There’s one source of innovation that is often overlooked — the users of products themselves. People and companies use products that they buy from others in their daily activities. They might not know exactly how something is made, but they know how it is used. This “user knowledge” often leads to great ideas about how to improve these products or how to substitute them with even better solutions.
This is especially relevant today. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent graduates are going to find a tough job market. And many people that used to work in companies will find themselves without a job. Applying this “user knowledge” and experience could be the key to innovation — and the start of an entrepreneurial business.
Here are five tips to unleash this possibility:
- Listen to your own needs and frustrations (and those of others) about products and services that you use.
As you listen, think about possible solutions that might be turned into product ideas. This is a classic talent of entrepreneurs. They find the gaps in current offerings and try to fill those gaps. Just listen to a few episodes of “Shark Tank.” A recent study found that more than 6% of adults engage in some form of innovative activity for the products they use. Their time, if translated into the equivalent of research & development spending by companies, would be worth millions of dollars. Here are a couple of examples: Tonal, a home gym system that attaches to a wall, was founded by a user who just could not make it to the gym with his schedule. So, he invented his own home gym. A nurse from West Orange who needed a back brace after suffering an injury invented her own. She now runs a business selling the brace, Zero Compression Back Brace. As users of many products and services, can you think of ways they might be improved? Or can you think of new products that people might need to meet the challenges of life as we cope with COVID-19? Do you think your ideas might present a business opportunity?
- Dip into your knowledge and experience about companies.
Many people that have recently lost jobs in factories or companies are taking home with them a wealth of knowledge and experience about the products and processes with which they were working. My research shows that such knowledge may also be a rich source of innovation and entrepreneurship. Maybe you have an idea of how to make a better component for the product or improve the work process with some sort of invention or new software. Or, looking back, maybe you feel that your old supplier just never understood or was not able to give you what you really needed to make your product or service perfect in the job you were doing. Could you potentially become the new supplier for companies like the one where you were working, selling new and improved products for them to buy? Or become a consultant for the old supplier, helping them to improve their products? After all, you know the user business better than suppliers that have never worked in those companies. You have user knowledge and experience that may be put to the task.
- Look for people that can help you with your ideas.
What if you have a good idea, but do not have the technical background to make a product or create a design? With so many people at home, there is a gigantic pool of talent and knowledge from which to draw upon to help you. Define the kind of help you might need, and begin to reach out through both your own network and through the internet to find potential partners. SCORE, for example, is a network of volunteer business mentors with experience in multiple fields. It offers a free service to help entrepreneurs get started and grow their businesses. Innovation is almost always a team effort, and you may be surprised about what you may find by tapping into the right channels. For all the nurses out there, there is already a community called Maker Nurse that is up and running to help you with your ideas.
- Learn the basics of launching a business.
Even if you do come up with a product, how do you start a business? You may use this time to learn the basics of starting a business and finding the finances to get you started. You can find many starter courses on entrepreneurship, running a small business, marketing, accounting, financing and the like on LinkedIn Learning, EdX and other education websites. This is probably not the best time to contact the Small Business Administration in your area, but, once the crisis passes, that is also a good source for advice and financing. Many universities in the state offer initiatives to help aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages, including certificate programs, specialized courses, pitch contests, summer bootcamps and accelerators.
- If you are still working, think about how to innovate in your jobs.
No jobs will be left untouched by the effects of the pandemic. Companies will be looking for innovative ideas to help them keep going, and to become more nimble in an age of uncertainty. Try to become the change agent in your company, or what is commonly called an “intrapreneur.” Two famous examples that illustrate this point are Post-It Notes (3M) and Gmail (Google), both of which were created by employees during free time they were given to work on side projects. Think about things you might improve as a user of both products and services in your context. If you are able to come up with a good idea, you may be able to tap into the company’s resources to get help in developing the product. The payoff might not be as great, but neither is the risk.
Pamela Adams is an associate professor in the department of management at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University. Her research focuses on the management of innovation, entrepreneurship, industry analysis and strategic marketing.