In mainstream media, and in the corporate lexicon, the word innovation has become ubiquitous – particularly when discussing entrepreneurship, technology, leadership, and how all three combine. As a result, it has all but lost its meaning.
Among startups, for example, product differentiators are often peddled as ‘innovations’ – when in fact they are simply, product differentiators.
Journalists often trumpet the release of a high profile company’s latest ‘innovation’, when in fact it is simply the release of a new product (and should be reported as such!).
Why is this important?
Because while word usage may appear to be trivial, I believe that the way an entrepreneur or company ‘internalises’ innovation naturally translates into how they approach innovation.
If innovation is merely understood to be something new, as opposed to something deeper that is – through deliberate strategies – embedded into the culture, then a startup will simply be pursuing ‘innovation’ for innovation’s sake.
This is why entrepreneurs should be focused on instilling innovation velocity.
Velocity implies the powerful combination of speed and direction. And while we all know – in today’s fast and disruptive environment – that speed and time to market is critical, many entrepreneurs pay little to no attention to direction. So while they are intent on creating new and ‘innovative’ products or services, they fail to consider whether their product differentiators are truly aligned with the company’s vision and long-term trajectory.
Despite the fact that innovation is happening at a rate of knots (in keeping with the market’s pace), much of this energy and output is ultimately wasted – because the resulting products or services are not aligned with the company’s core mission.
Take Apple Inc. after Steve Jobs’ initial ouster, for instance. The tech company was preoccupied with a whole host of ‘innovations’ and pet projects – very few of which were aligned to any singular focus or direction at Apple. However, when Jobs returned and re-assumed a leadership role, he shut down almost all of these projects and rallied the organisation behind a clearly defined and singular purpose.
He essentially took hold of the innovative intentions, paired them with velocity, and the rest is some pretty impressive history!
So how does one embed innovation velocity into a business and its processes?
To start with, identify the various business challenges or tasks and how long they take to accomplish. For example, product launches, fundraising, product testing – how long does it take to complete each of these critical elements?
Once you have established this, consider how you can get better at each element – and shorten the time it takes. So if product testing takes six months, how can you shorten it to three months, and eventually one month?
This will require implementing certain processes, and by implementing these processes, you are allowing the business to focus on its core mission – while also speeding up key elements.
We call this the creation of a constantly improving tool chain – and whether you apply it to team performance, product launches, or company finances – this improving tool chain lays the foundation for a truly innovative culture (and truly innovative outputs!).
Another strategy to ensure that maximum velocity is being achieved is to periodically reflect on the direction the business is traveling in – are you sticking to your original plan and vision? Have you pivoted, and if so, was this pivot successful? By constantly checking in, you can keep the business both lean and focused.
In short, instead of blindly pursuing innovation – at a furious pace – first ensure that your projects are closely aligned with a singular, core purpose…and then embed smart processes that enable you to achieve that all important innovation velocity.
A Short Cut For Corporates To Digital Innovation: Start-ups
Charlie Stewart, co-founder and CEO of Rogerwilco shares his advice for turning to start-ups for solutions.
If there is one anathema in corporate culture, it is failure. With profit to be made and share prices to increase, failure is simply not an option. And yet, when listening to stories about success in the digital space, failure is there to put one on the right path to success. The phrase ‘Fail fast, Fail often’ is often bandied about, and innovation can be seen as a constant process of iteration, test and failure, repeating this until a well refined service or product is on the table.
Many corporates are waking up to the uncomfortable fact that at a structural level, the type of innovation required to grow in today’s digital landscape, is out of their reach, at least when trying to come up with it internally. So what to do? Charlie Stewart, co-founder and CEO of Rogerwilco shares his advice for turning to start-ups for solutions.
1. The start-up solution
Corporates comfortable in the digital space – Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon – have been buying startups for years, and now companies are realising that when it comes to Blockchain, artificial intelligence and machine learning, they need to turn elsewhere. And they are. Matt Garratt, Vice President of Salesforce Ventures noted that of the roughly 1500 tech acquisitions Stateside in 2016, half of them were bought by non-tech companies, showing that buying a start-up is a quick way to acquire new technologies, skills or patents.
