Are you looking for new ways to be creative? The good news is that you don’t have to be working on a top-secret technological breakthrough to do so.
Consider Peloton, an at-home exercise company whose November sales increased by 232 percent, far exceeding the company’s (or anyone’s) expectations. Intense cycling workouts aren’t new (see, for example, Soul Cycle), and neither is working up a sweat at home. However, when you combine the two during a pandemic when millions of people were newly homebound and desperate for endorphins, you get an exercise phenomenon—despite Peloton’s lousy press at the end of 2019. Their stock dropped 9 percent after a “tone-deaf” holiday promotion, according to some. Oh, no. But it’s safe to say they’ve recovered.
Of course, streaming technology played a role, but the real game-changer was the timing and a massive demographic shift. According to Harvard Business Review author Peter F. Drucker, a demographic change is one of several unexpected places where entrepreneurs can find their next big idea. Here’s a closer look at a few of them, including one that led to the launch of my company’s most recent product.
1. Demographic changes
A population with a significant change, such as suddenly becoming WFH, can be a quick win for generating innovation. “The innovation opportunities made possible by changes in the number of people—and in their age distribution, education, occupations, and geographic location,” writes Drucker, “are among the most rewarding and least risky of entrepreneurial pursuits.”
As a result of those changes, new desires and needs emerge and opportunities to meet them without having to invest heavily in developing new technology. Take, for example, the urban flight that has occurred since the Covid-19 pandemic. Residents were fleeing to the country and suburbs in 2020, according to the New York Times. On the first day, one Hudson Valley home had 14 showings and received four all-cash bids. Other properties received site-unseen offers as well.
Consider the potential for opportunities: services or products that these former city dwellers may require on their journey — whether to find a new rental or buy a home or adjust to their new rural lifestyle. I’ll leave the brainstorming to you, but there are plenty of possibilities.
Demographic shifts always provide opportunities for new ideas.
2. Changes in perception
If you notice a shift in people’s perceptions in one area, you’re probably looking for innovation elsewhere. Continuing with the previous example, young professionals flocked to cities, believing that being close to industry hubs and financial centers was critical to their career advancement. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that an urban zip code isn’t necessary for many people to have a successful career. Many people have begun to focus on the drawbacks of living in more densely populated, low-cost cities.
Slack, Zoom, and other companies have benefited from these shifting perceptions by allowing people to work from anywhere. (Brain.fm, a music tool that uses scientific data to create “strong neural phase-locking” — music that essentially helps you do whatever you need to do — is a new favorite of mine for working remotely, especially when my two young children are at home.)
Take, for example, the healthcare industry. We’re living longer than ever before, but the quest for health and wellness appears to be just getting started. “Rather than rejoicing in great improvements in health, Americans appear to be emphasizing how far they are still from immortality,” writes Drucker. Every day, it seems like a new invention promises to improve our lives: from plant-based meat alternatives to gut-friendly elixirs to CBD snacks and infrared light therapy. It is no longer sufficient to live longer.
Keep an eye out for shifts in perception from half-full to full, or vice versa, and you might discover a new way to innovate.
3. Seeming incongruities
We can become so accustomed to the old way of doing things that we miss pain points, such as when something is more challenging or slower than it should be.
For example, online shoe shopping appeared to offer customers a more convenient purchasing option at first: they could avoid the drive to the mall, the store lines, and so on. However, the concept took a long time to catch on. According to GQ:
However, the late Zappos CEO came up with a simple yet revolutionary idea that catapulted the industry (and his company) to new heights: free shipping and returns. Other shoe and apparel companies had taken for granted the disadvantages that Hseih had eliminated.
Take, for example, spreadsheets, which almost every entrepreneur uses daily. They may make business easier, but they were for a long time more inconvenient than they needed to be, especially when it came to sharing non-numerical data such as names, dates, file attachments, and other such items. You had to use another program to share data that didn’t fit neatly into columns. That’s why my team spent three years creating JotForm Tables: collecting and organizing all types of data collected from online forms in one place.
The old method may be adequate, but there may be a better option. Look for areas where your company or industry may be avoiding or overlooking pain points.
4. Unexpected failures and successes
You’ve probably heard Wrigley’s origin story: the Chicago-based company started out selling soap and baking soda, only to discover that the free packs of chewing gum that came with them were even more popular than the products themselves. In response to this unexpected success, they restructured their entire company.
“Unexpected successes and failures are such productive sources of innovation opportunities,” writes Drucker, “because most businesses dismiss, disregard, and even resent them.”
Instead of dismissing unexpected events, we might discover a way to innovate that differs from our original vision — but is exactly what our customers require, which, I would argue, is an entrepreneur’s number one concern.