unlike many of its larger rivals, M Squared uses local manufacturing, via an advanced production facility in Glasgow. “The proximity between engineering and manufacturing is crucial when you’re doing it quickly. It’s an intimate process – and allows you to keep the skills you need to do the whole cycle from analysing a market to delivering a product. It’s difficult if you don’t have those close connections.”
Encouragingly, he thinks the principle could apply to less hi tech industries too – rising costs in emerging markets mean fashion companies increasingly see the speed and control benefits of coupling innovation with local manufacturing.
“I think that trend is something the UK is pulling through strongly on,” he says. “It makes the cycle of iteration much more rapid – so innovation can happen more rapidly. Many of the great innovations in recent years have had a number of iterations – the tighter the loop the better.”
But what about companies that aren’t involved in developing physical products? How do they approach innovation?
A care home isn’t something one immediately associates with innovation.
However, Graeme Lee, chairman of Springfield Healthcare Group, insists plenty of creativity has gone into turning a family business with sales of £400,000 into a £12m turnover company. He too is pioneering a new way of doing things in the domiciliary care market.
Unlike Wow!Stuff and M Squared Lasers, Lee’s innovation is focused on service and his business model rather than product design and production. Yet Lee’s emphasis of looking outside your own business for inspiration echoes the approaches of North and Malcolm.
In his role as chairman of a not for profit care association, he visited a multitude of care homes. A range of problems struck him – residents felt isolated in remote homes and frustrated by living on top of one another. “They wind each other up,” he says.
Worse, many have to cope with a change in circumstances – if a resident develops dementia, they’ll often have to move.
Lee’s solution is simple, but unconventional – a “care village” in the heart of a normal community just outside Leeds. Residents have separate units, and can move from complete independence to sophisticated care in one location. And they’re in the heart of real community life – the pub, the village shop, the post office.
“Say Mrs Smith comes in at 70 – we can deliver everything she needs for the next 25 years. Normally, if you’re in residential care and you get dementia you have to move. This is a home for life. And for us, we keep the patients longer so it’s a good business model, if we give people the right care at the right time.”
Echoing Malcolm’s point, for Lee, the hard part is in the delivery, not coming up with the original idea.
To bring the care village to life, Lee has had to convince both the NHS and local councils – hardly organisations known for embracing change – of the benefits of his approach. He’ll need their backing if he wants to expand the business, after all.
Just as North warns that bad timing can kill a good toy, Lee has picked a time of upheaval in the healthcare market to introduce a new model.
“GPs take control of healthcare budgets next year. They love what we are doing because they know that everything the patient needs is taken care of. For doctors, we’re ticking all the boxes.”
BGF liked the idea enough to invest and Lee is hoping to replicate it in other
When BGF backed North’s business, he says it focused the mind on what they were buying into – and ramped up the pressure to keep coming up with the bright ideas.
“As investors, their worry is, how do they know we’ve got the magic touch. You don’t know why it’s you that they’ve chosen; but then, why not us?”
The key to staying innovative for these growing companies is to keep looking outside their businesses for inspiration, hiring people who don’t care where the best ideas come from and remembering that being innovative doesn’t stop at simply coming up with neat product ideas. And of course, timing is everything.
WHAT IS INNOVATION?
If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, innovation is the most overused word of 2012. It is often bandied about by consultants and PR executives, and companies can be just as guilty; heralding innovation when in truth what they have is simply a good product.
So what is real innovation? There are numerous definitions, and the experts can’t quite agree, but here are a few examples to consider:
- Inventing a product, technology or service that is genuinely new. Like the light bulb, wifi or Google.
- Revolutionising an existing product by changing the users’ behaviour while at the same time revolutionising the market. Apple’s iPhone anybody?
- Inventing a new process, delivery method or business model. Turning mainframe computers into personal ones or shifting video rental from stores, to post and then online.
- Creating a new market for a leftover or overlooked commodity, or extending a market for an existing product. Best Buy, the US electronics retailer is creating revenues from recycling so-called ‘e-waste’.
- One could always just go with the summary offered by the late Steve Jobs who knew a little about the subject: innovation is what “distinguishes between a leader and a follower”.
HOW THE INTERNET CHANGED THE WORLD
“The internet’s biggest impact on SMEs has been as a great leveller, making it possible for a small firm to be a global company from day one, with the reach and capabilities that once only large companies could possess,” says Charles Roxburgh, a director at the management consultancy McKinsey, which has been researching the impact of the web on the global economy.