But purchasing a company with a fully developed product can be an expensive and often risky play. Instead we are beginning to see a trend where corporates are framing agile startups as solution providers, offering them seed funding to come up with answers to digital headaches.
In the US, defence contractor Lockheed Martin has turned its investment strategy around, focusing on young startups instead of more mature companies. In the region of $20 million was ploughed into startups in 2017, helping Lockheed Martin to get a slice of the pie in fast moving spaces such as cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles and nanotechnology.
2. Outsourcing the problem
For corporates turning to start-ups, there are two benefits. Firstly, by doing so companies are casting their net a bit wider, with not only more eyeballs on the problems but, importantly, without the restraints of the corporate boardroom. There is more out-of-the-box thinking involved, no internal politics to worry about and far less of a threat of somebody’s career being jeopardised.
Secondly, if a start-up comes up with a solution, investing in the fledgling company can be cheaper than purchasing one with an established solution. If a buy-out is on the cards, it is less risky too since the due diligence process has been worked through and cultural challenges have been ironed out.
But not all start-ups actually want a buy-out. Some rather prefer access to market and skills transfer, especially around the commercial side of business. Yes, they do need investment, so companies can provide them with a proof of concept to take their idea forward, or potentially a more structured form of investment in their business.
3. Cape Town: the start-up hub of Africa
Locally, Cape Town can be seen as the tech start-up hub of Africa, and is certainly a good place for corporates to start sniffing around for that digital innovation golden ticket. Events such as last year’s AfricArena conference proved that Cape Town can be a fruitful hunting ground. 80 start-ups from across Africa attended the inaugural event, and were tasked to find solutions to problems provided by corporates beforehand. Air France, for example, was looking for innovative mobile solutions, the City of Cape Town wanted to see how technology can be used to improve the tourism industry, while RCS asked for a loyalty programme to match a new credit programme.
By all accounts the event was a major success, connecting start-ups with corporates and investors, both attending the event and dialing in. The winner of Air France’s challenge, mobile payment solution provider WeCashUp, received multiple offers of investment and the project has moved on to the proof-of-concept phase.
4. The start-up lifeboat
Many companies need to face up to the fact that the current corporate structure they are working within does not allow for the type of innovation required to adapt to, never mind thrive, in a digital world. South African companies were perhaps sheltered from the digital tsunami that has eviscerated the analogue business world, but the wave has hit our shores. If it is innovation that is needed, it is time to turn to agile startups, far better adapted to a sink-or-swim digital environment, to come up with the solutions.
How Amazon Is Keeping It Lean
Amazon spends a lot of money, but it’s also surprisingly lean. Here’s why even successful companies that are scaling quickly should be doing their best to save money where they can.
Amazon makes an astonishing amount of money. For instance, its third quarter earnings for 2017 was $43,7 billion. But the margin for an e-commerce site like Amazon is notoriously small. Not only do customers demand low prices, but the costs associated with fulfilling these orders are very high. Because of this, the company’s profit during the same period was only $347 million.
On top of this, Amazon also spends a tremendous amount of money on growth and expansion. Its third quarter revenue of $43,7 billion represented growth of 34%, but its profit dipped 40% from $575 million to $347 million. Yet, despite this drop in profitability, Amazon’s share price increased by 7%. Why is this? Investors know how and why Amazon spends money.
Since its inception, the company has focused on three things:
- Low prices
- Customer service
- Long-term success.
And it hasn’t been afraid of spending money in pursuit of this. It took Amazon six years to turn its first profit, and even after that it was rarely profitable. Only since 2015 has the company become consistently profitable.
This is not because the business model doesn’t work — Amazon would make a fortune if it squirrelled away every cent it earned — but because it is sacrificing immediate profits for long-term success. The only reason its profitability took such as dip in the third quarter of 2017 was because the amount of money the company was investing in growth had quadrupled year on year.
Yes, Amazon spends a lot of money, but here’s the interesting thing
The company is also exceptionally frugal. The important thing to focus on is the nature of Amazon’s spending. It will spend millions (even billions) to improve a fulfilment centre, and it will even slash its profit margin to offer customers better prices, but it won’t waste money on things that don’t improve the company in the eyes of the customer.
