The Secret to Innovation (Hint: It's More than a Cool Idea)

Last Updated Jan 24, 2011 9:43 AM EST

One of the most critical issues for any business today is how to stay innovative. Perhaps no company is grappling with that question more than the Daily Grommet, an e-commerce site that showcases new, clever, stylish and useful products from entrepreneurs and inventors. And it does that by sending out daily emails containing two minute videos that makes stars of product designers.


More than a "Cool Idea" Required

Joanne Domenici, Chief Discovery Officer, is responsible for sourcing products that will cause a stir and create a following. She points out, "It's not just about cool ideas - it goes beyond that. It's about inventors who've really solved problems, about designers who know how to make something truly wonderful - but they have to be as passionate about their customers as about their products."

A grommet is a kind of metal ring - what matters about it is that it can be so useful. And the Daily Grommet has something useful every day, hence the emails. But at the heart of the business lies the founders' idea of Citizen Commerce: the notion that, since every purchase you make in effect supports a company and its values, you want to know where that support is going. Spending is like voting and you want to hear from the candidate.So those daily videos profile the inventors and designers behind today's new product offering.

This being the Internet, of course there's more to it than that. If - even after the Daily Grommet's extensive product testing - customers are dissatisfied, their feedback soon leads to its withdrawal. Similarly, when a product does well, everyone knows about it. And fans of the Grommet eagerly recommend great new inventions they've sourced themselves locally. It's grassroots marketing, trusted because all the validation comes from consumers.

Classic Grommets include:

  • LaCie 32GB flash drive that is as light and compact as your car key - and fits on a key ring. Reinforced and manufactured to a standard that means it can't be easily bent or scratched, it solves a real problem for those of us who are always short of a memory stick.
  • Or take the waterproof bags that let you use your camera or your iPod even while the gadget is inside the bag.
  • Collapsible water bottles.
  • The electric package opener that finally solves the conundrum of how to open hard plastic packaging without breaking every nail on your hands.
Solving Problems is Key

When I visited the Daily Grommet in its offices just outside of Boston, I thought I'd just find a lot of product-geeks who love shopping for cool new stuff. In fact what I found was a good deal more interesting. Because it is dealing with inventors and innovators large and small around the world, the company has a unique perspective on the heart of invention and innovation and, as such, offers great insight into what works today What, I asked CEO Jules Pieri, stood out to her?
  • "Thanks to the Chinese, the cost of invention has come right down. Protoyping now costs 90% less than it did ten years ago. I see that as the democratization of innovation. You don't have to have years of technical expertise any more. Getting an idea from your head to the drawing board to a prototype has never been easier."
  • "But," she went on, "You have to back that great idea with great service. We had one product - it was a wonderful idea - but when we had some complaints, we soon realized the company just didn't care. It wasn't even an operational problem - they just had the wrong attitude to their customers. So we dropped them. Attitude matters as much as innovation."
Which left me wondering: do we place too much emphasis on originality - and not enough on treatment of customers?
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.