“They can reach customers, find suppliers and tap talent on the other side of the world – and also use the internet to provide significant marketing and brand muscle.”
McKinsey’s work suggests the internet has been a hugely powerful enabler for many SMEs: in a survey of more than 4,800 firms in 12 countries around the world, it found that those which use web technologies grew more than twice as quickly as those with little internet presence.
Nor are the benefits that the internet offers available only to online businesses. While the web’s development certainly has spawned thousands of new ventures that could not exist without it, many more conventional businesses are harnessing its power to grow far more quickly than they would ever have dreamed of had they launched in the preinternet world.
The interenet is now making a major contribution at every stage of the value chain, boosting productivity wherever you look. Not only has the web fundamentally changed the way products and services are sold, but it has also revolutionised development, design, production and distribution. Even the smallest businesses now operate with the sort of geographically diversified supply chains and global workforces that until these past few years would have been the preserve of large multinational corporations. There is more to come. McKinsey’s research suggests that on a global scale, the internet is now responsible for 3.4 per cent of GDP (in the UK, it says, the figure is as high as 6 per cent) but will deliver much more. Large companies are part of that story, but it is small and medium sized enterprises for which the internet presents the most exciting opportunities.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY OF CUSTOMERS: AFG MEDIA
AFG is the company behind Morphsuits, the all-in-one fancy dress costumes that have become a common sight at stag dos, fancy dress parties and special events all around the UK. Founded in 2009, AFG had revenues of £1.2m in 2010 but has grown astonishingly quickly. This year, sales total £11m and the business is now expanding internationally.
Gregor Lawson, one of the three founding directors of the company, says AFG has social media to thank for its 300 per cent year-on-year growth. “Without Facebook, we simply would not exist in the way we do today,” he explains.
With little to spend on advertising or marketing in its early days, AFG’s strategy was to build a community of customers through its Facebook page – not everyone would buy a costume straight away, Lawson reasoned, but the more they participated in the community, the more likely they would be to spend money when the occasion arose.
“People underestimate the commercial power of Facebook,” says Lawson. “For every one person who does something on our page, another nine will ‘like’ it and another 90 will see what’s been done.”
AFG is scrupulous about engaging with everyone who posts on its page – even complainers become advocates of the business if you engage with them, Lawson argues.
In addition to the ideas its Facebook users come up with – not least a remarkable number of photos of Morphsuit wearers in ridiculous poses – AFG offers plenty of proactive opportunities to engage. It organises competitions and even meet-ups – a flash mob in Trafalgar Square, for example, attracted 200 Morphsuit-wearing fans.
“People think social media is flitty,” Lawson says. “I disagree – if you’re clear about your objectives and your customers, you can deliver real commercial advantages on Facebook.” AFG’s own statistics prove the point – they have 1.1 million Facebook fans and counting. And only a small proportion of those fans need to become customers to sustain AFG’s rapid growth.
ACCESSING GLOBAL SUPPLIERS: PRIMROSE
The business model at online garden products retailer Primrose developed as a consequence of the way search engines operate. Type, ‘barbecue’ into Google and the site it delivers you to has to pay the search giant for referring you – even if it then discovers you were after a £5 disposable barbecue rather than the £300 gas-fired models it sells.
The solution, says Ian Charles, one half of the husband-and-wife team who founded Primrose in 2003 and still run it today, is to make sure you sell every barbecue the customer might possibly be interested in – or water feature, or garden bench and so on.
“We realised we needed to expand into every possible type of garden product and to offer the deepest possible range in each case – to become the Amazon of the gardens world if you like,” says Charles.
“Fortunately for us, one thing the internet has done is made the infrastructure of sourcing free – it now requires far less of an investment to find the manufacturers.”
Primrose aims to offer greater depth in any given garden product range than its suppliers and therefore needs to source huge amounts of stock in an industry where manufacturers are based all around the world – often in inaccessible, emerging market locations. For a relatively small business, the cost of such a sourcing operation would traditionally have been prohibitive, but the internet has changed that.
Much of Primrose’s sourcing is now conducted entirely online. That has enabled it to build the sort of stock range that means customers who use imprecise, generic terms when using search engines – that’s most customers – will usually find what they’re looking for at Primrose. “This sourcing has enabled us to be real product specialists in larger and larger number of ranges,” Charles adds.
It seems to be working – despite the entrance of giants such as Tesco to online garden products retailing, growth of up to 40 per cent a year has proved sustainable.