Frugality is even one of Amazon’s core ‘Leadership Principles’. “Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense,” the company document states.
When it comes to day-to-day operations, few large organisations run as lean as Amazon. While Google builds funky offices and gives away free food, Amazon does the opposite.
“Bezos enforced strict frugality in Amazon’s daily operations; he made employees pay for parking and required all executives to fly coach,” wrote author Brad Stone in a book on Amazon called The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
As the years have passed and Amazon has become more financially secure, things haven’t changed much when it comes to frugality
“Evidence of the company’s constitutional frugality is everywhere,” Stone writes about the current state of the company. “Conference room tables are a collection of blonde-wood door-desks shoved together side by side. The vending machines take credit cards, and food in the company cafeterias is not subsidised. When a new hire joins the company, he gets a backpack with a power adapter, a laptop dock, and some orientation materials. When someone resigns, he is asked to hand in all that equipment — including the backpack. The company is constantly searching for ways to reduce costs and pass on those savings to customers in the form of lower prices.”
It’s impossible to scale without spending money, but it’s important to pay close attention to exactly what money is being spent on. Scaling means more people, bigger offices and better equipment, but everything you spend money on should result in a better customer experience. Don’t be afraid to spend money on things that will improve the company, but don’t waste money on things customers will never know or care about. Even if you’re scaling quickly and making money, you should be treating expenses like a lean start-up. Don’t accept an expense without questioning its usefulness. That’s just good basic business practice.
R&D: Compulsory Homework For Your Business
Why Research & Development are critical to your company’s future.
It’s one thing to develop a technology that everybody wants. It’s a completely different thing launching it, if the legislation or environment aren’t encouraging. Often, the result is companies who have grand ideas and little influence, and this is why it’s essential that you carry out in-depth Research and Development (R&D).
Defining market research
Market research is the gathering and analysis of information, so that organisations can better understand the market, environment, and demand for a new product.
The purpose of this data is to:
- Understand and advise on existing and upcoming business plans
- Develop new products and innovations
- Forecast new developments that could disrupt the industry.
This kind of insight helps business leaders to be educated on factors that can impact their businesses, ensuring robust, up-to-date bases for their decision-making.
The reason you need R&D
The success of a new product depends heavily on its impact on people’s needs. If it doesn’t add sufficient value, it’s not worth the investment. Because of this, your innovations must be in line with the legislative, economic, political, technological, environmental, and social requirements of the people you hope to sell them to.
How R&D has evolved
R&D ensures that your organisation stays viable and sustainable. You can approach it through organic growth, innovation, or a mix of the two.
However, in this new era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Internet of Things, we’re seeing some significant changes to R&D spending. Because these days, people aren’t alone in their connection to the Internet – machines are there too.
In the future, the success of a product is likely to be determined by its ability to connect to the Internet; without that, it will become obsolete. Smart devices will also create new challenges for organisations, as they’ll require entirely new skills and approaches to business, if they are to grow and evolve.
Innovating through R&D
Innovation is not just supported by R&D; it’s also enhanced by it. It’s also affected by:
- Understanding consumer needs
- Your ability to innovate sustainably
- R&D partnerships that allow you to collaborate with others, so you can share the risks and costs of innovation, and speed up the various processes.
An open approach to R&D
One approach to R&D collaboration is through open innovation, where an organisation partners with another party. An initiative like this works well for technological advances, globalisation, and changes to comms technology.
A closed approach to R&D
The more traditional closed approach to R&D is where one company funds and contains the R&D initiatives. And it can be successful too, as long as the initiating company has well-defined and measurable input, throughput, and output.
R&D in an investment company
Sometimes the subsidiaries in a holding company experience poor communication, resulting in divided direction and unhealthy competition. Because R&D can be expensive and resource-heavy, an organisation-wide strategy must be implemented.
Then, when all stakeholders understand the potential ROI and the operational process involved in R&D, healthy competition and an educated understanding of customer needs can be maintained. This is, of course, the ‘win-win’.
R&D is essential to making relevant, strategic, and educated business decisions. And in our global economy, it’s a competitive advantage you can’t afford not to have.
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