Little Bird Innovation leverages creative talent in business

Nicole Heckman is co-founder of Little Bird Innovation, a Memphis-based research, strategy and design firm that is driven by the desire to solve complex challenges. 

Hear Nicole speak on her experience as a creative entrepreneur at Creatives in the City on 12/2, presented by High Ground News and the EPIcenter. Register for free here.

What is Little Bird Innovation? 
Little Bird Innovation is a Memphis-based research, strategy & design firm that is driven by the desire to solve complex problems. Tackling such challenges requires multi-disciplinary thinking. As such, we blend social science, business and design to develop compelling new products, services or experiences. For example, we are currently working with Memphis College of Art to define new growth opportunities and determine how to optimize space to foster community and program expansion.
 
We are coming up on our one year anniversary and currently have eight people on the team.  Our team size fluctuates based on number of projects, complexity and specialized skill needs.

What opportunities have you found for creative entrepreneurs in Memphis?
There are many different directions creative entrepreneurs can take. At Little Bird, we are always looking for creatives that can work across a number of design disciplines and operate at a more strategic level. We call this the “T” shaped individual, a person with deep expertise and skills in one area, but who can also work broadly across a number of topic areas. For example, at Little Bird this translates into a person who can evaluate a customer experience, architect and lead a brainstorming session, negotiate change in an organization, develop new ideas, prototype (model) new ideas, formulate strategies, craft a compelling storyline, and design a beautiful presentation. These activities all require creativity, but also collaboration, critical thinking, time management and business acumen.
 
We would love to see more creative entrepreneurs join start-up teams, especially socially-minded enterprises. Whether digital or physical, new product and service start-ups need a strong designer to help create a compelling brand story and user experience. This is more than designing a logo, it is about embedding design as a core value of the enterprise.  
 
Finally, like the rest of the country, Memphis is coming around to valuing artisan goods that are made intentionally and at a superior quality.  This is a great time for creative entrepreneurs who are passionate about creating a brand and a line of products. It can start as a side hustle and often with very little investment. Perfect your craft, experiment with different sales channels and master business basics. Once established, find a way to make it your main hustle. Nothing is more motivating than having to put food on your table!

Where is Memphis lacking in resources for creative entrepreneurs? How can we improve? 
We interviewed a number of creative entrepreneurs for a recent project and found that many of them had to learn the business part of being an entrepreneur the hard way, through trial and error. They learned their craft in school, but had little training on how to operate a business, sell their work, and value their time.  We would also like to see more resources to help creative entrepreneurs scale their businesses into enterprises that can profitably take on larger projects or orders and employ others. Lastly, we’d like to see more events like Creative Works and the Creatives in the City panel that bring together the Memphis creative class for networking and learning from one another.

What is your favorite project Little Bird Innovation has completed? 
We just completed a one week demonstration project with the Cossitt Library on Front St. downtown. We say demonstration because it’s purpose was to show what is possible leveraging a design thinking approach with a small budget and just five days. We interviewed current users and non-users of the library, as well as library staff and went to area libraries and schools all to understand the current role of Cossitt in the community. From this learning we brainstormed ways of bringing in new users, improving the space and leveraging the amazing grassroots efforts already underway among frequent library users. We brought in city and library officials and downtown organizations to provide feedback on simple models and sketches we created of our core ideas. The week culminated in us creating a children’s area focused on learning with shelves of books, a homework help area, an art area, a stage and costumes, an interactive felt art wall, a game area, a teen reading area, and a young kid's reading area. What was so amazing is that our networks made it happen in a mere 36 hours with donations of things and time.  Oftentimes our projects result in recommendations that take weeks, months or even years to come to fruition. This was a fantastic opportunity to do something tangible in a very short period of time.

What advice do you wish you had from the get go with launching Little Bird?
Set aside time every week to work “on” the business versus “in” the business. Projects and day-to-day tasks can quickly overwhelm your schedule, so it’s important to have scheduled time to come up out of the weeds and focus on the big picture. We now get together for two hours every other week to talk about where we are headed, assess our progress and set longer term goals.
 
What inspired you to develop Little Bird? Are there specific traits you find to be crucial in being a successful creative entrepreneur?
Put simply, we want to contribute in our own way to the fantastic momentum we see in Memphis.
 
Zack and I loved our previous work in the innovation space and wanted to take our skills and apply them to our mutually shared passion of improving our city and region.  Design thinking has long been used by leading corporations for product and service development; we see huge opportunity to leverage it within civic, social and economic development circles.  A big part of design thinking is developing empathy for the target customer, constituent or beneficiary. This leads to a richer understanding of their true needs and co-creating better solutions.  
 
I teach introduction to entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis and this is what I would tell my students:
 
+ Your business needs to solve a problem. Make sure there is a need for what it is you want to provide.
+ Know your customer. Successful businesses know their target customer and understand their needs
+ Be passionate about what you are doing. It is the only thing that will keep you going during an 80-hour week.
+ Stay curious.  Recognize you don’t know everything and be a lifelong learner.
+ Value networking and sharing ideas. A robust personal network is essential to growing a successful business.
+ Be willing to fail. Most new businesses do fail; it doesn’t make you a failure. Learn from the experience, make changes and come back stronger.
 
Creative entrepreneurs, in particular, need to know how to value their time and sell that value.  A proposal should demonstrate the value and explain the time investment so that the client can better understand and rationalize the price.

 What is the future of Little Bird?
We are so excited for 2016!  We have several exciting collaborations on the horizon. One that is particularly relevant to this article is a project in partnership with EPICenter to measure the economic impact of artisan enterprise here in Memphis. Memphis currently measures and incentivizes large scale manufacturing, but small batch goods are currently off the radar. Memphis measures economic contribution of the performing arts, but not the economic contribution of arts for small scale manufacturing. Through quantitative and qualitative research, we will give a voice to those who craft goods here in Memphis, understand their unique needs and make recommendations for how to better support these talented makers.
 
 

Read more articles by Amy Hoyt.

Amy Hoyt is High Ground News' Community Engagement Specialist, which suits her love of Memphis and its inhabitants. 
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