Your Business Idea is not Innovative If…

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Right up there with death and taxes, certainties in life, is change. I can’t think of anyone or anything that’s immune to change, rates may vary but change is inevitable. If its not improving, its deteriorating. Our language is no different especially in South Africa where we mix masala our 11 official languages (I spoke to a Ghanian friend recently who said that SA TV shows such as Generations were different to other African soapies because they were able to communicate in several different languages and not stick to one) . In line with how things change is how certain words become more popular and ambiguous thus losing their denotation. At some point the word “deep” was very popular, I would normally associate that word with a Maya Angelou poem or a book by Bessie Head but it was at the stage of having lost its meaning, “You got 90% on your exam? That’s deep man!”.

I’m anticipating, hoping and praying that LOL, ROTFL, LMAO will also fade away (no one actually “rolls on the floor laughing” and how do you “laugh your a%$ off”? do you laugh with it?). This set of slang became popular with cellphones, instant messages and the internet. Its interesting to note that with the rise of businesses that truly changed our lives like the iPod and iTunes, Mpesa, Google etc the word innovation became so much more popular. Every second startup, major company and government department refers to innovation somewhere in their mission, vision or values statement even though there is little that’s innovative about what they’re doing.

Any entrepreneur who wants to have success beyond just having a lifestyle business will need to have a innovative business idea to play globally. Its not enough for South African businesses to trade amongst themselves, its critical to create value for international consumers if we want to tackle our high unemployment and inequality rates.

You think your idea is innovative? Well its not, if…

You didn’t struggle to develop a business model

Innovative businesses go through a great deal of trial and error in order to find a business model that works. With all the uncertainty that they face, startups usually have a series of assumptions about their potential customer segment, how to deliver the product, which features matter the most etc but these assumptions need to be tested. This process is explained in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries that existing businesses execute business models while startups look for one by piloting/prototyping, getting feedback from customers and either sticking to the business model or pivoting.

So if you’re opening a spaza shop in your area, the only thing that needs to be tested is if you provide better service and price than your local filling station – no innovation there!!

You don’t have intellectual property

Intellectual property are creations of the mind that give a company a competitive advantage. They include copyrights, patents, trade marks and trade secrets.

This is definitely not the only way to prove that your concept is innovative but it is an objective indicator that your product/service is the only one of its kind and that its protected. Whether or not is worth protecting is based on whether you can monetise it.

Even if you don’t have intellectual property, at some point you will need to have something worth protecting whether its exclusive client relationships, a formula, an algorithm or at the very least, talent in order to maintain your competitive advantage and compete globally.

Recipes for Coca-Cola and KFC are great examples of exceptions. They are worth protecting but there’s a greater risk of exposure if there’s public knowledge of the patents. Such recipes are just well kept secrets.

Its Easy to Find Direct Competition

If you were in the late 19th century and had just invented the first vehicle, you would be competing with horse, donkeys and ships for long distance travellers. You may not have direct competition in the form of other car companies but you would still have your work cut out in terms of changing mindsets toward automobiles, proving that their reliable and worth the cost. The point is that competition is always there, it may not be identical but you are always trying to replace a current method. Direct competition refers to a business that provides very similar services that you provide like quitting your law job to start your own law firm in the hopes of poaching your former employer’s clients – no innovation there!!

Not having direct competition may point to something innovative and having the first mover advantage but it may also point to irrelevance of your product/service or that’s how an investor  may see it.

The sub-heading to each of these indicators is impact. What’s the point to having a product/service that is patented, has no direct competition and you’ve struggled to develop a business model over but has little or no impact?

These are my thoughts, what are your?

Nthulane Makgato

Founder and Director

Red Case





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