An Innovator’s Rant

Working in startups, corporate innovation and business transformation for almost a decade, the concept of innovation still eludes me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not difficult to deliver on the promise of innovation to the board and management when it comes to the literal definition of innovation - trying something new and enabling change for the organisation. What eludes me is the kind of innovation which brings a sense of purpose to a career in innovation.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a rewarding career in innovation and still enjoy the funs of being in a job where ambiguity is the prize and price of my daily routine. The experience of different industries allows me to see how each tackle disruption in their unique way.

However, one thing was consistent for me which I also noticed in many of the innovators i’ve had the privilege to work with - the proverbial question of where does these innovation lead to? We had the hopes of pushing the industry into unchartered waters, dabble in areas where no one else was willing to go, and plant the flag of a frontiersman as we topple the industry from where we stand and build a new empire on top of new foundations.

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Maybe what we’ve been familiar with is the pop culture of innovation - where Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix toppled the industries and redefined the mechanics of it. Maybe innovation isn’t about restructuring legacy and sparking a revolutionised future. Perhaps innovating legacy is just that safe answer to a world where if you weren’t ready to innovate, you’ll be replaced.

But regardless of what it is, people like us still stand strong with the belief that we can break the industry’s mould. In that case, maybe innovation is giving others hope in a rat race world where everything remains constant; perhaps, innovation exist to present a glimpse of light that there must be a better way to do what we’ve all known to be the norm - seeding hopes that they, too, can change the world.

Your hesitation is my motivation
— Annonymous

What I Learnt From Hackathons and Startup Weekends

Having been a part of various hackathons and startup weekends as a participant, facilitator and mentor over the past 3 years, I've decided to pen down the top 5 lessons I've learnt along my journey. 

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1. Show That You're Foolish

When we join a hackathon or startup weekend, we start off with a huge idea of what we want to build and an imaginary new world made better by the solution we've conceived. Yet somehow, that vision shrinks when we try to translate them into words. Why does that happen? Maybe it's because the dream seems too far-fetched and unachievable, so we choose to be conservative in our vision to avoid sounding silly. That big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) is then lost in the process.

Here's the thing - If your vision doesn't sound foolish enough - it probably isn't good enough. Just do a quick scan of the companies making - or at least standing a chance to make - a real change in the world today. Their visions would have been touted as delusional when they started. Who would had foreseen that it would be globally accepted to stay in a stranger's house when you travel? AirBnB believed in that world, and made it happen.

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2. Focus On The Why

During Startup Weekends, teams are urged to conduct as many validations and experiments as possible to prove that our problem, customer, solution and business model is viable. However, many teams end up validating only the "What" without truly understanding the "Why". In the case of the Business Model Canvas, it isn't about guessing a customer segment and testing to see if your guess was right. It's about investigating the underlying reasons behind why the results are the way they are.

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Here's an example to better illustrate this. Let's say there's a startup that believes in proactive healthy living. Their solution is a mobile app that allows users to monitor and analyse their health history. As health becomes more of a problem when we get older, the startup then assumes that their key customer segment is in the 35 to 55-year-old range. If we tested the "What" of this assumption, it would highly turn out to be true as we'll only be focusing on the fact that 35 to 55-year-olds are more health-conscious.

If we were to delve into the "Why", we might discover that the reason for them being more health-conscious now is because they could not proactively monitor their health when they were younger as there was no good solution available. Investigating further on this, the startup then identifies that the younger generation is actually concerned about health too and do not wish to be in the state where the 35 to 55-year-olds are right now, when they get older. By delving into the "Why", a more tech savvy, younger generation with increasing spending power could had been identified as the potential early adopters for their solution instead.

3. Emotions Trumps Numbers

During demo-day or the final pitch, it is always tempting to put the spotlight on large market sizing and revenue numbers to entice the judges. However, the truth is that it's the customer that makes or breaks your business - not how big your projections are. If your customer connects with the deep frustration you are trying to solve, you'll get the revenue. Even if your market is small, by solving a real negative emotion, you'll eventually monopolise the market.

This was what Google did when other search engine giants were already around. Web users had a huge pain finding something relevant online and existing search engines were plagued with distracting advertisements surrounding the search box. Google's solution was to cut down on frustrations and distractions, thus making them the world leader in search today.

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On top of this, we've got to remember that the judges at such events are people too. By pitching from emotional value instead of market capitalisation, you'll be more likely to get their attention during your pitch.

