room44 innovates

Drive into any town on any day of the week and you’ll join the masses sitting in their cars getting stressed. While you sit there, cyclists and skateboarders will glide by, and they may get to work before you or they may not. And you might think: look at those losers who can’t afford a car; jeez, that must be cold; I wouldn’t want to sit next to them all day after that…


From the cyclists’ perspective, of course, it’s a different story. No-one knows if they started their journey at home or drove part-way and then cycled the bit that avoids parking charges. No-one knows if their bike cost more than your commuter car. No-one knows if they have a shower at work or are doing a shift as an instructor at the gym. No-one knows, except the cyclist, who also knows that the cycling sub-culture looks at the car drivers and smiles inside.

There’s a self-worthiness that comes off a regular cyclist like an aura, and it can be really annoying. It’s not something that a weekend Mamil, or the person who actually can’t afford a car, is likely to understand. But it’s there, glowing like the Ready Brek kid.

Sub-cultures are like this.

They live in and around what we think of as ‘normal’. They aren’t so far off ‘acceptable’ as to be dangerous or to attract contempt, but they exist in peripheral vision like a flash of light that almost gets your attention.

Then, one day, the sub-culture is the new ‘normal’ and the thing that was familiar has lost its appeal. It has happened.

  • Veganism was ‘weird’ for years – now everyone’s telling us to eat fewer animal products. Vegans used to be skinny, sandal-wearing hippies. Now a plant-based diet is how we counter obesity. I mean, do you even know a standard ‘vegetarian’ anymore?
  • The fashion industry has frequently altered its position on what is desirable (rather than acceptable), but now, at last, the Circular Economy is making it look into its own mirror. Consumers are beginning to question the whole concept of disposable fashion.
  • Not so long ago, meditation was only for monks. Now we’ve all tried an app that use phones to track quiet time and help you switch off from phones (that one probably needs more work).
  • More broadly, mindfulness, self-awareness, stress management and yoga used to be pastimes for the sandal-wearing vegans. Now, they’re techniques we all use to relieve pressure to be more productive.

The off-centre, off-beat, irregular ideas that make up sub-cultures exist on the periphery of everyday life, and they sometimes take a while to break through but, eventually, they do. And the same goes for trends in business, coming on strong and silently, but making steady progress. ‘Reducing’ is big right now, but nothing like as big as it’s going to be. The meaning of ‘minimalism’ has changed from that hard-nosed stripping back of possessions down to the barest essentials, all placed neatly in white-painted rooms. Now, minimalism makes us inspect the products we buy from several angles: is it necessary; will it last; do we need that packaging; should I pick it up in store, or have it delivered; do I really need a car/boat/second home/caravan/new sofa/extra pair of high-tops that sit around for 95% of the time doing nothing?


Being an outlier is where the creativity lives. Business will make money from ideas that are established – until it can’t anymore. As I wrote last week, there aren’t many businesses that survive very long. The subversive, subcultural is where we find the innovations that have the most long-term impact.

Look around the margins and you see these new markets starting to flare up. You’ll see the early players who spotted the opportunity and carved their niche before anyone else.

  • Cycle delivery has been around ever since newspapers were first delivered, but Deliveroo found a way of re-energising the service.
  • Meditation has been practised for centuries, but this generation of corporate burn-outs only found it when Headspace came along.
  • Cars and electricity aren’t new ideas, but putting them together hadn’t been done well until recently, and look where that combination is headed.

Your average CEO may not want to wait for the new ‘yoga’ to make her money, but that’s not to say that emerging funkiness won’t find the consumer mainstream.

Innovation is essential to your company’s survival, but it isn’t enough to create an innovation department and carry on as usual. Seeing how your customers are changing and where they are going is a good start. Working out how to get there first is one of the tenets of innovation.

Innovation has a commercial imperative. If it won’t make someone’s life better and provide a value they’ll pay for, it will fail – and then it won’t be an innovation. It’ll be one of the 9 in 10 ideas that didn’t make it.

How can you be the 1 in 10?

Keep working on it. Look for signals. Don’t be turned off an idea just because it won’t run through your factory today. Taking a view that you can stretch your Capex and depreciation another year before you do anything different is the attitude that will eventually kill your company. You may not be there to see it, but what kind of legacy does that feel like?

If you’d like to discuss innovation, I’m always happy to.

Seeing it differently. Future-proofing. It’s what we do.

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