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“In Dubai, it is as if we are living inside a metaverse, and although I had come for only 12 days on my first trip here, it did not take me long to understand that Dubai will become the next Silicon Valley,” says Shadman Sakib, founder of Vurse, a Dubai-based venture developing cutting-edge technologies. “I knew that this should become my life, so I set up my company in Dubai in December 2021.” And just like that, Sakib turned Dubai from a vacation destination into a base for his future life and business activities.

Vurse
Shadman Sakib, Founder, Vurse

It was thus from his office in the Emirate that Sakib and I engaged in a conversation about what he has got up to with Vurse, and quite quickly I realize that he is the type of an entrepreneur who talks about his plans only in whispers, and then lets them speak for themselves when they materialize in the real world. But it is also clear that Sakib believes that he is working on something that’s set to make its impact felt -in a big way- on the world at large, and, as such, the rest of us can get ready for that celebratory moment by learning as much about Vurse as we can at the moment.

Vurse currently counts 35 people as team members and Sakib aims to grow it into having a 5,000 – strong team in Dubai over the next five years. His Dubai-focused plans have been boosted also by the announcement of the Dubai Metaverse Strategy, which is designed to ensure that the contribution of the metaverse sector to the Emirate’s economy increases to US$4 billion by 2030. “Because Dubai is already known for its beautiful infrastructure, I think it’s time for it to be known for its digital vision and cutting edge deep-tech sector too,” Sakib says.

The Emirate’s history seems to have also inspired Sakib’s philosophy for his business, in that he is eager to give it strong foundations that are expected to both empower and uphold its digital development in the future. This is especially evident through Sakib’s choice to simultaneously work on the three verticals of Vurse, which include an interactive short video platform, a blockchain-based ecosystem for content creators, and a Vurse metaverse. Starting with the Vurse short video platform, Sakib says that its key differentiator lies in the fact that it is not focused on user consumption, but user interaction. “One of our key drivers is to enable young people to make smarter choices in the way they interact with and consume content,” he says. “What I see today is that people’s consumption of social media is not correlated with the quality of the content or the value they can drive out of their time on it. With Vurse, we’re also trying to enhance the creators’ experience by supporting them in producing content that is intellectually stimulating, entertaining, and driving economic value. Once that happens, consumption will happen organically.”

Source: Vurse

Meanwhile, for Vurse’s blockchain arm, Sakib has walked an extra mile in order to make a shift in the content creator economy. “Leveraging the blockchain technology, we are decentralizing the core foundation that exists for content creators, because we believe that they are the future driver of marketing,” he explains. “So, what we’re trying to do is to use technologies like Web3 and blockchain to enhance the interaction with the content they create and the transparency around the economies of VURSE community and hence the overall experience. We believe that they will feel the excitement and motivation to do what they do.”

Last but not the least are Sakib’s plans to build a completely new and independent metaverse for the Vurse community and essentially the world. “Since the metaverse is like the future version of the internet, I believe that this is where the entire world is going to shift to eventually, and so, we’re building our own ecosystem,” he says. “So, once that happens, not even the sky is the limit. At Vurse, we are very excited to see where we’ll go.”

Related: Anamcara Capital General Partner Annelie Ajami Has Big Dreams For Her Venture Capital Firm (And For The Startups It Supports)

At this point, it becomes clear why Sakib will need to hire thousands of skilled tech talents to work on his three grandiose projects, but that in itself sounds as a task hard enough, keeping in mind the current state of the blockchain technology. “People who work with this technology and have gathered experience that matters are actually very few,” Sakib agrees. “For Vurse, we brought people from 12 countries here to Dubai to complement our global team. At the same time, we maintain a fun and open culture. We are all fun-loving, so we try to keep our work and entertainment all in one place, and that helps with recruiting the best. And for other entrepreneurs also seeking to recruit such talent, my advice would be to make sure you present your vision to them, and if they are aligned with that, they will jump on board, because the most talented people in the world are never actually driven by monetary factors.”

Sakib’s plans for his enterprise have also recently got a shot in the arm thanks to investors who did not hesitate to put their funds into Vurse. “We recently closed one funding round, where we invested ourselves, along with other institutional investors who previously invested in other decentralized technology platforms and reputed companies,” he says. “For our next round, we aim to raise US$1 billion, because our plan is to grow as quickly as possible, blossom as fast as possible, and show people something that will wow their mind.”

Source: Vurse

Sakib adds here that raising funds, according to him, is all about maintaining relationships. “The best way to raise funds is not to work on raising it at all, so don’t ask for money, but instead, show your vision, and motivate the investors, because, at the end of the day, investors are people like you and me, and they would also like to understand what the vision is,” he says. “Most importantly, when you want to build a company at a global scale, you want investors who have the same mindset as you, and who hold a long-term vision, because patience goes a long way. It’s not like we can get a return on our investment tomorrow; no, it’s a long run.”

