THE BLOG
11/24/2014 05:53 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

In Defense Of Reinventing The Wheel

Martin Barraud via Getty Images

Many business owners in well-established industries, when faced with flagging sales, increased competition or any other threat to their company's profitability, will do many things to stoke a renewed interest in their business. What most won't do, however, is question what they know and believe about their industry and acquiesce to the demand to innovate -- that is, to truly innovate. In business parlance, to assent to such a demand is generally known as "reinventing the wheel," and it is often used pejoratively. But why is that so?

Really, the fear is predicated on two flawed conclusions in the minds of stubborn entrepreneurs: the first is that to reinvent the wheel would be to ignore the very principles upon which the company, industry, or product was founded, causing one to lose sight of what made the company a success in the first place. Variations of the bitter hypothetical "We've lasted this long in the industry, why change now?" surely echo the halls at such companies.

The second incorrect assumption reached is that reinventing the wheel means spending an inordinate amount of time, money and effort that could be better spent on giving the weary business a new coat of paint. To invent anything necessarily takes a great deal of all of those things, after all.

Yet taken literally, admonishments to eschew wheel-reinventing ignore the plain truth that the wheel was, is, and will forever be reinvented.

I came to own my Minuteman Press franchise in November, 2013, coming from a seemingly disparate -- though not altogether dissimilar -- world of IT. The roots of the company extend back to 1973, over 40 years ago, a veritable different epoch compared to the IT industry. But both the franchise as a whole and my own Minuteman Press business stand as good examples of how to roll with the punches of industry change and adapt to the demands of a customer base with rapidly changing expectations.

Rumors of the death of the printing industry have been greatly exaggerated since about the time of Minuteman's founding. Personal printers, industry leaders were told, would be the death kneel of the industry, and soon.

But the industry stood up against the rigors of time and technology by providing services that made customers actually want to have their printing done by a third-party. Lexmark, HP and the like may have brought down the prices of consumer printers, but the quality of products printed from professionals still couldn't be matched at home. Moreover, expertise and guidance offered by trained professionals proved invaluable to customers who still expected professional-quality printing. Here, printers still appealed to the traits that made them thrive, but they also took stock and adapted their strategies. That meant, on occasion, reinventing the wheel.

But that's only half the story. I recently became the first Minuteman Press franchise to have a 3-D printer in-house. I wanted the company to be seen as more than being "just a printer." Given my background, I knew the advantages of being several steps ahead of the curve in terms of reinventing my store. Taking what I learned in the world of computing, I bought a 3-D printer and learned the technology -- thoroughly. As was the case when home printers dropped precipitously in price, I knew that I had to have a way to stand out from the crowd.

To use an example, with 3-D printing, customers can produce a prototype with significantly less expense than would ordinarily be required from an overseas manufacturer. Moreover, compared to prototypes produced in China, for example, our printing is far more expedient. Producing this locally with a 3D printer is less expensive, less time consuming and is much easier to work with someone locally versus someone overseas, where you have no control on what and when you will get the prototype.

Some of the more conservative folks in the industry may have looked at the purchase of a 3-D printer as sacrilege. But we've had success with it, drawing even those customers that have no interest in 3-D printing itself but nonetheless recognize the advantage of soliciting a business on the forefront of an industry.

Being an entrepreneur demands having a great deal of reverence for the history of your industry of choice, that much is obvious, but it also requires that you know when it's acceptable to break with tradition and try something new. Reinventing the wheel isn't about ignoring the defining tenets of what makes a wheel a wheel, it simply means building on what you've learned and making it better.

That, to me, is what entrepreneurship is all about.