Three things I learned about innovation in 2015

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Like lots of people these days, I do lots of ‘stuff’ in the innovation space.  This year in particular has been interesting, not only for the momentum that has built behind innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia, but because I’ve had a window into lots of different innovation activities.  So what have I been up to, and what have I learned from all this?

Well, to start out, here’s some of the things I’ve been up to this year;

  • Mentoring in a Lean Launchpad program, run by the University of Queensland (UQ) for Australia’s CSIRO
  • Kicking off my own startup, and bringing its first product to market, ‘WineMinder’
  • Running a successful Kickstarter campaign for WineMinder
  • Lecturing in entrepreneurship at the University of Queensland
  • Being engaged as the Queensland University of Technology’s inaugural “Entrepreneur in Residence” (EIR)

So a pretty broad range of activity, really.  I could probably write pages on some of the things I’ve learned from all that, but I’ll cut straight to the chase with the three biggest things that come to mind…

There’s no lack of good ideas out there, and technical innovation doesn’t seem to be a problem.  The real challenge is wrapping a strong business case around the idea and executing on that.

There were over 20 teams in the UQ subject, 7 in the QUT accelerator and 8 at the CSIRO, all of whom were trying bring a new idea to market.  Common across all of these was a fantastic ability to come up with great ideas twinned with a vision of how they could make a difference.  More challenging was taking those ideas and building strong business models around them, including thinking through the detail of how the model would be executed.  When assessing the UQ student business cases, the ones that got me excited were those that dove into the detail of their idea and how it would come to market – detailed cost estimates, channels to market, critical partnerships and realistic time frames. Sure, a lot of that is likely to proven wrong, but the fact that the teams could get to that level of thinking along with coming up with a good idea meant that there would be far fewer surprises in store, and that’s a good thing!

Crowdfunding is easier than I thought!

Running a Kickstarter campaign was a lot of fun, and a lot easier than I thought.  Most of the things that consume time I was doing for the WineMinder business anyway.  And sure, I had to harass some people at the end to get them to pledge, but on the whole it was pretty straight forward.  Now we didn’t raise a huge amount, so that will have influenced the experience for me.  But there are a whole stack of benefits to crowdfunding other than cash, including;

  • Increased brand awareness; the sort startups would struggle to buy
  • Potential investor interest (we had two inquiries for investment during the campaign)
  • It really tests out your idea and your product pricing, as well as providing strong market validation of the idea

As a result, I’d do it again, but prepare my audience much earlier to drive support when the time comes to launch a campaign.

It needs to look like a duck

This one is interesting.  A whole culture has developed around startups, including things like lean startup processes and the associated MVP, pivoting, and a ‘standard’ way of doing things.  I briefly dipped my toe into the water of raising funding, and what I saw there was that things need to ‘look like a duck’ or investors can take a dim view of your startup.

Now, not every startup is the same.  For example, given where the three of us who developed WineMinder are in our careers, it has frequently been cheaper for us to outsource elements of our development than to do it ourselves – we would simply lose money by doing it that way!  However, some investors don’t like that, they want you fully committed, doing all the work for sweat equity.  That’s cool if you’re just out of school, but for mid career professionals, not so much.  It has to be an effective business, so sometimes you need to take a different path to the ‘standard’ one.

Orthodoxy constrains innovation, right?  So it goes for startup processes – they improve success rates (or they should, otherwise why do it?) but constrain innovation in producing the next (better) phase of startup development.   Use processes flexibly and assess startups on their merits and both individual startups and the processes that births them will improve over time.

I’ve learned a lot of other things through the year, but there are the three that stand out for me.  I love what’s going on in the space, and I see a lot of people keen to make the jump into an entrepreneurial venture.  Australia is slowing starting to leverage the great ideas that will form the businesses of the future, and I’m looking forward to using what I’ve learned in 2015 to make a contribution to that in 2016!