Roger Trapp: A break from the norm can put you ahead of the pack

To compete with the multinationals, entrepreneurs must focus on service and their ability to innovate
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The Independent Online

Enterprise comes in many shapes and sizes. For proof of this simply look at the winners of the Design Business Association's Inclusive Design Challenge. Run in conjunction with the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art, the competition has in its sixth year produced a collection of ideas and prototypes aimed at solving problems for, or improving the position of, people with sight, mobility, cognitive and dexterity problems.

The shortlist included a system of symbols for packaging design aimed at informing people with food allergies of the contents of packaged foods; packaging that guides visually-impaired consumers by talking to them; a fire extinguisher that is simpler to use and more manageable than the conventional model; a software package that simulates visual impairments so that graphic designers can see the world as sufferers ofsuch conditions would see it, and a revolutionary design for the "granny trolley" that makes the vehicle a desirable object.

Last week the winner was named as Wire Design for its proposal for a method of giving graphic designers a better idea of what it is like to be visually impaired.

The obvious benefit of this event is that it encourages designers to target their ingenuity at sections of the population that do not always attract their attention and yet who can really benefit from better design. But in so doing it can also create opportunities in the so-called mainstream market.

The shortlist in this year's competition is full of ideas with wider application - notably the packaging ideas and the new-look walking frame, while the simpler-to-use fire extinguisher is reminiscent in its appeal to the Good Grips range of kitchen utensils that was originally designed for older people and those suffering from arthritis but which has since become popular with all kinds of cooks.

Even in the 21st century there are fresh opportunities for businesses if they are prepared to look at things from a different angle or in a different way. This thought is given added weight by a couple of recently-published books.

The first, Smarter Pricing, by Tony Cram of Ashridge Business School argues that pricing is one of the most neglected areas of marketing. Instead of having a pricing strategy, companies are inclined to effectively let customers decide on prices by reacting to pressures in the marketplace. In the current climate - where inflation is low and competition is high - prices are apt to get caught in a downward spiral.

Just look at the price wars between the biggest supermarkets to see the evidence of that. And yet, one supermarket - Waitrose - while not anything like the size of the biggest players, is carving out a niche for itself by targeting an affluent section of the public by offering service over price.

Small businesses up and down the country do the same. Realising that they can never compete with the biggest players on price alone, they try to compete on service - whether it be a more personalised offering, working out of hours or delivering goods free of charge. It is not easy. Constantly improving service levels is demanding and hard work, but by competing on value rather than price they stand a better chance of avoiding being caught up in constantly falling prices.

The second book is An UnAmerican Business by Donald Kalff (Kogan Page). Originally published in the Netherlands, it challenges the fixation with the US approach to business that seems to have caught the imagination of everybody in the UK, from the Chancellor Gordon Brown down. A few of the assumptions are open to question. But by suggesting that there is an alternative to the focus on short-term profitability and relentless growth that seems to pervade the Anglo-Saxon business model, Kalff does encourage the very necessary practice of looking at things from a different perspective.

One of his points - that US business has to a large extent been made inflexible by the demands of the markets - would appear to be borne out by the recent spate of businesses leaving the stockmarket for private ownership. Not so long ago, a stockmarket flotation was the dream of most entrepreneurs - and not just because of the money it made them (at least on paper). It was a recognition of their efforts.

Nowadays, many entrepreneurs are not so sure of the benefits of a listing.

They feel that they are just as able to achieve what they want to away from the constant scrutiny and expectations of the market. In other words, when markets are so obsessed with the norm and the predictable it is hard to be opportunistic or entrepreneurial.

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