How A Small Idea Could Have a Big Payoff

E-commerce site Threadless did not set out to reinvent the wheel with its new tipping feature for artists, but it ended up reengaging with its online community. Here's the thought process behind it.

The idea of innovation carries a lot of weight. To many in the business world, innovation represents a large-scale revolutionary idea or invention that forever changes the landscape of a field, market, or industry.

Despite the grandiose connotations of the word, innovation does not require a sweeping change that touches on every facet of a company, nor does its development need to be time-consuming and painstaking. In fact, sometimes small doses of innovation arise unexpectedly during the process of developing another idea, creating a whole new avenue for exploration.

This was the case with the addition of Threadless's recent tipping feature. Since 2000, our mission is to support artists, and we’ve done this by inviting independent artists worldwide to submit their artwork to Threadless.com. Our community of more than 3 million users vote on where they'd like to see art printed on T-shirts, wall art, and iPhone cases, among other products.

Artists then received an initial one-time payment for their designs, in addition to payment every time we reprinted their design. In April this year, our switch to a royalty-based payment structure meant our artists would instead receive 20% of the profits from each individual product they sold, and they also retain the rights to their artwork.

This new model meant that we needed to develop a way for artists to track their sales. We created an Artist Dashboard: an interactive tool featuring a royalty tracker that would allow artists to track sales overall, as well as by design and product.

While this is exciting for us and a huge benefit for our artists, the tool in itself is not, by definition, innovative. Our think tank didn’t pioneer this concept; in fact, sales-tracking tools are often created for royalty-based programs. To be innovative, we needed a way to make this tool stand on its own.

That’s when it hit us. What if we created a tipping field in the cart at checkout, allowing customers to further support their favorite artists via extra cash, 100% of which would go directly into the artists’ pockets? It seemed like such a simple idea, yet one that spoke directly to our values and positioned us uniquely in the market.

The new tipping feature, which only took about a week to develop after months of building the Artist Dashboard, was the innovative piece to this project’s puzzle. Before the inclusion of the tipping feature, the Artist Dashboard remained relevant only to our artists actively selling work, which makes up about 1% of our community. The addition of the tipping feature engaged the remaining 99% of our community—largely consumers—by offering them a new way to interact with artists. Customers embraced it immediately. To date, they've voluntarily tipped artists an average of $2 or more.

Here are some guidelines to help you drive innovation, as it will rocket your company to the next level, set you apart from competitors, and crown you the leaders and champions of your industry:

Start with the project, not the innovation

An innovative piece to a project is nothing if the project itself is not well-conceived or developed.

Don’t force it

Don’t let the desire for an innovative component to a project become the square peg in a round hole. Make sure all pieces of a project, including innovative ones, support the company’s mission, and come to be in a fairly natural fashion. Don’t waste too much time mashing ideas to make them fit the framework.

Have fun

Some of the best ideas come out of casual brainstorming sessions. Trying too hard to force a project to be innovative can be counterproductive, and slow the progression of a project—not to mention limit its potential.

Be open-minded

Sometimes, innovative ideas don’t initially seem like the right ideas. It’s easy to dismiss an idea if the tie-in or benefit is not immediately apparent. Feel out and explore—but don’t force—these kinds of ideas, and value may be found where it was least expected.

Innovation isn’t always about blowing the roof off an industry with a revolutionary concept. It’s not all about thinking outside the box, or even dismantling the box and rebuilding it from the ground up. Sometimes, innovation comes from those small, unexpected ideas that happen to fall perfectly in line with the ethos and mission of a company. So quit pulling out tufts of hair trying to redesign the wheel, and let those little “a-ha” moments steer young ideas in new directions.

Jake Nickell is the CEO and founder of Threadless.com, the global design community best known for unique, independent artist-designed T-shirts and apparel.

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.

[Image: Flickr user Stacie]

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