7 Tested Principles to Build a Culture of Innovation

It’s Small Business Week, our chance to celebrate SMBs everywhere! Growing a small business isn’t for the faint of heart; it takes brains, patience, savvy and a stomach of steel. But after nearly a decade of working with small businesses at Salesforce, I’ve learned something invaluable: innovation is what drives success. To grow and thrive, small businesses must create a culture of innovation, which isn’t an easy task. I’ve learned a lot about innovation while running the SMB marketing team at Salesforce — one of the most innovative companies around — and while my SMB education is far from over, here are 7 lessons every SMB should know.

Lesson #1: Reward new ideas.

Ideas are the sustenance of any small business, and rewarding the great ones is vital to the success of your company. Rewards can be public or private, monetary or non, coffee, donuts or vacation days, but acknowledgement is crucial. After all, when you find these creative-thinkers, you definitely want to make sure they stick around. So create a safe space to share and make it routine to reward new ideas. To create a culture of innovation is to understand that acknowledging great ideas only brings more to the table.

Lesson #2: Look for seasoned advisors.

In life, we get by with a little help from our friends. And the business world is no different. You’ve got to look for help, support and ideas from friends and colleagues, and create those same opportunities for others. The best mentors will help you learn by offering constructive criticism and sharing their knowledge with you; that way you can benefit from their experiences without having to suffer the consequences of gaining that experience firsthand. Besides, when you put two heads together (for ideas, feedback or just plain support), the real innovation comes out.

Lesson #3: Throw in something you’re passionate about.

To run a successful business, you’ve got to have market passion, or passion for what the business does. But to be fulfilled in your role, you’ve also got to throw in something more. What’s something that really matters to you? A piece of yourself you can add to the business for mutual benefit? For me, it’s helping women entrepreneurs. To that end, I’ve been hosting dinners in various cities to foster these communities. I love meeting these women and hearing their experiences, while they love making connections that can help them year-round. It’s innovation-on-the-side, and it’s a win-win.

Lesson #4: Don’t fear failure.

Failure is never a desired outcome (and we’re not talking about expensive, spectacular failures), but there’s much to be learned from it — like what went wrong, why things happen, and what you can do better next time. How you cope with failure helps define who you are and gives you the experience to do better next time. After all, if you never fail, you’re probably not trying hard enough or pushing enough limits. Do you think innovative companies like Tesla, Spotify and Snapchat got there by playing it safe? So come on: Try new things, take risks, don’t be afraid. Sometimes you have to fail in order to win big.

Lesson #5: Focus on the things that move the needle.

Not everything you do has to be a big-huge gesture with a big-huge result. In a small business, sometimes it’s best to focus on the little things that keep the business moving in the right direction. You don’t need to sell one billion cogs; start with five or ten. You don’t need to hire an army of experienced C-level personnel; start with the one you need most. Because when you move the needle — even just a little bit — you gain the energy, the traction, and the confidence to do the larger, more innovative work.

Lesson #6: Stay close to your customers.

When a small business loses a customer, it often feels personal. (What didn't we do enough of? Why don’t they want us?) Don’t let yourself be blindsided. Instead, stay close to your customers. Don’t just listen to them — hear what they’re saying. Stephen Covey says, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” and that’s no way to grow a business. Use a CRM system to know your customers. Help them understand and achieve the value of your product. Make customer retention a key corporate metric. And do everything you can to make your customers feel like family. After all, all the innovation in the world isn't worth a thing if it isn't solving customer needs.

Lesson #7: See the future.

Albert Einstein once said, “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” But small businesses don’t have that luxury. One thing I’ve seen Salesforce do really well is to see into the future. You’ve got to take a stab at what you think is coming — and start talking about it before it’s here. Plant the seed. Bring people to it and draw them in. Then once it’s here, you’re already an expert. Be bold and ahead of the trends.

Salesforce helps small businesses everywhere find more customers, win their business, and keep them happy so they can grow faster than ever. Join the conversation with #SalesforceGROW.

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