Product innovation could give your start-up a critical edge

6 min read
Brian Yanish

Many small business owners find there are advantages when it comes to being small. Product innovation is one of them.

A small business can adapt to changes in the marketplace quickly and profitably.

Depending on your industry, it takes little time or investment to invent a new version of your most popular product or service.

In addition, innovations can be tested and redesigned without the approval of multiple layers of management that a larger company may have.

What is product innovation?

Wikipedia defines it as:

“Product innovation is the creation and subsequent introduction of a good or service that is either new, or an improved version of previous goods or services.”

The last part of the definition is important to note, as many small business owners get caught up in thinking they need to develop a new product to expand the business.

Unfortunately, creating a new product can take years of research and development (R&D); for many small businesses, this can be financially unachievable.

Small businesses have as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to solve.

Related: 7 sources of R&D funding 

Where to begin?

The first and most important step is to ask questions.

Listen to your clients or customers

What are their pain points related to your product, and how can you help solve them? What do they wish someone would provide (“If only it would do this!”)?

Blue camera submersed in water
The innovation of a submersible camera was huge for photo bugs everywhere.

It may be as simple as adding a new feature to a product or service that you already offer to your customers.

Talk with your staff

Do they see opportunities that you may have overlooked?

Is there a related product or service that your competitor offers that you could improve and provide to your customers?

Review market research

Whether you do your own research or seek out studies done by reliable firms, reading through the data can help you find opportunities in your local market or product/service category.

Some helpful market research and innovation funding sites are:

  • National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) provides advice, connections, and funding to help Canadian small and medium-sized businesses increase their innovation capacity and take ideas to market.
  • Innovative Solutions Canada this government website page lists multiple programs to help Canadian businesses find funding to innovate, create and get to market.
  • Statistics Canada is a national statistical office that offers information on Canada's economy, society and environment. (Free)
  • Statista provides comparable market, industry, and country information for over 150 countries, territories, and regions. (Both free and paid plans)
  • Use Google Trends Canada, Google's database of search history, to gain insight into local, national and international market trends. This tool can provide early notice of emerging trends for products and services related to your business. (Free)
  • Government of Canada  - Innovation Canada this government website helps businesses with funding and expert advice. Check out their many programs and services designed to help businesses innovate, create jobs and grow Canada's economy.

There are also numerous provincial programs and grants offered to incentivize small businesses to innovate.

What the pandemic taught us about innovating

Now that we know what product innovation is and some resources that support it, let’s look at a few examples.

In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic started to change how many small businesses across Canada earned their income and connected with their customers.

As with many historical crises, COVID drove innovation for many small businesses.

They found a range of ways to offer new products and services to their customers.

A few examples of these are:

  • Restaurants redefining how the takeout food experience could happen for their customers. We saw some restaurants offering “prepare at-home meals” of some of their popular favourite menu items. Customers could join the chef live via a platform like Zoom or watch a pre-recorded video to see how to prepare the meal they purchased at home.
  • Another example is a small business that supplied essential oils that started to manufacture hand cleaners and other cleaning products to sell to their wholesale customers.Many breweries and distilleries did the same, using their equipment to produce hand sanitizer.
  • We also saw technological innovations by many small businesses. For example, restaurants began using QR codes, so visitors could easily access their menu without actually touching a menu handled by others. Other businesses found unique ways to instantly chat and provide support to their customers — including curb side pickup and delivery — who were now unable to visit their businesses in person.
  • Many small businesses had no choice but to have their staff work remotely. For some, this added not only new challenges but birthed new products they then offered to their customers. One example of this is growth of small businesses offering remote consulting services to their clients.

Even in my own event business RegisterationCheckin, we had to adapt quickly to the changes in the event industry. With no more in-person events, our company found new ways to produce virtual events and create engagement between attendees and speakers.

One such example was an event we produced with 13,000 teachers who attended over 600 virtual sessions. We needed a way to have teachers engage with authors from around the world, so we created a live virtual book signing.

Within the virtual conference, teachers were able to purchase books online and ask questions to the authors — all while watching the author live.


Will the innovative habits we embraced during COVID stick?

Or will we all go back to the “old ways” of doing things?

Again, history shows us that once people feel comfortable with a “new way” of doing things they are less likely to revert back.

For many small business owners, these innovations have added not only to the bottom line of their business but have also increased the efficiency of:

  • Staffing
  • Product ordering
  • Customer service

Innovate now!

Don’t wait for the next crisis to start your small business’s product innovation.

Think about that package of cookies with a new “Limited Time Flavour” that you saw the last time you were shopping. This really is a company doing product innovation. Do you think if that new flavour started to outsell all their other flavours, they would remove it from their production?

What is your business’s new flavour that you’ll be offering to your customers?

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