August 30th, 2022, represents a landmark milestone for The Innovation Garage. Ten years in business. Ten years since stepping out into the unknown and starting something.
In contemplating what to write about for a ten-year anniversary, this article is written with a most specific intent—sharing what we are learning, and answering some FAQs about the journey. In client sessions, both in large groups and individual discussions, many attendees having been asking these questions. One of the best ways to provide the answers is to write about it.
This is a long-form reflection that also represents a celebration of effort. We are sharing outcomes of the elements contained in our ideal design and what we continue to learn each day.
Shared later in this article, you will find a top-ten list that is pressure tested in the real world, even after ten years in business. The Innovation Garage assembled this “top 10” learning list based on thousands of conversations—and hundreds of cups of coffee. Advice from close, trusted colleagues you might not know. As well as wise sages and influencers that you may have heard of at some point. In capturing this insight here, it might be that you have heard it all before. We are hopeful you will pick up some new context and insights that will be helpful.
We are sharing these learnings and backstory and what we consider True North Principles. When designing your ideal adventure, use the lessons learned as pin drops for your roadmap on your very own Hero’s Journey. Consider this a helpful traveler’s guide for your own experience. If you are looking for encouragement in finally taking that “big leap of faith” for yourself, we hope this can be used as fuel.
As we now pass this ten-year “valley of death,” it is valuable to look back for a bit. With a business model understood yet continuously evolving, it’s an excellent time to reflect and capture the immense learnings and experiences from the last ten years.
What factors led up to The Innovation Garage’s ideal design?
A few years before our founding in 2012, after much personal reflection, it was realizing that, very deep down, a self-disruption was required. A moment of complete clarity can manifest if you spend time thinking and work backwards from where you are, and visualizing about where you want to be. If you picture yourself much older than you are today, and reflecting back on your life, you can imagine the regrets you could have. This provides the fuel to be present in in the moment and be touch with want you don’t want to miss in your life.
During that process, it became increasingly clear that, at least on a professional level, exploring opportunities with others and seeking different people to connect with and collaborate was essential. It’s a feeling of knowing that something has to change, although your not exactly sure what needs to change.
During these times, an idealized redesign is a great method to apply both to the work you do, and apply to other things in daily work and life. It is an application of the burning platform concept applied to what you do. One of the best methods to reinvent and recreate is to know when you should set your own platform on fire and start something new.
A necessary part of this mindset is thinking that it’s always better to the lead and design and build opportunities with others, rather than waiting on others. Or, in the worst-case scenario, if you working as a team member as employee in an organization, having that organization do it to you. A realization that, if you actively push your boat away from traditional employment, and what can be a falsely advertised security of the corporate shore, it might actually be the more secure path.
Even today, with the world doing what it is doing, over the last few years, a new adventure always seems like a good idea. We need to continue crafting and re-creating these uncharted heroes’ journey’s. Redesigning the journey few years helps to keep life exciting. It also is essential in building up your confidence that you really are on a more secure and rewarding path.
As with anything new, there is never a “good” time, or a “right” time to start. It is important to accept this as a reality and eventually just get on with it. Starting a business at any time is an endeavor that will be fraught with peril and unknowns. And, if being truly honest, you are always concerned if it will actually work out.
It is pushing past the fear and trusting in Faith to give it a go that provides fuel for the adventure. Give it a go and see what might happen. See what may be learned along the way. Always keeping a mindset to do your best and be grateful for whatever happens.
It is necessary, too, for the experiences themselves to be authentic. Analog and not digital. Analog meaning that all the senses experience and feel it. All of it. The good and the bad. Excitement, joy, frustration, and the potential disappointment which can result with such pursuits.
Taking pencil and paper in hand and sketching your vision of what delivering value to others could look like. And being very intentional in the redesign.
Once the concept is in place, the next step may center around thinking about the business name. For us, The Innovation Garage evolution as a business name and entity was organic and unscripted. See this link to read more about our founding story.
Once the name is established, you might question if the name has any value or have uniqueness. So to test our name out, we did what designers do.
We asked some “what if” questions. We designed a low-risk experiment to test a theory and look to prove out a hypothesis.
- Step 1: What if we print up some T-shirts with the name?
- Step 2: What if we walk around someplace with a lot of people and get feedback?
- Step 3: What if the results are promising?
With a $30 investment in three t-shirts, we chose Makerfaire 2012 at The Henry Ford for the test.
What’s The Innovation Garage?
That’s a cool name.
I like that name. What do you do there?
Great Name. Are you hiring?
Cool shirt. Where can I get one?
Can I take off this shirt, now? I’m really tired of people asking me about The Innovation Garage.