Mass blockchain adoption might follow the opposite trajectory, Sakib added, in that it will happen sooner than we expect. “Blockchain is an emerging technology, and people are getting more serious about it, because those younger generations are very tech and business savvy,” he says. “If you ask them about tokens or coins, they will give you all sorts of ideas, so I can say that adoption is happening at a very rapid pace and will accelerate even more.” The missing part, according to Sakib, is creating blockchain technology solutions “that can be used even by a five-year-old, and that can be explained in like two sentences, literally.”

But Sakib adds that he believes this will happen sooner than later. “We are coming closer to this and that is why, in my opinion, this period is a great time to invest. Let’s not look at what happened before, but let’s look at what’s going to happen in the future, because that’s where we are going to live,” Sakib concludes.

‘Trep Talk: Vurse founder Shadman Sakib’s tips for entrepreneurs

BUILD THE UNBUILDABLE “Try to build something that’s like impossible to build.”

PATIENCE IS KEY “Play the long game, not the short game.”

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THE BEST “Hire in a way that the next one is better than the last one, but build a family.”

Related: Shooting For The Moon: Carl Runefelt, Founder, The Moon Group

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The only constant in life is change, as the old adage goes. And those who fail to adapt and change, risk becoming stagnant, and then, eventually, obsolete.

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Businesses that have found their success have often done so due to their entrepreneurial spirit. Yet, many successful businesses tend to lose that spirit as they grow larger. Companies must not rest on their laurels, but they should instead recognize that the key to continuing growth is maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit that has fueled their growth into the large, successful organizations we see today.

And this is where the intrapreneur comes to the fore. The importance of intrapreneurship, whereby employees exhibit entrepreneurial behaviors within larger organizations such as multinational companies, cannot be understated. While many look externally for innovation, with companies acquiring, merging, or partnering with other external entities, employers should start their search for inspiration within for a whole host of reasons.

The key to a company’s innovation is first and foremost its people. This is why an intrapreneurial culture is invaluable in creating an environment where employees have the space to be creative and develop their ideas, which leads to the development of new products and services. It also helps cut time to market as intrapreneurs, much like entrepreneurs, focus on minimizing cost and risk, whilst developing a minimum viable product. Through this innovation, intrapreneurship helps companies gain a competitive advantage. Not only are intrapreneurs bringing new products and services to market, but they are also pushing the company outside of its comfort zone, identifying opportunities and risks, and taking advantage of them.

Related: Seven Ways To Foster Innovation In Your Company

Intrapreneurship can also be key to attracting, recruiting, and retaining talent. The reopening of economies across the world as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed a historic shortage of talent, with three-quarters of companies reporting difficulties in hiring the right talent –a 16-year high– according to the ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey. Large companies in particular are finding it challenging to attract, recruit, and retain talent, and offering innovative ways to work, including significantly increased global remote working options.

Fostering a workplace culture where intrapreneurship is cultivated can serve to overcome this challenge. Such a culture can attract top entrepreneurial talent who can realize their ambitions within the structured setup of an established large business. Intrapreneurship empowers employees to take ownership of their work, providing them with meaningful experiences, and room to create and innovate. It gives employees opportunities to learn and grow, developing the necessary skills to become the next generation of leaders. And in so doing, companies can retain talent, as employees who enjoy their work and have opportunities for career progression are much less likely to leave. Creating an intrapreneurial mindset can also make a company culture even richer in ideas and diversity. Intrapreneurs will develop highly productive and engaged teams which in turn help the company to grow. As success stories emerge, employees will feel motivated and valued, boosting morale and wellbeing.

Multinational companies are increasingly expected to find the leaders of tomorrow from within their own ranks, whilst expecting them to be ready to face an evolving business landscape. Welcoming internal innovation with open arms unlocks a competitive advantage inaccessible to the competition. Is this our best opportunity to continuously drive positive change for people, planet, and, of course, profit, and enabling an agility in business systems not seen before? The value created by our own intrapreneurs is immeasurable, but one can rest assured that we will be able to appreciate it in the years to come.

Related: Igniting Innovation: Spearheading Intrapreneurship In Organizations

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Perhaps one of the greatest revelations amid the pandemic is that when it comes to innovation, no entity or individual can truly go it alone. Strategic alliances are fundamental to building a well-executed innovation model that disrupts the status quo in the ecosystem. COVID-19 also showcases how technology is transforming established corporates, propelling nimble startups to pivot and spurring academia to adapt to change in such complex and unpredictable times.

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It is my belief that impactful innovation can be achieved only if ecosystem stakeholders play to each other’s strengths and remain flexible while building their long-term competitive advantage. For example, The Microsoft Partner Ecosystem aims to collaborate with multiple partners to provide innovative solutions to specific challenges. The tech behemoth collaborates with device partners and independent software vendors, among others, to mutually seize new opportunities and provide partners access to resources to scale their businesses. In the era of the pandemic, Microsoft’s partner program addresses the needs of consumers who are working and learning remotely.

This is just one illustration of how key players in an ecosystem can mutually reap the benefits of a collaborative approach to innovation. Partnerships can take several forms, such as startup-corporate; academia-startup; corporate-government, venture capitalist-startup, corporate-corporate and so on.

