16 Lessons on Innovation


Woolworth, AltaVista, Compaq, Blockbuster, Polaroid, Blackberry – What do they have in common? They were once leaders in their respective fields but did not successfully innovate to meet quickly changing market conditions. Today these brands are no longer thriving and have been replaced by popular brands such as Walmart, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Samsung.

Successful business leaders understand that if you don’t continually innovate, eventually the company that you are leading will succumb to those in your industry who will create and offer more attractive products and services. They understand that successful organizations must create an innovative culture, have a new product development system in place, embrace failure, and passionately pursue improvement.

We asked 16 successful business leaders and innovators: “What lessons have you learned about being innovative and what can you share about how to best lead the creation and successful execution of new products and services?”

People who are free to think, discuss, act, ask, share, and experiment, are people who innovate, and succeed. – Stephen Culp


Stephen Culp

Co-Founder and Principal, Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, delegator.com, Pricewaiter, Smart Furniture, Causeway

Trust and culture are keys to a company’s ability to innovate and succeed.  At Delegator, we work in the constantly changing digital advertising industry, one where we must stay on the leading edge of innovation. How? First, we value the human side of innovation – where trust, diverse perspectives, and creativity matter more than technology. Second, we create a sense of ownership among all members where everyone has a stake in our success. And third, we empower folks to constantly explore what’s next, and to ask tough questions, even if it challenges our foundations. If you’re in a company who wants to grow and innovate, start by demonstrating to your team that they can trust you – and that they can trust each other, without fear of ridicule, sabotage, politics, or drama. Everything else flows from there. People who are free to think, discuss, act, ask, share, and experiment, are people who innovate, and succeed.

The Robinson Team ad

Innovation.HarrisSusan Harris

President & Chief Operating Officer, See Rock City

In our business, relevancy, guest experience, and innovation must be in sync in order to facilitate sustainable success. We are a people business, and we know that having talented, creative partners (employees) who are invested in our daily mission is our greatest way to feed innovation. We work diligently to support the trust necessary for honest critique, idea generation, and continual improvement. We teach our partners that innovation can be that “one great new idea,” but often it is the changes we make to product and experience on a daily basis that lead to our greatest innovations. Last, we value learning, so our leaders are encouraged to invest in their own development so that we are, individually and collectively, prepared for what’s next. Learning also allows us to fail, as we’ve not yet identified the way to assure 100% success with every idea. But by creating a culture that values our people as partners, and facilitates their involvement and investment in our innovation and success, we expect to be around for the next 85 years!

SouthEast Bank Web ad


Cameron Doody

Co-founder, Bellhops

Being innovative isn’t just about building technology. Being innovative is about never being satisfied with the status quo. The moving industry is a perfect example. Traditional moving companies haven’t changed much in the past 30 years. No new technology and no advancements in operations or customer service–just a stagnant model designed to put profits first. Of course, starting with technology to remedy operational inefficiencies, like we did at Bellhops, is a true game changer, but you can’t stop there if you hope to be a success. To change an industry you have to innovate on customer service practices, communication strategies, product enhancements, and anything your industry aims to do. If you let innovation drive your desire to be the smartest leader in your industry, then you will push beyond traditional industry expectations.

Marshal Mize Ford ad


George Brown

Founder & CEO, Aegle Gear

Successful innovation occurs when an idea transforms the ordinary into extraordinary. In order for this transformation to occur, the entire team must be made aware of the mission and the values of the brand. Being an innovative leader can sometimes be a hindrance to a company’s success because creative leaders often try to control the whole process, ignoring the capabilities of the team. In order to lead, one must learn how to follow. Strong leaders develop a team with a variety of skills whilst gently nudging the members in the direction of their mission. Finally, todays companies must have purpose, the millennial does not want to just purchase products, the millennial wants to align itself with a company that shares similar values to them. I have learned over time that trust is gained when people feel safe with your idealism.

