Innovation injects fun into business fundamentals
Whether it’s tactics, technology or thinking outside the box, every element feeds into innovation. They also put the fun into business fundamentals.
Sun is one of the financial industry’s most sought-after professionals. Clark is a marketing strategy consultant, professional speaker and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review.
Having an innovative strategy is important for your business. Being innovative means you’re open-minded and flexible, which is a good approach to business and life in general. Your competitors seek their best advantage. You need to be in the game as well.
“Businesses that want to stay relevant and forward-thinking will always be on the lookout for innovative business strategies,” Sun said. “It’s about listening, reading, keeping up with new concepts, technology, and what your industry and others are saying.”
Clark said people need to retain identity.
“The biggest risk facing us all is becoming a commodity,” she said. “Embracing innovation allows us to be distinctive and command a premium.”
Strategy vs. tactic
Innovation is a tactic within your overall business strategy. Thinking that way makes alignment natural. Strategy and innovation are not separate entities but one as part of the other in a grand scheme to achieve the same goals.
“Businesses have two choices — to stay reactive or proactive,” Sun said. “If you choose the latter, you’ll need to factor into your business mission the time devoted to learning and seeking innovation. It’s about staying nimble and humble.”
Innovating just to be innovating is not good.
“Sometimes people go nuts with innovation and do it for its own sake,” Clark said. “Fine for research labs, but biz must keep customers in mind.
“Also, there is such a thing as being too early — see Friendster,” she said. “Keep close watch on the marketplace. I only undertake two new goals at a time to avoid overwhelm.”
Base your business strategy on observation. Know your customers. Know how you can meet their needs. Watch what your competitors are doing. Know how you can bring better value. Yes, you can go with your gut, but your gut should be fed by observation and experience.
“You won’t know 100 percent which business strategies are perfectly situated for your business,” Sun said. “Yet, you do know — from experience and instinct — which direction you should be going.
“It’s about trying and seeing things through completion before making that firm decision,” she said.
Trial and error also come into play.
“Mostly you won’t know what biz strategies are right until you experiment,” Clark said. “So, take little bets and don’t risk too much at first. It’s critical to keep it lean and not overspend until you establish product and market fit.”
When building an email list, start with your personal contacts. They know you best and are potentially your biggest fans. Add whatever contacts you collect from networking, which includes in person and online. Be sure to include an opt out.
An email list is nothing if you don’t use it to being value to your audience. Create and distribute newsletters. Show how your innovation meets your customers’ needs. Be active. Respond to questions.
“It’s important to have a good lead magnet, not just, ‘Hey, subscribe to my list.’ We all get too many emails — thus, not appealing,” Clark said.
“This year, I’ve worked on building out an autoresponder sequence to slowly introduce new readers to me and my work,” she said, including an example of the lead magnet she developed.
“I love using ConvertKit to segment my email list so I can target people by interest and behavior,” Clark said.
Take time to listen
The best marketing investments are time and attention. Take the time to talk with people and listen to what they say. Whether you close a sale or not is one thing. Finding you can meet additional needs for them and others — through referrals — is a welcome bonus.
“Anything we’ve been consistent and committed to has been a good investment,” Sun said. “From cold-calling, to seminars, to networking, to social media, to public speaking — as long as we stuck with it and committed to it, it would work for us.
“Certainly, social media and public speaking have been our favorites,” she said.
Clark invests out and about.
“Paying to attend high-end conferences was a scary expense early on but very valuable from a marketing and networking perspective,” she said. “Per John Lim, investing time in podcasts was big for me. I did 160 interviews to promote my book, Stand Out.”
The most useful innovative business technology is brainpower. Technology makes it possible to do field underwriting for life insurance, sometimes getting approval for clients in minutes. However, it was the underwriters who thought it was good to entrust responsibility with agents.
“It’s the technology that resides between our two ears,” Sun said. “At the end of the day, the technology and tools are only as good as the person committed to using them. It’s all about taking action.”
Clark agreed that people are where it’s at.
“Tech helps me implement my biz model — ConvertKit, AppSumo, LeadPages,” she said. “But the strategy comes from interacting with people. My best insights have come from conferences and mastermind groups and seeing what colleagues are up to.”