Choosing the right innovation partner

In my view, it’s important to be aware of the type of innovation leaders seek to pursue. This decision is directly linked to identifying the right innovation partner in the rapidly evolving business climate. Since innovation cannot exist in silos, we see a widespread trend towards forging external partnerships for reasons such as boosting a company’s R&D efforts. This is primarily true for large corporates as their external partnerships are also driven by the need to explore avenues for venture capital investments. They partner with startups to access new technology and stay on top of the innovation game. Startups seek corporate partners for funding, access to new markets and resources, and onboarding new customers.

A holistic approach to collaborations is fundamental to creating a ‘one ecosystem’.

Creating pathways for innovation partnerships

According to an in-depth multi-year study on The Eight Essentials of Innovation, the business of innovation is definitely fraught with risk. Organizations should strive to handle risks rather than eliminate them from their growth strategy. Business leaders must identify pockets of opportunities that are certain to achieve financial growth objectives. Partnership models to promote innovation should not be ad hoc and poorly coordinated. If innovation has to be consistent, ecosystem stakeholders should recognize the value innovation management brings to implementing a robust exchange of new ideas among stakeholders.

I would urge innovation leaders to tread carefully when forging alliances with foreign collaborators. The international ecosystem is complex to navigate and stakeholders would need to overcome hurdles in the areas of cultural, legal and institutional differences. The digital era demands consistent innovation efforts across the corporate, startup and government landscape. This implies that the days of incremental innovation are behind us. Therefore, stakeholders should usher in best practices in collaborative innovation by improving the infrastructure landscape across geographies and driving public-private partnerships.

Crucially, innovation-focused partnerships require adequate preparation and a deep understanding of the regulatory landscape. Stakeholders should also be prepared to change their mindset to explore unique partnership models that will enable them to reinvent their business, if the need arises. For example, automobile major Ford Motor Company, self-driving technology startup Argo AI and retail giant Walmart have partnered to launch an autonomous vehicle delivery service at scale across urban markets in America. The collaboration draws on the existing strengths and capabilities of the individual entities.

Organizations seeking to become pioneers in game-changing innovation must foster a culture that encourages early planning and ideation. They should have strategic clarity on the value they want to derive from these partnerships. Thus, leaders must evaluate their strategic partnership decisions to consider whether it will catapult them to the next frontier of innovation or hold them back. Slow processes within corporates, red-tapism in the government machinery or hurried decisions implemented by ‘impatient to grow’ startups are some of the reasons that could impede the pace of innovation.

Thus, the entire ecosystem must work together as one to make the processes more efficient. Stakeholders must develop a winning mindset to form a successful innovation partnership. If innovation through cross-functional collaboration has to thrive, potential partners must continuously refine ideas and support each other’s innovation goals.

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“We are focusing on something else right now.”

“We already focus on innovation, but we call it something else.”

“We already have a strategy for innovation.”

“That’s not my job.”

While challenges for companies vary, excuses for a lack of innovation are always surprisingly similar. Below are three everyday excuses you may hear in your own organization that may make your hairs stand on end, and set alarm-bells ringing.

Included are some tips on how you can make excuses a thing of the past, while creating real innovation for the future.

“It’s not my job”

Try asking some of your colleagues who they think is responsible for innovation in the company. Bewildered answers can range from the development department to production, or marketing to senior management.

The only thing most people agree on is that innovation is not their job, let alone something they should prioritize. Someone else takes care of it.

You may have approached the sales team whose only task is to sell what the production team makes.

But go to the production department and they say they’re fighting hard to keep up with the long list of demands that the development department sends them.

Visit the development department and the vicious cycle is complete when it is explained that the sales team is constantly coming up with new demands.

The buck is passed around, from one department to another. It quickly becomes clear that these departments are siloed and don’t “do’ innovation.

Equally, part of the challenge is to understand what an innovation is.

In my book Listen Louder I highlight, among other things, how we need to take a more critical look at our readiness for change.

“Readiness’ is a bad concept, especially when talking about innovation. Being “ready’ means waiting for something to happen.

So by being “ready for change’, paradoxically, we put ourselves in a situation where we are waiting for a development to come to us. By then, it could be too late to capitalize on its full potential.

We should not simply “be ready’. We should be driving and “going to’ the change ourselves.

Innovation is therefore something that depends not on one person, or even one department. It is an institutional culture which needs to permeate all levels, where an entire organization has an innovative mind-set every day.

Established companies can learn from the startup culture, where innovation is a necessity for survival and provides the driving force among startup entrepreneurs.

Startups usually start by researching their business model. It is an innovative process where they try to create sufficient value that others will pay money for.

They search for a problem worth solving, meaning they become less focused on the product and more focused on the problems. This requires a much broader view compared to more established organizations.

How to get started:

Accept that your organization needs to focus on the four essential pillars of innovation: creativity – including the ability to experiment, a strong feedback culture, an incentive to change the status quo and the ability to revise and scale. Ways to achieve this can include:

  • Creating internal “solution days’, where the path to a given goal is rewarded rather than simply achieving the goal;
  • Starting a monthly “Friday bar for innovation’ where all the employees who are interested in innovation and new ideas can meet and talk;
  • Creating an internal blog or newsletter that shares intern experiments, the effects of them, as well as thoughts on groundbreaking innovation happening in the world.