East Chattanooga Lumber ad


Miguel Morales

Co-owner, 1885 Grill, Tremont Tavern, The Feed Co. Table & Tavern Restaurant Group

Innovation is like a new car. When you purchase a new car, you spend hours washing, cleaning, and caring for it and you want everyone to see it. When you don’t maintain it, the new begins to fade and it loses its interest and appeal. However, if you continue to value and care for the car, it becomes a classic beauty, and those are numbered.  It doesn’t have to be a new trend – innovation is breathing new life into your customers’ value. It’s looking to create a better product and atmosphere through feedback, changes, and product standards. Recognizing ever-changing conditions and offering a product that appeals to all ages and walks of life keeps you current and fresh. Innovation doesn’t have to recreate the wheel. It’s meeting a need and offering something that is both fresh and fun that you and your guests can equally enjoy.

The James Company Ad


Jennifer Hoff

President and Founder, Skye Strategies

I believe one of the most important drivers of innovation is the customer—you have to be willing to adapt your services and products to meet evolving needs. As you adapt and innovate, you also have to ensure you have the right talent in place on your team—and you have to be willing to take a risk to make it happen. For the first three years of operations, Skye Strategies was successful but not growing. When I finally decided to take a risk and expand my staff and service structure to provide comprehensive grant developments, capacity building, and evaluation support, we were able double revenue in one year, expand our impact to over 40 organizations across 36 counties, and win the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Small Business Award.

Digital Smart Marketing Ad


Chip Baker

Executive Director, Riverbend Festival

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is probably my favorite saying. But if you don’t like change, then you’re going to hate irrelevance! In management, you have to work with and through people to get the job done, so surround yourself with good people who embrace a sense of change. Create a strategic plan that maps out a path and have an annual business plan that reflects this direction. Lastly, communication is the cure for all evils. Meet regularly and always have an open door policy.

Linda Brock Web Ad


Max Poppel

Co-founder & Co-owner, Crash Pad

Don’t forget your values. Let’s start cliché with an ancient Eastern saying that goes along the lines of “the tree that doesn’t bend will break.” The rub is bending without losing your way or what makes you special. We’ve found the key is to start by writing down your core values, which should never change. Then they must be shared with everyone in your organization, and lastly you must live them every day. Make sure they are ideas you really believe in, because these will be the foundation of your business and the lens through which you should view all the decisions in your business. Back to bending without breaking, I think that change is a constant in business and everything aside from your core values should be up for debate. The key to any change is to always stay true to your core values.

Patton Albertson & Miller ad


Jennifer Deal

Marketing Director, Southern Surgical Arts

Investing in research, education, and technology allows us to be innovative in our industry. We continuously seek out the gold standard technology for each procedure.  We have invested in cutting-edge technology, and we aggressively seek out the most effective treatment modalities.  Conducting research and studies have allowed us to be innovative in our offerings and provide our patients with the safest and most effective treatments.

Empire Communities ad


Gina Dhanani

Vice President, The Double Cola Company

Innovation begins with developing a company culture that promotes and rewards creative thinking. It must start at the top with a management team who provides the opportunities, resources, and time needed to foster divergent thinking. Great ideas don’t happen by accident. The reality is that everyone has other roles to play and innovation typically is not top of mind. You must set aside the time and resources to focus specifically on being innovative—on developing a process that includes planning and review. Take time to get out in the market and learn about your consumers and your competitors. Oftentimes, we are confined to sitting behind a desk all day. We can’t truly understand consumer needs until we see it first-hand. Understanding the need is an important step in the planning process. Failure will happen—it’s how we respond to and what we learn from failure that set us up for future success. Learn from your mistakes, refine your process, and repeat until you get it right.

Bailey Bullard Web Ad


George Yu

CEO, Variable, Inc.