4. Growth Is Better Than Size

If you do choose to focus on market sizing and potential revenue of your startup instead, it pays to emphasise on growth over existing market size. Let's say your solution is in the travel industry and you've identified that the market is worth trillions because that's how much the industry is generating today. How much market share could you realistically get? Probably 0.1%? If you're trying to convince the judges that you have a grand vision, yet that vision is limited to 0.1% of a highly competitive red-ocean market, it's not that great a vision now is it?

Peter Thiel has a great explanation of this in his book Zero To One. By owning a small percentage of a large but highly competitive market, it's difficult to stay ahead as anyone can join in the rat race. It's probably better to get 100% of a smaller market where you can block off competitors as you gain control of the ecosystem. Whenever possible, show how you'll create a niche market which you'll be able to own a hundred percent of and how that new market will expand in the future. AirBnB created a new supply and demand market for hospitality. Uber developed a new supply channel for on-demand transportation. Facebook was the reason why social media marketing even exists today. These are great examples of how companies can create and monopolise new markets.

5. Minimum Viable Product doesn't mean Broken Product

This is probably one of the most common mistakes startups make. By being lean, we are advised to push out a minimum viable product (MVP) as soon as possible, to test as much as possible, at a cost that is as low as possible. But that doesn't mean that it it is acceptable to launch an MVP that is broken in any form. 

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If your MVP doesn't have the right amount of emotional design, usability and reliability, you'll lose customers right after the first interaction. And all of us know that it's very tough to recover a broken relationship. So I implore startups out there to please not screw up your MVP.

 

OK, The ONE Lesson

If there was only one lesson that is truly more worthwhile than all those I've listed above, it's my newfound definition of a startup. A startup is not the result of a ground-breaking solution, nor the outcome of a grand vision on pitch day. A real startup is created only when a bunch of people who trust one another decide to make an impact in the world they live in - as a team. So, even if you failed to win any hackathons or startup weekends, what is important is the team that you've created. Cherish that team and anything is possible.

5 reasons why your startup should focus on your habits

Much of entrepreneurship literature encourages us to focus on finding actual problems worth solving, but, how do we know which problems are worth solving? A good rule of thumb would be to focus on your customers' habits and here's five reasons why.

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1. Acceptable Solutions

We read a lot about User Experience Design and Human-centric Design being the new focus when developing solutions, but what many startups sometimes forget to do is understanding how the solution is functioning within the user's life (not as a functional solution but a part of the user's life routine and flow of actions). I refer to this as User Habit Design. Take the solution and its functionalities out of the way, and focus on the user's journey around the problem you are trying to solve, their habits and, most importantly, their emotions while facing it.

Here are some examples of how solutions might not be "accepted". If your solution is not a habit the user is looking to improve/change, even if you're solving an actual problem, it is highly unlikely that it will last in the long run as the novelty of your solution will eventually dry out. In short, you've got a cool idea but it's not that big a problem. Or if your solution requires an entirely new habit to be formed and which only works with your solution, it is highly unlikely it will organically sustain.

The "new" behaviours "created" by successful startups (e.g. Uber, Facebook, Twitter, AirBnB) that we are familiar with today were incremental evolutions from existing behaviours. They were not created from scratch nor did they require a huge change in our existing behaviours. If your solution can relate with an existing behaviour and requires only incremental change in behaviour, there will be a higher chance for your startup to succeed.

If you have large coffers of investment and time allowance, you may be able to create new behaviours over 5 to 7 years before getting customers to truly appreciate your solution (e.g. Square, Tesla) - but if you're like most startups, this is a luxury you probably do not have.

2. Higher Retention

When your solution clings onto your users' existing behaviours, it is more likely that you'll see users coming back to you more often. This significantly reduces your retention costs, and the need to run promotional campaigns just to get your users to come back to your solution. Nir Eyal's book "Nir & Far" explains how to tap on existing user behaviours, create incremental behaviours and "hook" them back to reinforce such behaviours. To get higher retention rates, focus on your user's journey and build solutions for habitual problems.

3. Efficient Experiments

Most lean startups would be running a new experiment every other day. If your solution is only used once a year (e.g. when going for that annual holiday trip) or even once a lifetime (e.g. when getting married), it is very difficult to get measurable feedback. Efficient measurable feedback means being able to efficiently contrast your users' behaviours from before the experiment was conducted and after. By working with a core group of users as they grow with your platform, you are able to focus on serving an identifiable group of core customers.