Related: How a Diverse Team Brings More Creativity and Engagement to Your Business

“Management is best at evaluating the potential of new ideas.”

It’s not the number of ideas that make a company more successful, but the right ideas. Unfortunately it’s difficult to know when an idea is good or not, and as people we are generally not great at judging this. Just have a look at this collection of 25 meaningless inventions, including diet water and a gasoline-powered flashlight…

It is understandable that top management, the people who have successfully worked to understand the market, believe it is their responsibility to pick and choose the ideas that they think will bring the company future success.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. The world is too complex, the needs of customers change regularly and competition is too difficult for even the most brilliant minds on the board of directors to be able to predict the future alone.

Since we can’t predict the future, the trick is to kill bad ideas quickly. In the context of “Lean Startup’, we speak about how companies must “fail often, fail fast and fail cheap’. The companies who test their idea by experimenting in the market, gain faster and cheaper feedback than companies that sit behind a desk and try to predict what will happen.

How to get started:

  • Identify outdated products and experiment to bring them new life;
  • Identify concerns about new initiatives and do tests on them that can help confirm or dismiss any weaknesses;
  • Use experiments to gather proof of what works, then it will be easier to convince any reluctant boss who needs to back up the change.

Related: 4 Ways to Drive Internal Innovation and Unleash Employees’ Entrepreneurial Side

“We already know what our client wants!”

Over time, companies build up a special understanding of their clients. This understanding is based on a number of assumptions and beliefs that all too often are not updated or remain unchallenged. Instead, they could become insights that are no longer supported by the reality of the market.

Market studies often confirm and reinforce what you already know, instead of testing the assumptions to reject them or confirm them.

We are good at categorizing our existing clients, for example by demographics, but at the same time we are bad at understanding what motivates or inspires them.

It gets worse. In a strong, siloed company, people often work without keeping the client in mind. Employees focus on their own tasks, because that is how their performance is measured, instead of working to create value for their clients.

The core of “Lean Innovation’ is to understand a client’s problem. By utilizing the “design thinking process’ to better understand customers, employees learn more about a client’s needs and desires.

How to get started:

  • Listen to your new employees when they ask why something is done in a certain way. It is an opportunity to see things from a new perspective;
  • Observe your customers in the natural way they interact with your company (for example: if you sell to restaurants, ask permission to go undercover as a waiter for your customers);
  • Practice your role so you don’t miss something and let it fall through the cracks. Approach the conversations you have this week by talking with your clients about their problems without mentioning your product. Just listen, ask questions and listen some more until you get under the skin of your clients and understand what really drives them.

Related: Jason Hall on Why Every Client Will Doubt You (and What to Do About It

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Why would the Department of Defense invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars into developing futuristic technologies then license these discoveries to American startups?

In short, American innovation holds the key to sustained peace and unlocks tremendous opportunities for prosperity when entrepreneurs can commercialize dual-use technologies for societal benefit. Harnessing scientific breakthroughs is the reason America prevailed in previous wars. Advancing new technology startups not only drives economic development but may also play a pivotal role in supporting defense initiatives.

Radar is a great example of a technology that changed the tide of World War II. Applying radio detection and ranging helped American and Allied forces identify threats earlier and prepare an offensive position to protect our troops. Radar technology had been developed and deployed, but the warnings were unfortunately ignored before the attack on Pearl Harbor which could have saved many lives.

Related: Cyber Security Becoming a Critical Component Of National Security

Making the leap from university to national security

As an undergraduate, I was inspired by my grandmother’s stories and decided to chase a dream to attend the University of Hawaii to study innovation and entrepreneurship. My grandmother became a widow and single mother when she lost her husband in the attack on Pearl Harbor. She remarried when she met my grandfather upon his return from war in Europe, where he fought as a first-generation American, in areas his ancestors had defended generations earlier.

Her stories manifested into a journey thousands of miles from Missouri to Hawaii and all began with the belief that anything was possible if I was willing to work to achieve it. This philosophy may resonate with many entrepreneurs as it is the dedication to our dreams that makes them become a reality. We rarely know where we will go but we must be willing to think big, believe and take that first step towards our future.

When the opportunity to interact with the Department of Defense and the National Security Innovation Network was shared in the entrepreneurship center, I immediately jumped to seize this dream scenario. Seeing what most Americans would assume is Top Secret tech was too great to pass up and the idea of licensing and developing deep tech, supported by the DoD, presented an opportunity I never knew existed.

The Defense Innovation Accelerator powered by FedTech, now called Foundry, was my first introduction to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN).

Related: Recalibrating National Security To Improve Cybersecurity

The power of the network

NSIN is a DoD innovation office structured under the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering that connects priorities of DoD mission partners with talent and technology in the private sector and academia. This organization opened my eyes to the potential of dual-use technologies through a connected problem-solving network.