Theory and hypothesis confirmed. Now what?
Up next, look to make it official. That means registering the newly tested entity name with the Secretary of State as a formal business.
As mentioned earlier, building a business should be about having cool analog experiences. Sending the paperwork in the mail just wouldn’t do. Making the drive and having the experience is recommended as part of the plan.
So, on a cloudless blue sky day in August of 2012, driving the two hours to the offices of the Secretary of State and officially filing the business name. Entering the multi-story office building near the States capitol, taking a number, and placing the paperwork in the window. After about twenty minutes, the clerk called out The Innovation Garage. Returning to the window, the clerk asked a few questions and confirmations and proceeded to stamp the paperwork officially. A loud “ca-chunk” echoed in the tiled marble room, making the name and entity official. Approved paperwork and a legit legal entity handed back.
Above all, make sure that in your design you create as many unique analog experiences as possible.
What elements are critical in designing a business for the long haul?
Playing the long game regarding a time horizon is essential too. Ask yourself, if I do this, what might the next twenty or twenty-five years look like?
If you spend any time listening to the so-called “business gurus,” they will tell you that there are just a few valleys of death in business—the one-year, two-year, and five-year mark. The statistics say that most companies will fail after three years. 50% of businesses fail after five years, and 66% yield after ten years. The average survival rate of firms with a decade or ore of business under their belts is 34.4%. So, maybe about three in ten chances of surviving beyond that. Many of the statistic indicate it will be only 25% of enterprises will last for 15 years or more.
So, why on earth would you risk starting something that, in the long run, only one in four businesses (just 25%) will ever see or experience?
You start because you want to see what will happen if you take the leap. The real payback is much more about the experiences you are having and are grateful to have. The reality is that there are multiple valleys of death. It’s your job to do your best, move through the ups and downs, and keep pressing forward. There are many ways the storms can come. It is incumbent on you to be in a position to be overly surprised by what may come.
There are three design elements we try to anchor to each day that help us to do just that. Specifically, in our design, we have three elements:
Faith, Learning, and Gratitude.
Each is an integral component of our ideal design.
Why is Faith important?
Faith, in its simplest form, is simply believing before seeing. Faith is essential because it helps give you the long-term fuel for vision. With Faith, you need to have a picture of what success looks like for you, and then you have to build it up and execute towards that vision.
When you start building something from scratch, many times you are the only person with the vision. You are the only one who can see it. It might also be very difficult to explain the vision to others. And with that somewhat unclear vision, that you cannot completely explain, many questions come along for the ride, all spinning in your head simultaneously.
Positive and affirming questions like;
- Wouldn’t it be cool to design a new adventure?
- What should the focus and vision be?
- What is the time horizon?
- What is needed to get to the ideal design?
- What could you learn as a result?
Then some more stressful questions that drive uncertainty;
- Is there really a viable end state to visualize and work backwards from?
- Will others support it?
- Will clients/customers pay for it?
- Who are the ideal clients/customers?
- What revenue will deliver profitable net margin growth?
- Will the efforts support the financial needs of those that may depend on me?
- If it fails, will those that depend on me have to live in a van by the river?
And, perhaps the most stress filled question of them all;
- What if the endeavor is really successful, then what?
The reality is that there are a million questions. And, be ready for this; you will not have immediate answers to most of those questions. There is no magic formula or solution. At best, your efforts will be wrong but useful. Wrong in that you will be making tons of mistakes. Useful, though, as you fail forward you are getting closer to your ideal design.
In another way, thinking about the importance of Faith, you can compare and contrast two common types of fear. The fear of the unknown contrasting against the fear of missing out. These two types of fear create tremendous anxiety. They are classic opposing forces that are always seem to be in tension. You are trying to determine for yourself what is the ideal ratio between those two forces.
To start something new and execute it, the fear of missing out must exceed the fear of the unknown. If you don’t want to miss out on your potential vision and benefits of the ideal design to yourself and others, your fear of missing out on that new thing will need to be greater than your fear of the unknown. Your fear of missing out on the new adventure has to exceed your comfort level with your current situation.
Each of your next-step actions towards your ideal design the energy you put into next steps will help clarify your vision’s end state. Over time this will be a helpful aid in driving down fear. And how with each experience, it continues to reinforce your Faith to continue to keep moving forward.
In every case, your Faith must transcend your fear. Daily.
Why is learning and owning your time essential?
The next part of our design includes learning and owning time as critical elements. And, in designing your adventure, make certain to include a method to own your time.
