Entrenched in process and bureaucracy, larger companies can be slow to respond to changing needs. Conversely, the smaller, more agile company can more easily innovate its way to success: ultimately outflanking their rivals.
Innovation doesn’t apply specifically to creating new products or services though. It can be just as innovative to do what your competitors are doing faster and more affordably by embracing new techniques. Much like Japanese electronics and automotive companies did during the 1980’s. They aped existing design and technology but their manufacturing techniques produced products more affordably and made them more reliable.
Also consider ‘smoothie’ drinks maker Innocent Drinks. They began as a 3-man team in 1999 and are now valued at over 100 million pounds. They weren’t the first company to be offering freshly squeezed juice (the larger PJ’s had been for some time before them). However, their branding, ethos and communications were innovative and they subsequently ingrained themselves into the buying publics’ psyche.
“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things”, the famous economist Theodore Levitt once said. So whilst it’s one thing to imagine new ways to solve a problem or need, putting that idea into practice is what actually defines innovation.
As a small business, it’s therefore imperative to take the initiative. Embracing new technology, techniques and services can provide a competitive advantage over larger but slower competitors. Here’s a collection of products, technologies and websites that can help aid innovation:
1. Invest in speed
It may seem paradoxical but investing in new computers can actually save money. Selected computers include 2nd Generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors, which have made strides in speed and low power performance. To exemplify the benefits, consider accounting, tax and advisory company, Grant Thornton LLP who estimated that by upgrading the companies’ laptops every two years, it would save around £388 per user from improvements to user productivity and IT efficiency over the laptops’ two-year lifetime.
2. Get colour combinations right
Adobe Kuler is a free online tool to explore, create and share colour themes and combinations. You can search for inspiration by keywords e.g. ‘calm’ or create colour themes based on uploaded images. If the interface appears a little daunting at first, Adobe provide a quick tutorial video to get you up and running.
3. Use Skype
Besides saving money on traditional call charges, using Skype for calls also provides a consolidated list of whom you called, when and for how long. Relative start-up, Moo Print even used it on occasion for an inexpensive method of interviewing potential employees. “The quality of Skype to Skype calls, versus mobile phone to mobile phone is vastly superior,” argues Moo CEO Richard Moross.
4. Picking the best fonts for your documents
It’s a time consuming and thankless task to find font combinations that actually look ‘right’ together. Save the time and hassle by referring to the ‘Top Fonts in Top Combinations’ chart. It provides a simple way of choosing a matching ‘heading’ and ‘body’ text combination.
5. StumbleUpon new inspirational websites
There may be hundreds of great websites but sadly it’s not always easy to find them. StumbleUpon.com makes it easy and fast to discover relevant and interesting web sites by basing recommendations on your preferences. Results can be voted up or down so the service ‘learns’ what you like, providing better results each time.
6. Get Inspiration for your next website
There are plenty of web site showcase websites but where patterntap.com differs is that the elements of a web page (footer, typography, header, navigation, sidebar etc.) are split into relevant sections. Instead of looking at websites as a whole for inspiration, simply view the sections you’re struggling with. You can then create custom ‘user sets’ of your favourites for easy access later.
7. Easily create screencasts for free
Screencast-O-Matic.com is a free browser-based screen casting service. It can be used to produce inexpensive training material, provide feedback on projects or offer personalised technical support. The resultant videos can be shared directly through Screencast-O-Matic’s own service, direct to youtube.com or downloaded as a stand-alone video file.
8. Use Windows Live Skydrive to sync and share files
Windows Live Skydrive is a free tool that allows users to upload and share files, including documents, video and photos. Microsoft Office Web apps are also integrated into Windows Live Skydrive, so you can share and collaborate with other users on Office documents. The real bonus being that even users without any version of Microsoft Office can still use the service to view and edit Microsoft Office files.
9. Find out what that Font is
Seen an attractive font you’d like to use but have no idea what it is? WhatTheFont allows you to upload an image, or point to a web address containing the font in question and then reveals the closest match. If the font avoids detection there is also a related forum where you can post the same question to humans.
10. Design according to the golden ratio
The Fibonacci sequence relates to a proportional ratio of 1 : 1.16… a ratio associated with aesthetic beauty found in art, architecture and even nature. When designing, use Phiculator to determine the golden ratio. Input any single dimension and it will present the other dimension according to Phi. There’s an online tool as well as desktop versions for both Windows and Mac computers.
11. Explore words and ideas visually
VisualThesaurus.com provides a visual way of discovering the relationships between words, ideas and their meanings. Begin with a word and then use an interactive map to explore related words and concepts from a database of over 145,000 entries. It’s a great tool for thinking laterally about a subject and its relationship to others.
12. Quickly share your screen online
It’s a familiar scenario: two or more users trying to discuss something on one person’s screen. Don’t struggle over the phone, email or using instant messages. Just use join.me instead. It’s free and doesn’t even require registration. One click allows you to share your screen securely with up to 250 people, and another allows you to view another user’s screen.
13. Access to an ever expanding list of questions and answers
Ask questions and get answers on any topic at quora.com. The content is all created, edited and organized by everyone who uses the website. Once you’ve subscribed to your interests, relevant questions and answers appear on your quora.com home page feed. Alternatively, you can opt to follow people to see their questions and answers or even follow activity on a question of interest.
14. See what you are actually writing about
Free online tools such as wordle.net and tagxedo.com create visual word clouds. Enter any text and a word cloud is produced according to the frequency each included word appears. Besides the interesting visuals, it’s a practically useful tool to highlight what you are actually writing about compared to you believe you are writing about. Tagxedo also allows direct saving to popular image formats such as JPG or PNG.
15. Take your meetings online
HP Virtual Rooms provides all the tools and functionality you need to have a business meeting or provide a presentation online. Documents can be stored in the virtual room for easy access by the attendees and tools are available for feedback including whiteboard tools and instant chat. When getting together in person isn’t possible, Virtual Rooms is arguably the next best thing.
16. Online proof feedback and approval
Get consolidated feedback and approval for creative projects with ProofHQ. If you’re part of a brand or marketing team or involved in design, print or production, ProofHQ could become your new best friend. Add any file (up to 1GB in size), invite reviewers and then allow them to annotate and comment on the proof.
17. Keep all notes in one place with OneNote
Microsoft OneNote is part of the Office suite and provides a convenient single repository for notes and research of any kind. Used alongside Microsoft Skydrive, information can be shared with anyone online. It also allows multiple users to edit notes simultaneously. To help follow changes it has versioning support, showing who made the changes and when.
18. Make yourself the limit, not your machine
Don’t hang around waiting for your system to complete tasks. Look out for systems with Intel’s flagship 2nd Generation Intel Core i7 vPro processor. They’ll rattle through graphics and data-intensive tasks faster, letting you achieve more with your time. Furthermore, the vPro models add hardware assisted security features to help prevent against viruses and malware.
19. Create fast mock-ups and wireframes
Balsamiq is a program that allows users to quickly create wireframe mock-ups by dragging and dropping common interface elements. The visuals mimic scribbled sketches so that discussions whilst using the tool can remain focused on functionality. An online version also exists for collaborative mock-ups.