4. Easier Explanations

With so many new product ideas and startups out there, you do not want to spend too much time explaining the core benefits of your product to your customers. It has to be apparent to them. If the problem is a habitual recurrence, it is likely that they will buy into the product just by listening to your elevator pitch. However, if its not a habitual recurrence, you'll face a lot of resistance from users with a "I can deal with the problem" or "I'm not the core customer but I believe others will use it" mindset.

Many startup founders I speak with tend to gravitate towards the belief that when this happens, it's because the benefit is not explained clearly enough. They think, "once the user experiences the solution, they will fully appreciate its benefits." I believe this to be a fallacy. If the customer doesn't appreciate the benefits your solution can offer, it is most likely on the wrong track.

5. Startup Before Product

Most of the startup community evangelise being agile and lean, but much of this is explained in context of building an Minimum Viable Product. Startup founders and team members have to understand that your product doesn't drive your startup. You're looking to solve a problem for a customer – if your product doesn't work, scrap it and start again. By being open to building several MVPs to test against a customer group instead of focusing on improving that one (possibly failed) product, a startup is more likely to discover the right solution that customers are looking for.

5 startup tips from Jon Favreau's movie "Chef"

Jon Favreau's latest movie centers on a frustrated but talented Chef, Carl Casper, who quit his job at a prominent LA restaurant and eventually started a food truck which turned his life around. While the trailer had us focused on the mouthwatering foodporn (and Scarlett Johannson), the movie was filled with useful takeaways for entrepreneurs. Here are five of them:

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1. It's Going To Be A Journey

After leaving the head chef position at a prominent restaurant in LA, Carl was stuck trying to figure out what to do next till he decided to take a chance on an abandoned food truck. I assume running a scrappy food truck is far from what any head chef would consider a successful career, but who knew that this would be the path to having his own restaurants in the future? An even bigger twist of events is when Carl's "social media enemy" became his first investor. Entrepreneurship is a journey. New challenges and uncertainty will constantly hit you right in the face. Be ready for them and hustle on.

2. Validate With Actual Customers

Believing in what we do gives us strength for the tough times. However, blind belief will not be able to guarantee your business' success. Test your product with actual customers. Carl didn't just drive his food truck straight back from Miami to LA where he intended to be based out of. He tested his cuban sandwiches with actual customers along the way, and even made changes to cater to the varied local tastes. Constant testing is the only way for us to learn what our customers want, what they dislike and what they are willing to pay for. Most of your tests will fail, but this will just bring you closer to success after all, there are only so many ways to make an awesome cuban sandwich.

3. Align Your Vision With Your Team

This is especially important during the early stages of your startup  everyone needs to be on the same page and believing in the same thing. When Carl's son, Percy, thought that it was alright to serve a slightly burnt cuban sandwich to the customer, Carl had a serious conversation with him. Carl's vision was to deliver the best cuban sandwich experience to his customers and he needed Percy to share the same vision. When your vision is aligned, your team is able to efficiently deliver on that shared vision without you having to check in on them consistently. A shared vision builds trust and efficiency.

4. Humanize Your Social Media

There is no doubt that Percy's tweets and vine posts played a huge role in Carl's food truck success. Carl's social media drama with an influential food blogger gathered many followers for him, and it was a genius move by Percy to leverage on that. However, what connects Carl and his crew to their followers was how Percy humanized the brand. By posting behind-the-scenes images, tweeting their next location and menu items, it is easy for their followers to feel like they are a part of the experience. So the next time you tweet something  ask yourself, how would a 10-year kid do it? Keep it simple and relatable.

5. Learn!

While running your startup, it is common to wear multiple hats which means you'll have to pick up new skills and do things you've never done before. Although this lesson might not be obvious from the movie, to prepare for the role, Jon Favreau actually went for culinary lessons and worked in the line for food truck master Roy Choi. Why did he take lessons when he could have had a double perform those perfect slices of onions? That's because Jon believes in bringing out the authenticity of every character he portrays. The determination to learn and desire to do it as well as others who have mastered the craft is important when you start your own business. Eventually you'll have to hire a team and delegate responsibilities that you are weak in so that you can focus on your strengths, but until you are able to do that, keep learning. Constantly teach yourself new skills and refine your current repertoire. It'll be tough but worth it.

I admit, it's still a movie...

Yes, Hollywood isn't exactly the Harvard for startups. As a Hollywood movie, we expect a good ending despite the struggles throughout the show and everything is always clearer in hindsight. However, I still find myself being inspired by such a simple feel-good movie. If you have seen the movie, what do you think?