How three low-tech (or no-tech) companies innovated smartly

Axle Davids, CEO of Toronto-based Distility (SARAH DEA For The Globe and Mail)

What do military-grade software and branding agencies have in common? Until about 10 years ago, nothing at all.

In 2005, Axle Davids was an entrepreneur whose branding agency, Distility, served big-name companies such as AT&T and Ericsson. When one client complained about the length of time – between three to six months – it took to brand new products, Mr. Davids started thinking: What if he could do it faster, like in one day?

He created a workshop-based process where his clients’ teams would use Post-It notes to colour-code their input and feedback. Spreadsheet software didn’t have all the features Mr. Davids needed to organize and analyze these ideas, so he brought in a “decision support” program designed for military use as well as an open-source clustering algorithm for genetic analysis. He also tweaked his workshop so that, instead of using sticky notes, participants would tap their ideas into iPads connected to a screen projector.

Last year, Mr. Davids successfully patented his own software, described as a “method of visualizing the collective opinion of a group.”

“I was using three disparate systems – a spreadsheet, military software and life sciences software – and, while the customer did not see it, there was a lot of pain,” says Mr. Davids. “Now we have our own proprietary clustering software and everything is integrated on one system that runs on iPads.”

While small businesses are often hailed for their “nimbleness” and readiness to innovate, those that operate in non-tech or low-tech industries are more likely to maintain the status quo, saysTyrone Matheson, a business improvement consultant in Cambridge, Ont.

Many small business owners believe they don’t have the time or money to invest in innovation, Mr. Matheson says, and when they’re operating in a market where being modern means having a website, there’s little push to be cutting-edge.

“But if you’re not innovating, you’re getting left behind,” he says. “Innovating means paying attention and responding to trends in your industry, or applying what’s working in other industries to your own business. You don’t need to be a tech company to do that.”

Mr. Matheson has followed his own counsel; he recently switched his practice to a subscription model. Unlike other business consultants that charge a lump sum upfront or a “success fee” based on profit or revenue increases, Mr. Matheson spreads out his fee over a year and gives his clients access to his services throughout this period.

“I saw that the subscriber model was becoming prevalent,” he says. “So maybe if you’re a hair salon, instead of charging per haircut or colour you charge a monthly ‘maintenance service’ fee, and clients can come in throughout the year for touchups.”

Great innovations are often considered disruptive – but in a good way – to the market. However they can also be disruptive, in a bad way, to the small business that came up with the genius idea.

That was the case with Distility, which turned away big-budget work from large clients so it could focus on its one-day branding workshops. Mr. Davids says he knew his new concept would not be a good fit for most of his blue-chip clients because big companies don’t often rebrand, and those that do are unlikely to embrace a “brand in a day” process.

“There was a considerable amount of sacrifice, and there was a difficult period when we didn’t have proof and credibility,” he says.

To prove his concept, Mr. Davids launched a “10 day, 10 brands” campaign where he offered branding workshops to 10 companies. These projects became the basis for case studies to prove his concept. They also provided a live testing ground where Mr. Davids and his team could identify bugs in their process and tweak the workshop.

“We worked with these 10 companies for free,” Mr. Davids said. “It’s really important if you’re going to be an innovator that you not use your paying customers as guinea pigs – that’s really not fair.”

Mr. Matheson says many companies in non-innovative industries don’t break through with new ideas because it’s easier to do as everybody else is doing. But innovation doesn’t always have to be disruptive; sometimes just finding a way to significantly improve a business process – such as shipping or customer service – can have a big impact on the bottom line and the company’s reputation.

That was the thinking at Herschel Supply Co. Ltd., a Vancouver-based producer and retailer of bags and backpacks. With only three customer service representatives among its team of 70 employees, Herschel decided about a year-and-a-half ago to install a customer service app – called – that can filter customer inquiries and send them to the right staff member.

A macros function lets Herschel create template responses based on the nature of the customer inquiry, while a mobile version makes it easy to reply to customers on the go. Pretty cutting edge for a bag maker.

“We get upwards of 300 inquiries a day, and during the holidays we see as much as 600 e-mails a day,” says Samantha Peake, customer relations co-ordinator at Herschel. “The inquiries used to come through multiple e-mail boxes and it was hard to tell who had been handling the file, but now everything is sorted by case number and is tied to customer histories, which basically allows for a quick response time.”

Mr. Davids at Distility says it’s important to take ongoing measures to ensure a new concept or system is up to snuff. His company hands out a customer satisfaction survey at the end of each workshop.

Customers are now asking whether Distility can apply its one-day workshop approach to other projects, such as defining a company’s mission and values, Mr. Davids says.

“This workshop really works – it’s golden,” he says. “We’ve proven it and now we’re ready to try it on other applications.”


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