Ironically, it was an engineer at EastmanKodak who developed the world’s first digital camera way back in 1975 as a side project. Yet, even though Kodak patented the technology in 1978, the company refused to develop or market the digital camera. The fear was that every digital camera sold would erode their sales of photographic film and all the related paraphernalia.
Kodak’s dogged belief that it was in the business of selling and processing film meant that the company lost sight of the reason we all take photos in the first place. Who cares about the process of taking and developing a photo once you’re sharing it with family and friends?
Kodak was really in the image and memories business. And if there is an easier way for customers to achieve their final goal – such as being able to take a photo and instantly share with others on a screen or online – rigid adherence to the wrong model or a commitment to a single technology can hide the genuine opportunities for your business.
“You need to be constantly reflecting on what you're doing and why you're doing it,” says Bernadeene Cangelosi, Director in Private Clients for PwC and a judge for both the Telstra Business Women’s Awards and the Telstra Business Awards. “The business environment changes constantly, with the impacts of social media and technology in particular. And there's always new people coming into the market with new ideas. You've got so many new start-ups and people trying to do things much quicker and more efficiently these days so it's very, very important to be constantly reassessing what you're doing so that you’re nimble and can change direction quickly.”
Identify the opportunity within your own business
When Red Robot won the Telstra Australian Capital Territory Business of the Year in 2015, it was a very different business to the one Phil Preston and Duncan Amos first imagined in 2008.
“We started as a rental company called Picme Photobooths, a company that would rent direct to weddings, parties and corporate events,” says Preston. However, Australia isn’t well known for its photobooth manufacturers, while those imported from overseas were expensive, big and cumbersome to handle. So they decided to build their own more portable and user-friendly versions.
Soon, they were supplying booths to others wanting to set up their own rental businesses. Before long, what had started as a sideline activity born out of necessity began to grow.
“At a certain point we thought we were getting more value out of the manufacturing business, rather than the rental business,” explains Preston. “The rental business was quite successful but we made an ethical decision to sell it because it didn't quite fit right with us to be supplying products to an industry and then also be operating as a competitor in that industry as well. That was a pivotal moment for us. It allowed us to focus on the projects and the innovations that we could do with Red Robot, rather than operating the rental company.”
Yet, Preston still doesn’t see Red Robot as just a manufacturer of photobooths. “What we do isn't so much selling the product. What we're actually doing is helping people get into business. That became clear to us when we were selling Picme as a going concern.”
Red Robot is defined not by what it does, not by the product, but by what it enables others to do. This understanding of the needs of their customers and the value they could provide – and the willingness to completely change direction – would help Preston and Amos build Red Robot into an award-winner.
Listening to your audience
Like Red Robot, Irene Falcone of Nourished Life also started out chasing one opportunity only to discover a very different business instead. “I just thought I would be a professional blogger. I didn't really ever intend to sell products,” she says.
Today, Nourished Life is an online retailer and shop-front supplying eco-friendly beauty products that just happens to be backed by a popular blog, rather than a blog supported by its own revenue model. In 2016, Falcone was a finalist in the Telstra Business Awards and also won the Telstra New South Wales Business Women’s Entrepreneur Award.
“I really just wanted to make a difference to myself and I thought I could share that with other women […] wanting to make shopping choices that had less of a toxic impact to the environment, to our wildlife and to our bodies.”
Over time, readers of the blog expressed frustration that Falcone was providing plenty of information on environmental issues and products to avoid without any advice on what the alternatives may be or where they may be found. This feedback caused Falcone to re-evaluate her business.
“I'd be inundated with the readers asking me what scrubs don't have microbeads in or how do I pick a different one? It was from there that I realised I needed to go and actually get the products for them.”
Rather than sticking rigidly to a business plan, Falcone’s business evolution from blog to online store a journey of discovery. “I wish I could say I did but, truth be told, I didn't write a business plan until I entered the Telstra Business Awards. I really didn't look at the business as a business properly until I entered [the first time]. It really did make me look at my business from a business perspective, and there were so many holes that I hadn't covered off.”
Falcone’s new perspective and business plan gained from the Awards process helped to turn Nourished Life into an award-winning business. Yet that successful business plan was built on her willingness to listen to her audience and respond by providing the value they were seeking – a far cry from the blog she first imagined.
Focus on customer value
“[Businesses] really need to articulate exactly what they do and the value that it provides to the people that are sourcing their services,” says Cangelosi, having read many, many submissions while judging the charities section of the Telstra Business Awards. “The entries that got my attention quicker were able to very clearly articulate the value they brought to the specific areas of the communities they supported. It allows the judges to be able to identify with that particular business quicker and helps push them through.”
Cangelosi sees this exercise as having benefits far beyond just improving Awards entries. “It helps them to understand what they do and where they can focus their attention.”
While technology may be at the heart of your business – either as a product or enabling your business model – don’t mistake it for what your business is actually about. Just as Kodak learned (almost too late), technology changes while the customer goal remains far more constant.
Meanwhile, Red Robot continues to innovate with portable photo booths not merely to build the proverbial better mousetrap but to also solve problems and better support the businesses of their customers. Irene Falcone may have first envisioned her business as a blog – defined by the technology – but the business took off when she redefined Nourished Life by the real need her audience revealed to her.
Focus on the product or technology instead of the customer and you may find your business eventually becomes as redundant as the technology you relied on. Instead, spend a little time selecting a few well-chosen words that redefine your business in terms of the customer benefits it provides.
You never know: That clear and well-articulated definition of what you do might one day help you to become an award-winning business as well.