Small innovations add up to big business
Published: Oct 11, 2013
When you think about innovation, do you think about Silicon Valley and technological advances and companies with big research and development budgets? Most people do, but the truth is that even the smallest businesses, from one-chair barbershops to popcorn vendors on the street, are capable of coming up with ideas that capture customers’ imaginations. When that happens, you are on your way to building a great brand.
Although it might be hard to believe now, the story of the Virgin Group is a small business that succeeded because of our team’s innovative spirit. When my friends and I started up our first business, Student magazine, we were a bunch of young hippies barely managing to scratch a living, yet we knew we had an idea for a product that people would want: A publication geared toward young people like us. I lived in a friend’s basement, and our office was based in a church crypt that a vicar let us use. We eventually turned our camaraderie and enthusiasm into a global business.
It is with this in mind that a few years ago we created the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, through which we have supported 479 entrepreneurs across 21 industries by sharing knowledge, networks and resources. We saw a real need there: The national unemployment rate hovers at 25 percent, and many of the jobless are young people. Though it is a country blessed with great natural resources and talented people, small and more established businesses are lagging behind their counterparts in countries like Brazil and China.
I was in Johannesburg recently, and as I heard pitches from many of our aspiring entrepreneurs, I was reminded of the many different ways that a small business can innovate. You don’t need a big budget: all you need is some ambition and a good idea.
Find something people want, then do it better
Miles Khubeka has created a brand with a lot of potential. He based his restaurant business on a popular (yet not trademarked) character from a beer advertisement: “Vuyo,” an aspiring everyman with a food cart who makes it big. Miles opened a restaurant based on the Vuyo’s food offerings, and he is now launching franchises in the form of Vuyo food carts, which other young entrepreneurs operate, spreading the Vuyo name. It’s an excellent idea.
There are plenty of restaurants in Johannesburg, but as Miles has shown, just because an idea isn’t completely original doesn’t mean that the business must get lost in the crowd. If your delivery is unique in some way - if customers connect with your brand, or if you offer something that other businesses don’t - your company will get noticed.
Miles’s formula is simple: He created a brand that has a local edge but wide appeal - and the food is good too!
Another great example: Simphiwe Madonsela of The Shoe Cleaning Company spotted an untapped demand for a service in an unfamiliar venue, and asked me if he could launch his business in Virgin Active, our health club business. I liked his gumption, and invited him to join us at our new health club to share his idea the following day.
Take the old and make it new again
To build a successful business, you don’t have to build a new product from scratch. I was reminded of this earlier in October when we broke the Guinness World Record for cramming people into a classic Mini Cooper. (We fit 25. We love breaking records, and the public relations boost always helps too!) The custom Mini’s design and paint job were developed by the entrepreneur Wes Boshoff. His Plastispray business reimagines a car’s look without damaging the original paint job.
If you can repurpose an existing product, or if you spot a gap in the market where brands are not offering the improvements to their products that customers would like, there is no reason why you shouldn’t step in.
Tell customers about the purpose behind your product
The roots of great brands usually feature a compelling narrative, and sharing your story right from the start can help you to win the support of your community - and their business.
An example is the story of Mmabatho Portia Morudi, who developed her interest in bees when her 87-year-old grandfather took her along on a beekeeping course. Now she is determined to help protect the bees while also building a successful business.
Her Iliju Bee Farm produces raw honey - which is a potential growth area in her country, as demand for honey in South Africa is far greater than farmers there produce. She also offers free bee pollination services to rural farmers, and educates rural communities about the importance of bees, and why they should be treated as friends, not foes.
If you are an entrepreneur running a small business, what’s your strategy for standing out from the crowd?
• Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: "Screw Business as Usual" and "Like a Virgin." He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.