Innovative Advice for Execs Looking to Change Their Industry

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Dare to Be Different

Don't be afraid to push the envelope and test the limits. Plan, test, evaluate and retest. Don't take forever to plan, because by the time you have thought of everything, the market will have changed. Use your customers to give you immediate feedback, especially after the product is launched, and be prepared to use that data to get an upgrade or improved model into the market as soon possible. As the saying goes, success lies outside your comfort zone.

Oftentimes, it takes a bold move to set yourself apart from others in your industry. "Be different." Sameness has no value to customers in today's market, especially with the increasing inability to see your products at retail. Most are sold online, so you must create "homerun features" that set you apart. They don't have to be exclusive, but you need to make the message resonate and be heard. Sometimes, you have to change on the fly and not hold on to the anchor all the way to the bottom. You don't want to lose sight of your goal, but getting there may take a different path. 

Nine years ago, Brother asked Dean F. Shulman to reinvent its sewing and embroidery business. To Shulman, sewing machines were an entirely different product line than he was used to marketing — which had been home office products, including the highly successful P-Touch handheld label maker.

Shulman had spent almost 30 years at Brother as a guy who never wanted to be irrelevant. He was known throughout the company as the guy who whole-heartedly embraced the Steve Jobs philosophy of "Think Different." So when he assumed responsibility for the sewing division, one thing became immediately clear: He wanted to turn it from a hardware business into a fashion and lifestyle brand.

He understood that the future of sewing and embroidery was not to focus on the hardware but to create a product line and brand that would embrace the creative soul of the home sewer. Using his knowledge of the technologies used in the office products arena, he knew that through technological advances, Brother could make sewing and embroidery easier for consumers. He set out to change the outdated perceptions about the industry and make it cool again.

First, he forged a partnership with Bravo TV's popular "Project Runway" fashion series – now on Lifetime – where Brother could showcase its brand to a new generation of future "fashionistas" who love the art of creating something "different."  By moving from a hardware-business strategy to creating a new way for sewers to capitalize on their creative spirit, Shulman turned this mature business into a brand new, youthful one.

Introducing new technologies into embroidery products was also the key. HD displays, the first camera-like feature built above the needle – so embroiders could see exactly what the needle sees, laser guides to help sewers sew straighter, as well as a scanning function that takes users’ designs and turns them into stitch data, were all innovations Shulman's team incorporated.

Over a nine-year span, Shulman reinvented the Brother sewing and embroidery business. By introducing new, innovative products – and emphasizing marketing and customer service – he led the division to double their sales, creating a several-hundred-million dollar business in a very mature market. Recognized for these successes, Shulman has been placed on several "top 10 most influential" lists in the industry and in 2014 was inducted into the trade's Sewing Hall of Fame.

In this slideshow, Shulman offers his advice for tech execs, like him, looking to change their industry.


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