I was matched with a tremendous cofounder and former Marine, who shared my excitement for energy accessibility and the potential that it unlocked. Together we built a wireless power startup virtually during the pandemic, utilizing intellectual property developed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division. These connections at NSWC Crane opened doors to a career in defense innovation and a new network in national security.

It is now my honor to serve my country through innovation and entrepreneurship as the National Security Innovation Network University Program Director at Washington University in St. Louis. As a contractor with GXM Consulting, I have the privilege to contribute to the amazing GXM and NSIN teams, and serve an institution where I previously worked as the associate director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.

Creating cutting-edge technologies is vital to success, but a network must be established for the adoption and utilization of any innovation. The lessons learned from World War II technologies still apply over eighty years later as the DoD must prepare for the future.

Inventions and demonstrations will not win the war.

Equipping entrepreneurs with the tech to establish nontraditional startups, investing significant funding to research and development, then supporting the transition of the most promising startup technologies will be the key to maintaining America’s scientific superiority.

Serving your country by building a tech startup, licensing defense-funded innovations, and presenting solutions to national security challenges are opportunities that every entrepreneur should seize. America is in a new space race and will need significant investments in science and technology to win multi-domain operations across land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. This elevates the stakes and makes the opportunity to work in national security even more interesting and impactful.

Related: Cyber Security Becoming a Critical Component Of National Security

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Determining when and how to evolve is a question every founder confronts in the course of running their business. Stray from your core offering too much — like Colgate did in the ‘80s with its doomed frozen dinners — and you risk irreparable harm to your brand. Don’t change anything, and risk becoming obsolete (see: Blockbuster, Dell, Sun Microsystems). 

There is no silver bullet for figuring out how to evolve your company. But there are ways to think strategically about what sort of growth makes sense, and the impact it will have across your organization. 

Related: Change Is Not Enough — We Must Evolve

Make data-driven decisions

It should go without saying that any major decisions made should have data to back them up. But it isn’t always as obvious as it should be. 

The core offering of my company is online forms. Our data shows that our forms get approximately 160 million views each month, with about 28 million forms being submitted each month. 

Given how many people use our forms, it would make sense that much of our operations would be dedicated to improving them. But until recently, we haven’t actually paid as much attention to our forms. Instead, we were concentrating on evolving our form builder and creating useful tools like our PDF editor and workflow builder. This is largely because our customers — the people who buy our product — benefit from these tools. 

But according to our data, our form builder is accessed only a fraction as often as our forms themselves — 1.1 million times per month, to be exact. With this in mind, we’ve been focusing more on the experience of using the forms: updating the design, improving the form fields and thinking about tools that will make our end-users’ lives easier. By making upgrades that reach the largest number of people, even modest tweaks will have an outsized impact. 

This was an important lesson to learn. And had we not compiled and analyzed the data, we might never have noticed this blind spot. Instead, we would have spun our wheels working on something that wouldn’t have the same returns. 

Related: Don’t Drown in Your Convictions: How to Let Your Ideals Evolve …

Have an innovation strategy

Organizations may be a single entity, but they are composed of several different parts, from marketing to finance to operations. A good innovation strategy involves aligning all of these moving parts under a clear objective, Harvard Business School’s Gary P. Pisano points out. But even though companies regularly define their strategies, they are much less likely to map out how to align their innovation efforts with their business strategies. 

Without an innovation strategy, Pisano writes, “different parts of an organization can easily wind up pursuing conflicting priorities — even if there’s a clear business strategy.” 

Pisano continues, “Diverse perspectives are critical to successful innovation. But without a strategy to integrate and align those perspectives around common priorities, the power of diversity is blunted or, worse, becomes self-defeating.” 

Mapping a successful strategy requires a clear understanding of what specific objectives will help the company, and should answer these three questions: 

1. How will innovation create value for potential customers?

Value can be created in many ways. But a crucial part of innovation strategy is deciding what type of value you’re creating and sticking with it. Apple, for instance, is known for making products that are easy to use and offer a seamless experience across its range of devices. Therefore, its focus is consistently on integrated hardware-software development, proprietary operating systems and design. 

2. How will the company capture a share of the value its innovations generate?

Innovations are quick to spawn copycats. As such, companies need to think about what they can offer — be it complementary assets, capabilities, products or services — that will keep customers from turning to competitors. Continually investing in innovation is one way to do that. 

3. What types of innovations will allow the company to create and capture value, and what resources should each type receive?

Technological innovation creates both economic value and competitive advantage. But Pisano notes that companies like Netflix, Uber and LinkedIn found success not through technology per se, but because they mastered the art of business model innovation. When considering innovation opportunities, companies need to decide how to balance the two. 

Get input

While it’s important to follow your own vision, evolving your company will inevitably involve getting a range of perspectives. Starting with your customers, what do they want from your product? 

It turns out that even though most large companies gather ample data on the people who buy and use their goods, most don’t actually understand their needs. One survey from Bain asked respondents to identify capabilities that would trigger a new wave of growth. At the top of the list? Capabilities to better understand core customers. These insights can be invaluable when it comes to figuring out how your offerings should evolve.  