TAPPING TALENT: UNRULY MEDIA
Unruly Media makes and distributes social video campaigns for some of the world’s biggest companies, as well as many smaller businesses. It’s a business that wouldn’t exist without the internet, but for Unruly the web is also hugely valuable for back office operations such as recruitment.
“The internet opens up the passive talent pool,” says Deana Murfitt, the company’s chief people officer. “Prior to the internet there were lots of people sitting around who were ideal for the kind of jobs we recruit for, but there was no way of getting at them.”
Thanks to sites such as LinkedIn, Murfitt explains, Unruly has effectively been able to transform part of its human resources team into an “in-house head-hunter”. For the majority of roles for which the company recruits, the process is to identify the skills and experience needed and then to scour LinkedIn and other talent databases for candidates who might be suitable.
One obvious advantage is hugely reduced spending on recruitment agencies, but “our approach is about the quality of candidates sourced as well as the expense of finding them”, Murfitt adds. By cutting out intermediaries such as recruitment agencies, Unruly can be sure it targets only those people with the exact skillsets for the roles it is looking to fill.
Tapping talent in this way has other advantages too. “This is extra helpful for us, and for all small businesses, because the brand may not yet be recognised in the marketplace,” Murfitt says. “If you can build up your online profile, by building up lots of collateral around the type of employer you are, the kind of culture you have and the values you look for in people, you can build up your profile and reach out to passive candidates over the internet.”
Unruly has been so pleased with the results of its internet networking that it now offers staff a bonus if they are refer successful candidates for jobs. Murfitt explains: “It’s like an ecosystem of connected people who are all interfacing across the internet to try to find the right person for the role.”
BUILDING A BRAND: BROADBANDCHOICES.CO.UK
As viewers of daytime television will know, brand is everything in the price comparison business – several competing personal finance sites have spent a fortune on advertising in an attempt to build it. In the home broadband sector, however, Broadbandchoices.co.uk has chosen to set out its stall a little differently.
“In a business-to-consumer market like ours, brand is really important but the proposition has to be absolutely right too,” says Michael Phillips, the managing director of Decision Technologies, the owner of Broadbandchoices.co.uk. “We’ve spent a great deal of time building an engine that has every tariff in the marketplace – nobody lists as many packages as we do, so nobody can claim our level of expertise.”
Since launching in 2005, the company has worked especially hard on its user interface, directing customers to an extensive list of potential broadband deals and then using a succession of filters to narrow down the choice. In a market that isn’t entirely commoditised – people are looking for different speeds, for example, or to bundle their broadband with TV and a phone service – this is crucial to the customer experience.
“Broadband is getting more complicated all the time,” Phillips adds. “Our job is to help people prioritise the variables in order to make the right choice for them.”
The business has, in other words, used the power of its technology to build a brand that is based on quality rather than ubiquity. And it is now in the process of doing the same thing in international markets such as Spain, France and Germany.
The great thing about the internet, however, is that once your brand value is established, ubiquity follows more quickly than ever before. “What’s really exciting is that in the broadband price comparison market there has been no definite brand leadership established yet and that’s a huge opportunity,” Phillips says.
ACHIEVING GLOBAL REACH: WORKSHARE
For Workshare, the internet has delivered global scale in a remarkably short space of time. Founded in 2009, Workshare provides businesses with a highly secure cloud-based document management service that enables users to share files with colleagues and clients of their choosing. Those files can be accessed via PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone and worked on by any user granted the right access privileges – the system also tracks all changes made to documents. Workshare targets markets such as legal services and financial services, where there’s a high concentration of skilled and mobile workers operating in a regulated and sensitive environment. Other examples include the pharmaceuticals industry, as well as government services.
Ordinarily, it would take years to build trusted relationships with such businesses and even longer to achieve critical mass. But not for Workshare – while it has only a handful of overseas offices, it already has hundreds of customers in 65 countries all around the world.
Anthony Foy, the company’s chief executive, says that in addition to the right product offering, it is the viral distribution model on the internet that has enabled Workshare to achieve such reach so quickly.
“Every one client that subscribes to our service typically invites five others to join them – and every one of those five then invites three more contacts of their own” he says. “We haven’t got round to tracking what those three contacts do yet, but you can see how the maths works for us.”
Clearly, the numbers begin to add up very quickly, and have already done so for Workshare. But Foy believes there is plenty more growth to come – “we’re nowhere near the point yet where we run short of potential new clients,” he says. Independent research from Gartner supports that view – it thinks this market niche will be worth $8bn by 2014.