The word innovation has a different meaning depending on your current position as a company. To an established business, it means 10% improvement in the business. To a startup, it means 100% improvement or go home. As a startup, we at Variable have to be 100% better than existing solutions for us to have a chance to disrupt the industry. To achieve that level of innovation, regardless how established an organization is, the innovator must understand the full picture of a business, from product development to how the product is sold. Getting the full picture is often easier as a founder of a startup than in a larger organization where it is rare to have individuals that understand the whole business. I believe that larger organizations should invest in people that their sole job is to understand the whole business and provide that insight to help create new, innovative solutions.

To achieve that level of innovation, regardless how established an organization is, the innovator must understand the full picture of a business, from product development to how the product is sold. – George Yu

Patton Albertson & Miller ad


Hugh Morrow

President, Ruby Falls

Innovation at our destination requires seemlessly weaving the timeless wonder of Ruby Falls into a guest experience that resonates with today’s visitor. Even when you are 1,100 feet deep within Lookout Mountain, communication and wireless connectivity are vital from both a visitor and operations perspective. No one would have thought, even 15 years ago, that it was possible to be digitally connected from the depths of our cave. We recognized a forward-looking opportunity to shake-up expectations and partnered with other innovative companies to make it happen. InfoSystems, HP, and EPB worked with us to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, security systems, and phones throughout the cave. Now visitors and staff can be in another world surrounded by nature without loosing important connectivity to the world above.

HHM Web Ad


Sheila Boyington

Founder & CEO, Thinking Media/Learning Blade

The definition of a great entrepreneur is one who sees problems, finds innovative solutions to them, and then commercializes them. That may sound easy, but getting to successful commercialization is the difficult part. Some keys to success include identifying a market that is manageable, but large enough to demand new products. For our purposes, having an engineering background and creating educational solutions allowed us to develop outside-the-box industry-leading tools using the problem solving skills that are part of the engineering design thinking. User-friendly was an important key too. Additionally, not only do the products need to be innovative but the way in which you scale needs to be innovative as well. We pushed the envelope by offering site licenses for schools and others, as well as to individuals. This combination of passion, execution, and good solid products continue to be components for success.

Riggs & Associates ad


Cindy Wilson, NP

Center Director, Center for Facial Rejuvenation

Innovation is about passion. The passion to help others and change lives guides every decision we make at Center for Facial Rejuvenation. When I consider a new service or product, I always think about our clients. I take time to consider what would improve their experience and add value to their life. Staying laser-focused helps me eliminate distractions and improve my effectiveness. CFR has been extremely successful over the last four years and exceeded industry standards, but we can never rest on yesterday. By continually listening and learning, I stay passionate about improving the client experience and outcomes. We are only as good as our client’s last experience so we have to get it right every time and when we don’t, accept responsibility and make it right. Clients are savvy and have many choices; just meeting expectations is not good enough anymore. We have to Wow! them. Best innovative practices start and end with creating a “five-star experience,” it keeps clients coming back and bringing their friends and family. I can’t think of a better reward.

Innovation is about passion. – Cindy Wilson

East Chattanooga Lumber ad


Kelly Paulk

VP of Product Strategy and Individual Markets, BCBST

Circumstances and consumer expectations are ever-changing in our business, and innovation is all about being able to respond effectively to those changes. In order to be innovative, you have to identify and support people who are willing to be open. Team members who share ideas and support the development of others are vital to the process of creating something new and useful. It’s important to foster an environment and a culture of trust and humility, where individuals feel like they can speak up and contribute. It’s also key to have leadership that knows the value of development and will allow for the investment of time and resources required to get something new off the ground. Innovation starts and thrives with people.

Real Estate Partners Ad


Jim Brewer II

President, Brewer Media

Our industry, like many others, faced huge challenges in 2009. Many chose to save their way out of the problem, and while we’ve always looked for efficiencies that new technology offers, our primary focus was improving local content and participation. We started with our strengths and increased coverage of traffic, public service announcements, and nonprofit campaigns – things that we already did well but saw potential for improvement.  Some changes took a bit more innovation, including a local sports show and local press show. For us, innovation started with using our strengths to their fullest potential.

VIC ad

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