Why innovators can find inspiration in the everyday

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.

As a global innovation company, we never stop looking for new ways to tackle challenges and achieve our goals. New business models, new services, new ways of empowering society and connecting communities around the world. It can be easy to become obsessed with “the new.” However, a great innovator can often find inspiration, not just by looking into the future, but by opening their eyes to something right in front of them. Inspiration can spring from what we have around us, if we’re willing to take a fresh perspective.

Indeed, true innovation often emerges from reimagining how an old idea or system in use for some time, can – with a creative application – be redeployed with new results.

Re-imagining storytelling on the internet

At Rakuten, we’ve seen this time and time again. In the early days of the company, we looked at the web and brainstormed ways in which we could enliven e-commerce transactions for our customers with a new kind of storytelling.

This reimagining was the basis for Rakuten Ichiba – our original marketplace in which merchants not only sold their wares online but also engaged customers with the story behind their products and developed relationships. This vision is the reason I didn’t pursue my other ideas for startups (which, by the way, included craft beer breweries and a bakery chain.) It was this evolution of storytelling and direct communication with customers that allowed our internet mall to succeed where other earlier efforts – some backed by very big and successful technology companies like IBM – had failed.

Reinventing rewards

Later, we reimagined another existing concept – the loyalty point. Loyalty programs had long been used by retailers in Japan as a way to offer discounts to customers. We asked ourselves, “Why can’t we make loyalty points do more?” Launched in 2002 as Rakuten Ichiba’s in-service point program, our popular Rakuten Points program quickly evolved so that now, points can be earned or used across a diverse array of Rakuten Group and partner services.

In fact, points are at the very heart of the Rakuten Ecosystem, acting as a connector between our businesses and other businesses across multiple industries. This innovation has paid off: Rakuten Points, which recently reached the two trillion point milestone, is said to be the leading loyalty points program in Japan for customer satisfaction.

This has tangible results: A Rakuten Ichiba customer might try our financial services simply because they like the rewards, the convenience and flexibility of Rakuten Points, or a Rakuten Pay user might switch over to Rakuten Mobile for the same reason. Points existed before we embraced the concept, but our new use of this existing concept took our offering to new levels.

Innovation is only limited by our imagination

This is where the tech world often gets it wrong: Innovation doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, it can mean finding a novel way to leverage the wheel to improve the way we do things. Innovation doesn’t need to be flashy or futuristic in order to create real value and empowerment. It can be a technological breakthrough, a business model breakthrough, or maybe a supply chain breakthrough. There are many types of innovation and we have to be open about doing things differently. And it can be as simple as rethinking ideas from the past.

As we push every day to invent new and exciting businesses, we must also take the time to look around at what we have and wonder what else is possible. This is something I do all the time. What is new about what we take for granted every day? What is new about the way we work and play and raise our families?

Consider schools. We have used this system to educate our children for generations. But is there something new we can see in this age-old approach? What if we didn’t use a system of classrooms and teachers as we know it? What if we don’t need buildings at all to achieve our education goals? If we keep an open mind and embrace innovation, it may be possible to improve the educational experience for students and teachers alike.

While there may not be one single way to spark innovation, it’s worth reminding ourselves that innovation doesn’t have to come from something brand new. Look at some aspect of your life that you’ve taken for granted and ask: What if?

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