Customers, of course, aren’t the only stakeholders whose input you should seek. Ask your team about their ideas, and really listen. If you find no one is speaking up, make sure that everyone clearly understands the company’s overall objective. Employees who are on board with the organization’s goals are more dedicated to its success, and will have more suggestions for how to move forward. 

Finally, keep an eye on your competitors, and stay on top of current trends and changes to your industry. This doesn’t mean you should be chasing the latest fad or totally reshaping your business on a passing whim. It does, however, mean being aware of the markets and what innovations are coming down the pike. We all know companies who got too comfortable with their success — Nokia, Blackberry and Yahoo, to name just a few — and became obsolete just a few years after hitting their peak. 

Change is scary, because success is never guaranteed. Stagnation, though, is a surefire way to fail. By making decisions informed by data, having a clear innovation strategy and seeking input from key stakeholders, you’ll be well-positioned to successfully evolve. 

Related: Why Consumer-Facing Enterprises Need To Evolve With The …

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Figuring out how to operate profitably in a market against more profitable competitors offering similar products or services is no easy task. Charge too much and you risk losing potential clients or customers, too little and you’ll end up digging yourself into a hole that will become nearly impossible to claw out of, especially when you are already treading along thin margins.

If you already have a solid understanding of your monthly, quarterly and/or annual expenses, then you possess a clear picture of what your profit margins look like, but it’s vital to keep in mind that operating along thin margins for too long is an assured way of setting a business up for failure in the long run. Unfortunately, finding ways to broaden these margins isn’t any easier than figuring out how to compete in a market against more profitable competitors, especially when you don’t have the option of cutting costs. But there are ways that can help you compete — to create a more profitable business without having to keep its margins at the forefront of your mind.

Widen your value

Although revenue and profits are what ultimately determine a business’s ability to successfully grow, they are far from the only operational factors to consider. If you find yourself unable to widen your financial margins, begin looking to other aspects of the business that can be improved upon. In doing so, you will be able to generate additional value for customers elsewhere, and thus bolster your value proposition.

For instance, consider implementing methods that can add to the value of your customer experience (CX). According to a report published by the Temkin Group, companies with $1 billion in annual revenues stood to generate an average $823 million in additional revenue over three years by implementing even moderate improvements in CX. Ways of achieving this vary, of course, but most professionals agree that it starts with a top-down approach, beginning by empowering your employees with greater autonomy. By talking to your staff members, uncovering their own pain points and placing value in ideas they may have to better serve customers, your company’s internal culture will evolve into one rooted in award-winning CX.

Related: How the Customer Experience Affects Your Bottom Line

Additionally, consider implementing new tools like natural language processing software or chatbots fueled by artificial intelligence or machine learning into your CX strategy. Technologies like these have greatly reduced the time it takes to turn customer data into actionable insights for businesses, adding heightened, scalable and affordable tiers of personalization into every step of each customer’s journey. Because, according to Accenture, no less than 80% of customers want the brands they interact with to understand them, including their wants, needs and pain points. Similarly, research by Epsilon found that same percentage of customers were more likely to purchase from a brand when it offered custom or personalized CX.

In today’s world, personalization and customization at virtually every point of the customer journey is no longer a luxury but a necessity: your customers will expect no less from the companies or brands they do business with.

Related: How to Pick the ‘Right’ Clients and Stand Out Among the Competition

Develop new products to fill market gaps

When Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in 2007, it was met with a mix of excitement and skepticism. Few of the early critics possessed the foresight to grasp what Jobs’s innovation would mean for the tech industry, let alone the world and society as a whole. For Apple, however, it set the company on a path towards becoming the first ever trillion-dollar business, and the iPhone’s share of the global smartphone market has jumped from 3.4% in Q3 of 2007 to just over 14% by the second quarter of 2021.

New product development is crucial to any business’s longevity, especially in the face of heavy competition. Forgoing it leaves operations static rather than adaptable, and makes irrelevancy all but inevitable in ever-growing and ever-changing markets, especially when margins are thin. So it’s vital to survival that you begin (and continue) developing and launching new products that fill in market gaps.

Once again, the smartphone industry is a great example of how this is done. Companies like Samsung and Apple continue to develop and release new and improved products nearly every year, replacing older models with ones that offer a broader range of amenities and other value. This allows those companies to not only remain relevant, but capture the ongoing interest of customers while simultaneously bolstering their margins.

Regardless of what industry your business is in or what its customer market is, developing new products and otherwise fueling innovation to address both new and existing market gaps is a necessity to survival, regardless of how thin your margins might be.

Related: How Much Should I Charge for My Service?

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For anyone working in PR advisory or agency-side, our goal should be to eventually make ourselves redundant. Or, over time, reduce the retainer required for the outcomes we provide.

This isn’t a particularly popular view point within my industry, but after nearly eight years working in PR, it’s one I am willing to stand behind. Let me explain why.

Move away from measuring clippings

Related: Is Your Brand Ready for Public Relations and Press?

