As Central Florida businesses strap in for 2014, innovation is the magic mojo, the secret sauce that every company hopes to cook up.
It's the product that puts them on the map, the new service that stuns competitors, the revelation that blows up an industry's landscape.
But for an asset that's so coveted, innovation remains hard to quantify and even harder to produce on demand. It takes work, time, a little luck and an ironclad, companywide willingness to fail — a possibility that many executives can't bear but that some of the most successful businesses in the world embrace.
"It's OK to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes and correct them fast," Susan Wojcicki, Google's senior vice president of ads and commerce once wrote. "Trust me, we've failed plenty of times. Knowing that it's OK to fail can free you up to take risks."
Innovations, which are explored throughout this Forecast 2014 edition of Central Florida Business, can't be ordered online or stored in a warehouse. But they can be cultivated — if company leaders make them a priority and accept that their financial rewards may not be readily apparent.
Bob Allen is the chief storytelling officer at IDEAS, an Orlando advertising and marketing firm. A former Walt Disney World executive, Allen is writing a book on innovation, trying to explain why some places sprout ideas like dollar weed and others seem barren.
The most obvious barrier to innovation, he said, is fear of failure. Nobody wants to be the mother or father of a spectacular flop, so unconventional — but potentially profitable — ideas never get a hearing.
But a bigger, more potent, enemy, Allen argues, is success.
Not the potential success a new product or service might mean, but the ongoing, day-to-day success of a profitable company. When it's all going relatively well, when inertia sets in, innovation withers.
"People think, 'We could do that, but why bother?' " Allen said. "Complacency kills it."
The most innovative companies tend to be run by restless, curious leaders who pass those qualities on to their staff.
Ideas matter in companies like that, said Tom O'Neal, executive director of the University of Central Florida's Business Incubation Program.
O'Neal, who founded his first startup at 18, now helps entrepreneurs build their ideas into marketable services or products.
The most successful, he said, recognize that insight comes at a price.
They give their employees time — and permission — to noodle ideas with little obvious payoff. Silicon Valley tech firms, for example, have long allowed engineers to tinker on personal projects while on the clock.
Allen said that back in the day, he heard stories about Walt Disney wandering among the animators' desks after hours looking for doodles unrelated to company projects.
Innovative companies, said O'Neal, don't consider that wasted time. It's an investment in new ideas.
"Once you start trying to save pennies on every single screw, you're not going to be encouraging innovation," O'Neal said. Businesses committed to innovation "tend to focus more on the top line than the bottom line."
The best ones also tend to be a little rabid about what they do. They talk about mission and purpose as much as revenue and expenses.
They might manufacture paperweights, but their workforce believes those paperweights will change the world.
Online retailer Zappos, for example, makes money selling shoes, shirts and bags. But its mission is making customers happy — a notion that management tries to instill in all of its employees.
"They want people to be inspired about work," O'Neal said. "The idea that they're working toward some higher-order purpose."
Dan Rini actually is working toward a big purpose.
His Oviedo-based Rini Technologies makes air-conditioned shirts for soldiers, firefighters and hazmat response teams.
The company has found ways to miniaturize the components of an air conditioner, packing it into an 8-inch-tall tank weighing about 3.5 pounds. Water is cooled to 72 degrees as it moves through the tank and is distributed through a series of tubes built into an undershirt.
The design took years because no other company, Rini said, was working at such a small scale.
It was ultimately successful, he said, because his team was "excited about making this device that's never existed before."
"That's when you want to get up and come to work," he said. "When everyone's pulling together for the same thing."
For Rini, innovation is a habit, not a magical explosion of insight. He wants his employees always thinking of better ways to do things, and he looks for that intellectual curiosity in new hires.
"Innovation can't be a New Year's resolution," he said. "It's like diet and exercise. If you want it to work, you have to make it part of your lifestyle."
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