Owning your time is essential. Time is the one thing in life that you cannot manufacture. If you waste it, you will never get it back. When creating the idealized design for your life, think deeply about the concept of owning your time. Owing your time gives you time for yourself to learn and improve and make time for others. You can actively make time to learn skills and improve in the areas where you are intrinsically motivated to do so.
In rewinding the last ten years, the amount of learning and experiences on this path represent an exponential increase. An exponential increase in available time to learn, and for others, when compared to a traditional employment role in someone else’s organization.
To learn more about this concept of owning your time, seek out and be fascinated with people that do their own thing and have figured out how to own their time. Throughout your life, if you are open to it, meet with people who are marching to their own drummer. These folks are super interesting to speak with. They seem to always be on the outskirts of what everyone else is doing. Seek out these “misfits” and “outcasts” from society. Have a conversation with them. Each time you do this, you will learn how in their own way, they are owning their time.
A pastor colleague really helped drive the owning your time concept home. He made an ultimate transition. He was leaving a very comfortable and high paying IT program manager job to pastor a congregation. He gave up everything society says he should do and instead gave it up for the Lord. He owns his time. He is grateful that he can spend his time on his calling, in the best way that suits himself and in service to those around him.
Conversely, you can also learn more about owning your time from those that have chosen a more traditional employment path. We all know someone who is holding on to a job they don’t like. People who may complain about their job and how much of a time drain it is. Folks will justify the struggle in their daily job and glamorize future retirement like some “on the beach” investment fund commercial. You will hear, “If I can only get X more years in here, then I will do what I always wanted to do. “
This mindset can be its own peril. Watching parents, siblings or friends give all their time and energy to an organization, only to be left out in the cold near retirement. Perhaps due to a layoff, redundancy, or a downsizing. Or, once finally reaching the promised land of retirement, the health of that person or their spouses’ health fails. Be aware that retirement might just be a marketing construct that, for many people, delays their long-term desires of what they really want to do in life by as much as thirty or forty years.
Owning your time helps you to be present and “in the moment” with your tribe. Your tribe might be your family, work colleagues, or the team you lead. Owning your time gives you time for guiding and protecting your tribe. You are able to do everything you can to ensure their safety and growth. Owning your time helps you enable as much as possible for your tribe. Helping them to make the most significant dent in their universe that they possibly can. You teach your tribe to guard their joy as the leaders, parents, or confidants. You encourage brave and bold choices, even if there is a considerable risk of getting hurt in the process.
Owning your time will provide more value in the long haul than any amount of money.
When you start your ideal design, make sure you have a plan to own your time.
Why is Gratitude important?
The final part of what is essential in our design is Gratitude. Making sure to practice Gratitude every day. You can only connect the dots of your efforts by looking backward, not forward. This is how Gratitiude comes into the design.
There are hundreds of people and just as many experience to be grateful for. Early mentors, managers, passionate advocates and close family members. A group of people that, even to this day, continue to offer encouragement to keep moving forward.
Executive leaders who provide support and meaningful introductions to others to help the business grow. Colleagues that remembered past work experiences. Client leaders who brought us to current situations with their new teams to deliver value. Relationships and contacts who supported and advocated for us, even when we were not in room for the conversation. And a multitude of trusted advisors offering encouraging words or helping illuminate a necessary pivot we couldn’t quite see. There is a tremendous amount of Gratitude for those that have offered support and opportunities to collaborate.
When you start something, make sure you include Gratitude in your ideal design.
How has the pandemic impacted the business?
The pandemic introduced some super interesting nuances and challenges in delivering value to others. If you are on the Faith-based journey, you do your best work with what you have and try to figure it out with an abundance mindset. Flexibility will be super important in your ideal design.
Doing this work has put us in super exciting places. We have had the opportunity to see and serve many: small companies, large companies, for-profit, non-profit, government, and several support organizations of the US Military.
Geographic locations support clients, including New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Charlotte, New York, Toronto, Florida, Texas, LA, Long Beach, California, Bentonville, Arkansas, and Naval Air Stations on both coasts. Overseas travel has included Brussels, Belgium, many cities in Germany, and several other places in Europe. Sometimes with former colleagues and new relationships who eventually became clients.
Converting our content to a digital-based platform provides a fantastic opportunity to deliver value across the globe during the pandemic. Organizations in multiple regions include broadcasting, biotech, pharma, life sciences, aerospace, and military support organizations. Live remote sessions with clients in Europe, the United Kingdom, and other regions of the world.
When you start something, make sure you include the ability to be flexible in your ideal design.
What are some of the results after ten years in business?
If you are curious about results, some are tangible and others less tangible. Interesting bits of data from ten years in business have come about as follows;
Some of the tangible results;
- Working with 50+ organizations.