Futures are bright for many companies. This includes those that help middle American families identify and resolve critical financial matters. Innovative programs such as getting out of debt in as little as nine years or less can help anyone.
“Our company is about bettering the lives of others,” Sun said. “We help more people become financially at peace, confident of reaching their financial goals. We share this knowledge with as many as possible.
“We also are expanding our office space, working smartly and getting more efficient with email and social media,” she said.
Clark peered into the distance.
“My vision is diversification to hasten growth and limit risk,” she said. “Up to nine income streams now, and I’m sure more to come.
“I’m also a fan of diversifying interests and using ‘20 percent’ time,” she said. “Mine is musical theater. Maybe my next chapter in 10ish years.”
Automation has increased business for some companies while simultaneously satisfying and hurting customers. While easy to get life insurance approval online, guaranteed-issue policies are expensive, based on the person being old and sick, which most people are not.
The solution to impersonal, great-sounding but high-priced offers is to persevere with in-person meetings at the kitchen table. This gives personal insights for individual cases, letting agents complete plans that suit each person’s needs and budget.
“Our industry is layered in compliance regulations,” Sun said. “We can simply work within their confinement for the time being.”
Clark puts a premium on flexibility.
“A constant and growing problem is shortening windows in which a given strategy or channel is viable,” she said. “You have to change fast.
“I am constantly scanning for channels that still have an advantage and doubling down on those such as doing Lynda.com courses,” Clark said.
Entrepreneurs might want to create a click funnel to drive sales. It’s an innovation you might not need, especially if you have a corporate headquarters that uses similar tactics. One rule of innovation to keep in mind is don’t reinvent the wheel.
“I try to keep the ‘customer journey’ in mind — making sure they’ve really gotten to know me before asking for any sales,” Clark said. “Also, it’s essential to have proper tagging so you’re not blasting people with offers they’re not interested in.”
Startup state of mind
Lately, big companies have started to apply startup tactics to business strategies, which is innovative for them.
Having a startup mindset keeps your outlook fresh. You’re less likely to get complacent and settle into a comfort zone. Startups buck the status quo. If big companies see startup tactics as a good thing, that approach should really work well for actual startups.
“It’s smart,” Sun said. “Big companies have a lot of relevant competition coming from companies a fraction of their size. The days of business as usual are no longer enough. We all need to stay nimble, and keep up with the fast changes of technology and consumer sentiment.
“It certainly gives small businesses an opportunity to get a bigger piece the success pie, too, which is exciting,” she said.
Clark said this means startups are getting innovative business solutions right.
“Startups know something big business didn’t — the power of minimum viable products and not solving everything with money,” she said.
“Startups have grown smart via forced constraints,” Clark said. “Big companies may have to artificially enforce them, but that can work.”
Social media yea or nay?
Social media can play a part in lead generation and new business development. It’s all about interaction and engagement. That can generate leads, which then develop your business.
“My motto has always been to let the community know we exist,” Sun said. “Share with others openly so that they can get to know our personality and what we do. It’s a two-way street, and we have an opportunity and responsibility to share.
“Once they know who we are — what we do — they can make a decision to reach out,” she said. “This has helped us generate many worthy new business relationships.”
Clark looks to other avenues.
“I’m not concertedly using social media for lead generation,” she said. “For me, it’s brand building. The real action happens via email list.
“The email list is where it’s at,” Clark said. “Twitter and other social media are great but are ‘rented not owned’ by you.”
If you have a business plan, you should have goals with metrics to gauge how well you meet milestones. A quarterly checklist would include those metrics from which you can score your success.
“One of the best things you can do is to have an open discussion with your team every quarter,” Sun said. “What’s working, what’s not, what do we want to focus on for the next quarter?
“You can do the same exercise with a focus group of your clients or other communities as well,” she said. “Communication goes a long way in learning what to improve on and saves you time.”
Clark cited Rita McGrath of Columbia University.
“She says most successful companies have quarterly plans, not annual plans,” Clark said. “That helps them be nimble.
“I like to break goals down into smaller pieces for the quarter,” she said. “Quarter 1 was redesign website and get our autoresponder sequence going.”
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