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How Reinventing The Wheel Can Benefit a Small Business

Updated on January 26, 2016

By contrast, I have never heard anyone ask: “Why aren’t we trying to reinvent the wheel?” Until recently, I’d never read of anyone proposing such an idea or its non-transport equivalent.


But times have changed. Those new masters of the universe sitting in Silicon Valley are setting out their stalls by asking that very question. Indeed, the main influencers of the Silicon Valley culture - the would-be investors - consciously require wheel reinvention and the like. Elon Musk, he of PayPal and the Tesla electric car, has complained: “We wanted flying cars and what we got was 140 characters.”

It has been suggested that we are living in an era when the dreams of science fiction are starting to be reality. I can state with confidence that Dan Dare and his chums in The Eagle comic had Elon Musk’s flying cars 50 years ago. Captain Kirk’s communicator? The ubiquitous mobile phone - some have even been designed to look like it. Worldwide, free, instant communication anyone? That would be email and social media.

Hence, some science fiction has become so commonplace we don’t even think about it any more. In effect, we are reinventing the wheel all the time and simply absorbing such inventiveness into our daily lives.

But hold on a minute, I hear you say. This is a small business I’m running. We don’t have any wheels that need reinventing or could be reinvented. Are you sure?

The reality is that, unlike Silicon Valley, much of business doesn’t have a remit to be inventive. In the process companies aren’t doing their marketing properly, because new product development is essentially one of two things - a response to customers’ needs and wants or something that nobody knew they wanted until they saw or tried it. The former is classic marketing; the latter is more like entrepreneurialism.


Let’s consider some examples. One of the world’s most successful companies is McDonald’s. Its best-selling product by a margin is the Big Mac. In a company that big, you’d expect the Big Mac to have been developed by a team of researchers, food scientists and marketing specialists. And you’d be wrong.

The Big Mac was created by a franchisee called Jim Delligatti, who asked a group of regulars if there was anything they’d like improved. They said they fancied a more substantial burger, so he cut the bun twice put in two patties, some more relish and the rest is history.

There are three important lessons here. First, a good idea doesn’t mind who had it. In plenty of large companies, the Big Mac would have been stillborn because it didn’t come from head office. Also, Jim Delligatti would have had the riot act read for tinkering with his franchise agreement. Second, new product development doesn’t have to cost megabucks - less than a dollar in the case of the Big Mac. Third, ask your customers what they want. It’s free market research and there’s not a lot of that kicking about.

You may be thinking that ‘inventing’ the Big Mac hardly equals reinventing the wheel. At the time, however, it had a big impact on the fast food industry. It demonstrates that products that change a market don’t have to be high-tech and complex.


By contrast, there’s the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner. Working on a project focused on centrifugal forces, James Dyson wondered if that could be applied to the vacuum cleaner. As we now know, it could be, but it took years and thousands of prototypes before the product came to market.

In the process, some market research was done and, to put it mildly, it was discouraging. The customer was broadly satisfied with the performance of their existing cleaner and not ready to pay far more for a better one. When the customer saw and tried the Dyson product, she changed her mind. Ignoring that research has turned James Dyson into Sir James and a billionaire to boot.

The bagless cleaner wasn’t James Dyson’s first successful consumer invention. He it was who invented the Ball Barrow. With its spherical wheel, it was easier and more stable to use and became very popular. I have an image of Dyson waking up one morning and thinking: “Today, I’m going to reinvent the wheel.”


Just trusting your gut feel doesn’t always work, however. Sir Clive Sinclair had an aura of ‘can do no wrong’ until he launched the C5 electric tricycle, then supposedly the future of transport. It destroyed his reputation, his company and his wealth in a five-minute piece of TV coverage of its failings, which were many and would have been shown up by some research and consumer trial.

Do you actually need to go through the cost and angst of coming up with a groundbreaking new concept? Plenty of ideas never make it off the drawing board and into the factory, so it’s a wasteful process. Why bother?

The answer is simple - the human race is hard-wired to like new ideas. Go round a supermarket and check how many ‘new’ pack flashes there are on the shelves. However, a cursory examination will tell you that in 99 per cent of cases the newness is marginal. It doesn’t matter, because ‘new’ definitely sells.

Anyone in almost any industry will recognise that making a sales appointment is a lot easier if you have a new product to show. This is partly our fascination with new things, but it’s also driven by fear - if you’renot au fait with the latest products, you’re off the speed and that’s a bad feeling.

This ‘new’ fixation can actually have a negative impact on reinventing the wheel. A lot of businesses recognise that they could genuinely improve a product, but at a significant cost. It’s far cheaper and easier to add in some extra bells and whistles and put the price up or boast that you haven’t.

As a case, look at mobile phones. They are constantly changing, having additional functionality built in. But I am forever hearing people whinge about their phone not fulfilling its primary function - making and receiving calls and texts - as well as the model they had five or 10 years ago. That’s a wheel that begs to be reinvented.

Process re-engineering is one of those bits of business speak I don’t like because it obfuscates an important principle - changing the way you work so you’re better, faster or cheaper is a real game changer for business. Don’t reinvent the wheel you’re selling, instead subtly reinvent the way you make it and sell it.


A classic example of this is just in time delivery. This process has reached the level of an art form in the motor industry, where it was first seriously developed. The JIT principle has trickled down through all business sectors, such that increasingly the concept of stockholding is looking dated.

On the other hand is fracking. The principle has been around for decades, but didn’t turn into a source of fuel from shale until someone proved - after years of trying - that it could be done with water alone. Suddenly, we learnt that the price of a barrel of oil could fall by 50 per cent within 10 years. It did fall that much and much faster.

When do you definitely leave the wheel alone? I’ve been staring at that question for several minutes without an answer. In the marketing world, you tinker with branding and packaging very cautiously. Consider the Ford blue oval, the Mercedes three-pointed star and the Volkswagen VW. Brasso and Tate & Lyle syrups are models of long-term packaging consistency. In branding the rule is, if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it.


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