Garner a healthy following

As I watched the animated entrepreneur articulate about the significance of innovation for small businesses on TEDTalks, an immediate sense of contrasting opinion came over me. The speaker asserted that if businesses failed to innovate – by his definition of coming up with an entirely different product or service from the existing competition – they would likely be out of business within the next 12 months.

He went on advocating that business owners, particularly the SMEs, needed to invest time and resources in coming up with entirely new products and services in order to sustain their presence in this era of globalised economies.

The reason I found myself watching this video (if you have yet to experience this award-winning video site featuring thought leadership and global ideas, click on to was due to an email response from J.C to my last jotting. The occasional reader of this column wrote that while she understood my message, she wanted to express her believe that “innovation is not the only way for businesses to be successful.”

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“While I am an ardent admirer of innovation, I’ve never subscribed to the “innovate or die” adage as often promoted by business leaders and management gurus. A follower can do very well too,” she asserted.

Her argument indeed rings true. Over the years, we have seen countless examples of enterprises that have not displayed much, if at all any, inventive ingenuity as far as product concept is concerned, but yet went on to be successful in their own field of industries.

Walmart who brings in well over US$400 billion annually did not invent retail stores; tablet computing was first patented in 1942 long before Apple incited the fad; McDonald’s fast food-type services started way back in Ancient Rome; AirAsia was not the first budget airlines in the world; and the kopitiams blanketing us these days have been around before the birth of black-and-white television broadcast.

What these businesses have done were merely copy and follow what were already available out there and fitted themselves into the right markets using the right branding methodologies. The best personification of this is the automobile industry.

While the Germans laboured over and invented numerous car-related technologies and the Americans introduced the assembly line technique of mass production, it was the Japanese that went on to become the world’s leader in motor vehicle production by merely copying their counterparts. Today, it is the Chinese that has taken over the number one spot. Is it just me, or did anyone else notice that the Accords, Camrys, Beamers and Mercs look pretty much the same in design and shapes over the recent years?

Back in front of me on the laptop screen, the entrepreneur gestured passionately as he warned the attentive audience that companies must not merely follow what others are producing. “These followers will perish!” he declared.

If that is indeed true, then why is PapaRich seemingly popping up overnight all around us? Why millions of online users go back to Goggle each day, while the ‘innovators’ Lycos, Excite, and AltaVista have already checked themselves into the internet museum?

In her fleeting comment, J.C concluded, “Entrepreneurs can imitate what others have done but add some elements of differentiation, whether it is via improved customer services or pricing. The basic product is the same, but the way it is delivered could be different.”

I found myself nodding in agreement as most business owners do not have the financial resources to venture into costly research and development of a completely unusual product, or even to spend time educating a new market. What they could feasibly opt for is to take an original idea and make it much better.

After all AirAsia has shown that they do not need to invent planes to made travel more affordable, and PapaRich, without the need to create a new dining concept, has allowed me to indulge on a cup of hot mocha when I could not afford to step into Starbucks’ RM11.00++ price for a similar drink.

I guess Hollywood seems to understand this hypothesis particularly with its endless offerings of dreary movie sequels and prequels. Taking home more than US$100 million in ticket sales from each release, “not being original” clearly does pay well!


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