- Working both in person and virtually with team members on six continents.
- Training 1,000+ team members within those organizations.
- 28,325+ minutes of educational video content watched by client teams as part of consulting engagements.
- 1,000+ application assignments reviewed and commented on.
- Driving over 150,000 miles.
- Handing out over 1,000 business cards.
The less tangible, but perhaps more important in the long haul, measures:
- Having others reach out to us and ask for coaching support in starting their own adventure.
- Getting feedback and reach outs from others that met us, attended a session, and offered unsolicited and positive feedback on what they learned.
- Seeing all our client teams progressing in their individual career and team growth journeys.
- Individual contributors have become team leaders, team leaders become directors, directors progress to executive ranks and some of those individuals then progress to CXO levels within the client organization. Some move on to do great things elsewhere.
- Many of those leaders providing an unexpected note or email of thanks with something they learned even after many years since working together.
Most importantly of all, seeing and appreciating the encouragement and opportunities in life and business manifest with my wife and sons. Each now has an active role as a participant in this journey taking on meaningful roles as advisors, designers, builders, and content editors. All are highly trusted contributors in the business.
What are the biggest lessons after ten years in business?
With the back story and the critical design components of Faith, Learning, and Gratitude explained, the list below represents the top ten lessons from being in business for ten years.
- Make sure your family supports your efforts. It’s tough to build something if your significant other, children, or those closest to you don’t understand why you do what you do. A support system is critical. If not your family, make it a point to find friends or colleagues that will support your efforts and will encourage you. After ten years of business, having your family members participate in the work and offer guidance is an excellent outcome from this adventure.
- Focus on your customer experience – Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Look to drive the most meaningful experience that you possibly can.
- Relationships Matter – Build your business on relationships. Relationships will carry the day over likes and followers on the web or social media. An amazing thing happens if you build relationships this way. Your customers and clients become loyal brand advocates and will bring opportunities in the form of referrals to you.
- Trust Matters – Work with and seek out people you like to be around. People that are smarter than you. People that don’t think as you do. People you know will have your back when situations become difficult. People that will stand up for you, even if you are not in the room. If they don’t get you, and you learn that the trust in the relationship is not there, move on quickly.
- Be a missionary, not a mercenary. Do your best to avoid doing things for money as your primary motivator. This approach is definitely against the grain of what today’s society encourages. The money will follow what you do. To quote Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, “I’ll take a missionary over a mercenary any day…and most of the time, in the end, it’s the missionaries that end up making more money.” Money will be there for you if you follow this principle.
- Be in it for the long hall. Unicorns as “overnight” successes are most often sporadic events based on luck, timing and the right publicity. Unicorns get all the media attention and make the news. Most burn bright, and most burn out fast. This colors and distorts the model in our brains of what success and “making it” is supposed to be. Patience, persistence, and perseverance will win the day. We have twenty years in our plan and are only halfway there.
- Not everyone will have your best interests at heart. This concept may be difficult to understand at first. But unfortunately, very accurate. Just remember, it’s not you. You will give a lot, and may come across many takers who will look to take as much as possible. You will learn when you might need to stop giving. It is tough thing to do, but once you find your boundaries, stick to them.
- Wait for the wave. Don’t try catching it. Just like in surfing, it’s the same in business. It is best to position yourself to see good things as they catch up to you. The patience to position yourself for trends and opportunities is a terrific strategy.
- Be in the moment. Find the headspace for being in the moment. You’ll be up, and you’ll be down. Sometimes on the same day, and sometimes changing hour by hour. Learn to embrace those visitors of fear and discouragement in your brain as they come in. They won’t be around for long.
- This, too, shall pass – You think you are on top of everything? No stress at all. It will change. Have an epic failure? It will change. These will be the moments in which your anxiety will peak. It will pass. There will also be super quiet and reflective times where all will be calm and right with the world. Just remember this, too, shall pass.
Most creatives like musicians, entertainers, designers or educators are, in their own way, striving to design and provide a great user experience. And by participating, the designer is hopeful that the user truly learns and gains a meaningful outcome from the experience. This too, is what we strive to do.
Our mission is to Make Things, Make Things Better, and Teach Others.® We will keep on this path of Faith, Learning, and Gratitude and see where it will take us.
And, as Tom Petty encourages, keep running down a dream.
At The Innovation Garage®
We help organizations grow. Providing education, tools, technology, and expert consulting in change management for strategy, innovation, and supply chain. Guiding leaders from startups to the Global Fortune 500 to intentionally self-disrupt their offerings and organizations. Delivering world-class education, tools, and technology on how to craft business operating systems focused on long-term profitable growth.
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