When I speak to startups or even corporations in a new business capacity, they tend to be looking for predefined, measurable outcomes. 15 pieces of coverage from a fundraising announcement, 10 clippings in targeted tier one and two publications for a new product release. This is understandable, and sometimes even necessary – in the startup world for example, investors may expect you to have negotiated an ambitious ROI for your marketing spend. This though, is a short-sighted approach.

Instead, think about how to create sustainable communications. This is the long-term approach whereby your comms activities become more efficient as your PR leads and marketing teams learn how to communicate on behalf of your brand, allowing spend to become more targeted and ultimately decrease your reliance on external PR advisory.

Use benchmarks and measure your improvement

Related: Look Beyond Your Industry When Benchmarking for Success

To build a sustainable communications department, you need learnings, and better that you have them fast. In addition to hiring expertise into your business, you can learn by testing your existing assumptions. If you’re a tech business, chances are you’ll already be testing assumptions about your product. You can do the same for your comms activity. By actively testing existing assumptions you can improve your own understanding of how journalists, industry bodies, readers and your customers respond to the PR work you’re doing.

Every PR campaign should be created as an experiment, with written assumptions and clear learning milestones. Pull together an outline of what you expect to happen, and then test against it – did you appeal to the right journalists – what was your response rate – what was your % success rate for pitching? Building out benchmarks to work with makes measurements possible and will allow you to see whether you are improving your efficiency and effectiveness over time.

By creating experiments and using innovation accounting to carefully measure metrics for improvement you will create a communications model that you can empirically test against. The next time you carry out a campaign, write a blog or pitch a story, you can use the data to refine your efforts, and as your company grows your communications will also share in greater efficiencies and effectiveness.

Related: Harness the Power of New Public Relations Technology

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A giant of a man towers over a smaller, weaker opponent. It’s a dramatic mismatch, where the smaller opponent is facing a seemingly inevitable pummeling. This is the classic picture depicted in the tale of David versus Goliath, but as many are aware, this story ends with an unexpected victory. The smaller, feeble-looking opponent, David, uses his slingshot and clever strategy of keeping a distance to do the impossible and bring down his far stronger opponent. 

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that this story bears important lessons for other situations where the seemingly overmatched opponent can use his or her “disadvantage” to win. I was naturally skeptical, but when I founded my own company and achieved success amid several Goliaths, I became a believer. 

Related: How to Compete With Big Corporations and Win

Here are a few key lessons to help you do the same.

Don’t fight on Goliath’s terms

Had David engaged in close-range combat (presumably like every other failed challenger), we would never have heard of him; instead, he used a slingshot. In business terms, this means challenging both the giants’ products and their business models to gain an advantage. Rethinking industry “musts” is critical for paving the path to an unexpected victory.

Disrupting the market by challenging old norms has become the core element of the success story for industry giants like Airbnb and Uber. When the market-leading accommodation providing company owns no real estate and a wildly popular transportation business owns no vehicles, it’s clear that the rules of the game are more flexible than ever.

In the PR-software market, the prevailing model was that long-term contracts were the only sustainable way to do business, and pricing was to be negotiated, not presented transparently. When it came to the product itself, the database of journalists served as the heart of the product, with large teams attentively finding and correcting information.

We achieved growth by offering more cost-effective options with flexible contracts. While larger agencies and companies — which we also serve — will often opt for many seats and preferential pricing via a long-term plan, our flexibility and SaaS pricing model allow us to provide a largely unchallenged option to neglected small-mid agencies, SMBs and freelancers. 

On the product side, we knew we couldn’t support a big team to check every contact manually, nor could we differentiate ourselves by building a database-first offering. Instead, we created a CRM-focused product, one that automated many of the most time-consuming processes for PR pros, from pitch tracking to building data-based reports; it allows us to provide a compelling offering while cutting costs.

Related: How to Compete in a Competitive Industry

Stay nimble

David’s victory hinged on slinging carefully aimed rocks that struck Goliath from a distance. It was the result of a high level of skill aimed at precisely the right area, an almost perfect metaphor for product development when facing bigger competitors. Our team is about 20 people total while competitors have teams of hundreds of programmers working on their products. That disparity has turned into a significant advantage for us thanks to having a remarkably agile team that automates the right processes and develops features that will make a difference.

Paypal shot to prominence in large part due to its skilled team, which developed ways to automate significant aspects of payment processing and risk assessment — with a modest-sized human team to make sure the algorithms got it right. Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, who were part of the original PayPal crew and have gone on to other spectacular ventures, provide a perfect example of this. A core group of agile and competent experts that makes automation the bread and potatoes and human curation the gravy brings far more value than an army of workers who have no algorithms behind them.

While it might not seem like an underdog nowadays, it’s important to remember that Paypal came on to the scene as a no-name entity competing against industry titans like MasterCard and Visa. Presumably, Paypal was at a disadvantage, but the company embraced automation to overcome it and moved more quickly with less red tape and the often conservative thinking that sidelines bloated behemoths.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Are Combining Data and Tech to Compete

Double down on your expertise

David doubled down on his slingshot skills, but it’s another concept that describes one of the greatest advantages that small companies have, the Japanese phrase “genchi genbutsu,” or “go and see for yourself.” The idea is that those who have first-hand experience are better equipped to make decisions or create. 

