Why It’s Time for an Innovation Revival

Helen KeenanAlthough a relative novice to the world of the entrepreneur, I have spent many years as a policy maker developing and running programmes to support and grow the UK economy. So I know the theory and now – having launched children’s clothing label Little Punk London in 2012 – I am fast learning the practical, real life experience of the business start up.

And I have to say I have mixed emotions so far – I’m staggered at how tough it is to get a new venture off the ground but equally, amazed and delighted at the response I’ve had having persevered and actually produced a product that people seem to love.

Now, there are lots of people reporting about the difficulties of financing start ups (including me!), the maze that is our regulatory system, and other red tape related obstacles so I’m not proposing to deal with those issues here – although there is much to say to policy makers like me on all of these very real issues for start ups. Rather, my focus is on the enabling factors that I believe are key to the UK turning around its economic performance in a sustainable way.

A few years ago I was Director of Innovation for the London Development Agency (back when innovation was a buzz word which Ministers bandied around, theorists wrote papers about and there were people like me with it in their job title!). Initially I found it hard to think about innovation as anything other than the domain of the creative industries and the sciences with heavy research and development functions, which made it seem somehow less relevant to all other day to day businesses. But of course, innovation is a much more pervasive and generic behaviour – applying to each and every business no matter how run of the mill because, put very simply, it’s the practice of generating novel ideas. And given the state of our economy it’s never been more important to the UK to revive the focus on innovation for day to day business… Everyone can and should be thinking of ways to improve their current service/product/offer because that’s how we stay ahead of the competition and present our customers with reasons to buy from us rather than anyone else.

Often it’s front line staff who observe what is missing/what customers want and need but don’t necessarily have the exposure to decision makers within the business to impart their wisdom. That’s why I wholeheartedly believe all companies, no matter how big, small, successful, new etc should have internal innovation schemes to encourage staff to submit ideas which are properly considered by managers in a position to act. Of course, none of this is new but it is often so much easier said than done because accepting new ideas and really implementing them involves change and – in practically every company/organisation I’ve worked for – change is something of a challenge. But this is where SMEs have the advantage, we’re nimble and fleet footed and everyone knows the boss, so change and innovation should be easiest the smaller we are.

Little Punk London is based on a novel concept (children’s clothes with fabric stickers that allow children to personalise, play with and learn through creating their own picture/writing their name etc). And when I hit real obstacles during the development/start up process it was the belief in my idea that kept me going. And it’s paid off because I’ve had a near-on universally positive response since launch from customers, press and celebrities with children. I’d say the most common bit of feedback I get about our brand is “what a clever idea”. Now of course, I need to listen to my own advice and keep innovating but it’s genuinely part of our corporate DNA and besides which, if I ever forget, my team can always wave this article at me in years to come!

By Helen Keenan, Managing Director of children’s clothing brand, Little Punk London (www.littlepunklondon.com)

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