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 the tenth anniversary, this article is written with a specific intent—sharing what we are learning and answering some FAQs about the journey. Many attendees have been asking these questions in client sessions, large groups, and individual discussions. One of the best ways to provide the answers is to write about them.
As a long-form reflection, this article also represents a celebration of effort. We share outcomes of the elements in our ideal design and what we continue to learn each day.
Shared later in this article series, 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 share these learnings, backstories, and what we consider as True North Principles. When designing your ideal adventure, use the lessons learned as pin drops to your roadmap of 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, use these learnings 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 realized that, very deep down, a self-disruption was required. A moment of complete clarity can manifest if you spend time thinking and working backward from where you are. Then visualizing where you want to be. If you picture yourself much older than you are today and reflect on your life, you can imagine the regrets you could have. This working backward method provides the fuel to be present in the moment and to be in touch with what you don’t want to miss out on in your life.
During that process, it became increasingly clear that exploring opportunities with others and seeking different people to connect with and collaborate with was essential, at least on a professional level. It’s a feeling of knowing something has to change, although you’re not exactly sure what needs to change.
During these times, an idealized redesign is an excellent method to apply to your work and daily life. It uses the burning platform concept on what you do. One of the best methods to reinvent and recreate is to know when you should set your platform on fire to start something new.
A necessary part of this mindset is thinking it’s always better to lead, design, and build opportunities with others rather than wait on others. Or, in the worst-case scenario, if you are working as a team member in an organization, having that organization do it to you. A realization that if you actively push your boat away from traditional employment and the falsely advertised security of the corporate shore, it might be the more secure path.
Even today, over the last few years, with the world doing what it is, a new adventure is always a good idea. We need to continue crafting and re-creating uncharted heroes’ journeys. Redesigning the journey every few years helps to keep life exciting. It is also essential to build up your confidence that you truly are on a more secure and rewarding path.
As with anything new, there is never a “good” or “right” time to start. It is essential to accept this as a reality and eventually get on with it. Starting a business at any time is fraught with peril and unknowns. And, if being truly honest, you are always concerned if it will 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 try and see what might happen—seeing what learning will occur along the way. Always keeping a mindset to do your best and be grateful for whatever happens.
It is also necessary for the experiences to be authentic- Analog and not digital. Analog means that all the senses experience and feel it. All of it. The good and the bad. Such pursuits will deliver excitement, joy, frustration, and potential disappointment.
Take pencil and paper in hand and sketch your vision of what delivering value to others could look like, and be very intentional in the redesign.
Once the concept is in place, the next step may be considering a business name. The Innovation Garage’s evolution as a business name and entity was organic and unscripted. See this link to read more about our founding story.
Once establishing the name, you might question if the name has any value or 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 many 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 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 extraordinary analog experiences. Sending the paperwork in the mail 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 filed the business name. Entering the multi-story office building near the States capitol, I took a number and placed 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, ensure that your design creates 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. What might the next twenty or twenty-five years look like if I do this?
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 more of business under their belts is 34.4%. So, maybe about three in ten chances of surviving beyond that. Many statistics indicate that 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 the best position to have an awareness of challenges and not be too surprised by what may come.
Three design elements we try to anchor to each day help us do just that. Specifically, in our design, we have three parts:
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 that vision.
When you start building something from scratch, you are often the only person with the vision. You are the only one who can see it. It might also be tough to explain the concept to others. And with that somewhat unclear vision, you cannot thoroughly 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 a viable end state that you can visualize to work backward?
- 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 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; you are getting closer to your ideal design as you fail forward.
In another way, thinking about the importance of Faith, you can compare and contrast two common types of fear. The fear of the unknown contrasts with the fear of missing out. These two types of fear create tremendous anxiety. They are classic opposing forces that 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, fear of missing out must exceed fear of the unknown. To explain in some more detail, suppose you don’t want to miss out on your potential vision and benefits of the ideal design for yourself and others. If that is the case, 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, of the fear of the unknown when compared to your current situation.
Each of your next-step actions towards your ideal design and the real energy you put into the next steps will help clarify your vision’s end state. Over time, this energy into uncertainty will be a helpful aid in driving down fear. And, as you progress, how each new experience 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, including a method to own 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 the necessary space for yourself to learn and improve. It also permits an ability to make space 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 represents an exponential increase. There is 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 drummer—speaking with these folks is super interesting. 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 they own their time in their own way.
A pastor colleague 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 gave it up for the Lord. He owns his time. He is grateful that he can spend his time on his calling. Optimizing his time 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 people holding on to a job they don’t like. People may complain about their job or career 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 at its own peril. Parents, siblings, and friends you know give all their available time and energy to an organization in a role they do not enjoy. Then with a brief call, video conference, or short meeting, they are told they are no longer part of the organization. Perhaps due to a layoff, redundancy, or downsizing. Or, once finally reaching the promised land of retirement, the health of that person or their spouse’s health fails. Be aware that retirement might be only be a marketing construct. A construct that delays the long-term desires of what people 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 space for guiding and protecting your tribe. This space helps you do everything you can to ensure the safety and growth of those you care about the most. Owning your time helps you enable as much as possible for your tribe. You can support them to make the most significant dent in their universe as possible. You teach your tribe to guard their joy as leaders, parents, or contributors. You encourage brave and bold choices, even if there is a considerable risk of getting hurt.
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. Gratitude comes into the design by being thankful for whom you meet and what you learn.
There are hundreds of people and just as many experiences we are grateful for having. These include 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.
On the business side, executive leaders provide essential support and meaningful introductions to others to help the business grow. Colleagues, now in leadership positions remember past work experiences. Client leaders pull us into current situations with their new teams to deliver value. Relationships and contacts advocate and support, even when we are not in the room for the conversation. And as well, 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 provided support and opportunities to collaborate.
When you start something, ensure 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 to work with what you have and try to figure it out with an abundance mindset. In short, the pandemic demanded flexibility on our ideal design. 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 the 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. Today’s technology permits live remote sessions with clients in Europe, the United Kingdom, and other regions all across 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?
There are many unique and interesting bits of data from ten years in business. If you are curious about results, some are tangible, and others are less tangible. Many have come about and are listed 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 commented on and reviewed.
- Driving over 150,000 miles for meetings and client sessions.
- Handing out over 1,000 business cards.
The less tangible, and perhaps more important in the long haul, measures:
- Colleagues are having others reach out to us and ask for coaching support in starting their adventure.
- Getting feedback and reaching out from others who met us, attended a session, and offer unsolicited and positive feedback on their experience with us.
- We see all our client teams progressing and growing in their personal 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 go to CXO levels within the client organization.
- Some also move on to do great things elsewhere.
- Many of those leaders provide an unexpected note or email of thanks. Sharing something they learned even after many years have passed since working together.
Most importantly, 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 to 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 who will support your efforts and encourage you. After ten years of business, having your family members participate in the work and offer guidance is an excellent outcome of 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 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 often sporadic events based on luck, timing, and proper 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 looking to take as much as possible. You will learn when you might need to stop giving. It is a tricky 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? 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, educators, and yes, consultants, are, in their way, striving to design and provide a great user experience. And by participating in the experience, the designer is hopeful that the user truly learns and gains a meaningful outcome. We strive to do the same each day.
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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