My personal experience was running a PR agency, and that also happens to be one of our leading sales targets. That’s no coincidence. Unlike more prominent companies chock full of MBA and management generalists, I faced the challenges I’m solving and can understand my customers’ perspectives. No number of focus groups or surveys can make up for experience, and it’s guided our product from automated reports to sharing best pitch times and open rates of journalists across the system.

In business, David doesn’t need to slay Goliath. Most markets have plenty of room for multiple players, and it’s nearly impossible for one platform to be masterful in every way. Yet, embracing the David persona and structuring your solution on your terms, staying nimble and doubling down on your expertise can produce a tremendous advantage.

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August 26, 2021 5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What is your business’s future worth?

It can be very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations that keep the doors open. The bottom line is always on your mind, making it easy to become laser-focused on what’s happening in the moment. Pressing questions take over: How is our supply chain doing? Do we have the right people? Are sales strong? These questions can make thinking about, let alone investing in, innovation feel like a luxury you can’t afford.

But here’s a reality check: Investing in innovation isn’t just about the future of your business. It’s an essential component of operations that can pay big dividends now and for years to come. My experience in prioritizing innovation has proven to be one of the best investments we’ve ever made for our restaurant brands.

Related: The Power of Innovation

Innovation is crucial to not just keep up, but to stand out 

The quick-service restaurant (QSR) industry innovates on a constant, consistent basis. In a crowded market of burgers, fries, sandwiches, salads, burritos, wings  and in our case, Cincinnati-style chili  innovation is crucial to not just keep up, but to stand out. The menu offerings, however, are just one aspect that make up a guest’s experience. There’s also speed, order accuracy, technology, quality of service, ambiance and atmosphere of your physical space, location, promotions and more. In short, numerous factors can connect customers to your brand or business; neglecting one or more of them can push them away quickly.

That’s why Gold Star Chili, one of the brands in the GSR Brands portfolio, invested more than $25 million in reimagining every element of our restaurant business and operations through the lens of the guest experience. We examined everything from kitchen equipment and layout to menu items, operations and service to ensure that we can deliver, and hopefully exceed, guest expectations in an ever-changing industry.

Our team took this extensive research and turned it into a new restaurant prototype that’s been rolling out to 70-plus locations over the past few years. We’ve seen strong results that tell us this big investment was worth it.

Remodeled restaurant locations made up 60.5% of our sales in the last fiscal quarter, but only represent 53% of locations. This innovation has been so successful that we’ve fast-tracked the pace of remodeling in partnership with franchise owners and anticipate having 80% of locations complete this process by the end of 2021.

Remodeled Gold Star franchises outperformed non-remodeled stores by 27% in 2020. Our remodeled restaurants see anywhere from 30% to 70% increase in sales post-remodel. That speaks for itself.

Related: Starting a Business? Here’s How Innovation Will Take You Ahead

Don’t overlook important aspects of innovation

This isn’t to suggest that innovation simply consists of slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls. Menu and training innovation has served us well too.

Our name is synonymous with Cincinnati-style chili, but we’re one of several brands serving this unique cuisine. We saw an opportunity to distinguish ourselves by going back to our roots and serving an expanded menu of burgers, fries and shakes that were original to the first Gold Star restaurant. This has allowed us to move past the “chili veto,” where one member of a family or group of friends might not want to have chili (likely because they just had it the meal before!), by offering other delicious, well-executed comfort-food classics.

Additionally, we introduced a new training tool  PlayerLync  to engage employees in training in a manner that fits the 21st century. Gone are the days of an outdated print manual. Now, an interactive tablet system engages employees across generations and is much more navigable to help them train and excel in all facets of the restaurant. Looking for opportunities to improve upon what is already working is innovation. Implementing training tools that engage employees in meaningful ways is innovation. When you have 70-plus restaurants in three states, consistent training is crucial to success.

We’ve taken everything we’ve learned along the way  from research to design to implementation, what worked and what didn’t  and are in the process of applying it to Tom & Chee, another brand in our portfolio. The specific tactics are different because the needs of the brand are different, but the spirit of innovation remains the same.

We elevated the brand with a new “&Crafted” restaurant concept that keeps the heart of Tom & Chee brand while elevating and streamlining to ensure we deliver an experience our guests want and deserve. New operational processes and equipment have created efficiencies and increased speed. Focusing the menu allows for improved quality, reduced costs and a better overall guest experience. The result is a revitalized Tom & Chee brand with restaurants opening in new markets, a better guest experience, and more efficient and profitable operations for franchise owners.

Regardless of industry, the same principles apply when it comes to innovation: Committing to it today can prevent regretting a lost future opportunity. Innovation can come in many forms. Instead of launching a new product, seeing how you can revamp and renew an existing one can give it a much-needed fresh feel. Your employees can be invigorated if you’re meeting their needs, which in turn will do the same for your clients or customers. Innovation can be whatever you need it to be if you are willing to invest in it.

In a world where change is the only constant, it might be a decision you cannot afford not to make. 

Related: Conscious Innovation in the Age of Millennials

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