5 ideas for innovating in your small business

By Hilary Thompson

Everyone can agree that innovation is necessary for success, and this is as true for small businesses as it is for companies like Google. But what exactly is innovation? Some TED Talks on the topic shed light on what’s required for something to be innovative, rather than just entrepreneurial. The conclusion: “Innovation goes beyond invention to solve a problem in a way that cost-effectively improves the way customers live, work or play…”

Consider that small businesses are sometimes better suited to innovate than big ones. You can move quickly, making fast decisions and changing processes within weeks or months rather than years. You have fewer people to involve and get buy-in from (sometimes just one!). And a small business can focus all its energy and effort in the direction of innovating since it often provides a niche offering. Here are five ways to innovate your small business.

Involve your staff

Just as you’ve spent time developing a strong understanding of the ins and outs of your product, so has your staff. Don’t make the mistake of thinking innovation is about one person having brilliant ideas on their own (though, of course, you may have some)—it often comes out of the process of having multiple perspectives and fresh thinking on the same old problem.

Tap into the expertise in your staff by holding brainstorming and problem-solving meetings, setting up a suggestion box, and encouraging them to share any idea, no matter how wild it seems, and having off-the-cuff chats with individual staff members to see what’s on their minds.


Inspiration comes in many forms, and there is nothing like the innovation taking place around the world to spark fresh new ideas. The creativity needed for innovation comes from making connections between seemingly disparate ideas and figuring out how to apply those connections to your own projects.

One way to do this is to expose yourself to fields seeing near-constant innovation. Alone or with your team, watch some science and technology documentaries where people push the barrier of innovation to try new things. They just may spark some ideas of your own!

Survey your customers

Although you might start out as the only expert on your product or service, over time, your customers will become experts as well. Collecting information from them, both the good and the bad, will help you innovate when you’re not sure what direction to head. Perhaps they’ve found a use for your product you hadn’t considered, which gives you a new market. Or they’ve identified a flaw that’s limiting your growth and that you can fix to drive sales up.

If you have limited time and resources, the best way to get customer feedback is through a combination of focus groups, which yield more open-ended and creative responses, and surveys, with which you can elicit information about specific questions you have. However, there are many other strategies you can use as well.

Invest in tech

If you know you need to start doing things differently but don’t know where to start, it’s time to look into the tech you’re using and what other options are out there. Tech tools have great potential for increased productivity, better analytics, and improved customer service, among other advantages.

Take your cues from the specific challenges you’re facing. For instance, if your customer service is overstressed and flagging, look into a chatbot. If your project management is operating on last-century techniques, look into Trello, Asana, or Airtable. If you need a marketing pivot, get up to speed on inbound marketing and consider using a tool like Hubspot as well as building a solid social media marketing strategy.

Collaborate with other businesses

You may see other business owners in your industry only as competitors, but working with these people, who have their own expertise on your subject matter, can prove fruitful. So can working with businesses that aren’t direct competitors—such relationships can yield new offerings and exposure to new markets.

If there’s a similar business you’ve always admired, reach out to them and ask for a casual sit-down to discuss how you do what you each do. Not all business owners will be open to this, but those who understand that every business is different and can serve a customer base in its own unique way may be interested. At the very least, learning more about how a similar company creates its offering may give you some new ideas about how to push yours forward. And working with a different type of business may lead to an innovative partnership. You do one or two things very well, and the potential for combining what you do well with what another business does well can be vast.

In the pace of today’s world, innovation isn’t just nice—it’s necessary to thrive. And though it may seem daunting, small businesses are perfectly situated to keep up with this pace. To innovate, look outside your own research and ideas and expose yourself to the widest array of perspectives possible. This creative process will help you keep your business offerings new and valuable.


Hilary Thompson is a small business owner who writes in her free time on topics from health to business, tech and parenting. She especially loves helping other small business owners pursue their dreams of success and fulfillment in their companies.


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