Innovation, the new average

Innovation

[As seen on Times of Malta, 21st November, 2013]

Innovation is an overused and abused term. From political figures to businessmen, innovation, as a word, is thrown in as part of their remit or mission statement. Innovation has been so overused that as a term, it today has a negative effect or, worse still, means nothing more than mainstream or average.

In fact, when I read a press release, mission statement or advert and the word innovative appears, I immediately understand it to mean an aspiration rather than a fact. Even though that company might have something worth shouting about, the term simply doesn’t do anything for me.

When entities, political or commercial, use the word innovative or any of its variations, what they are trying to say is “we think it is new and worth taking a look” or “look how clever we are”. Statements such as “Our innovative solution” or “innovative design” adds little value to the subject and is a case of blowing one’s own trumpet.

Innovation in its entirety does not say much about value add. Then what is all the fuss about?

Innovation that matters exists when it is used as the tool for successful entrepreneurship. It is a process of solving a situation or challenge in a different way, even if that innovation is a minute property of the problem. The measure of innovation, would be the change or impact on positive results within the delivered solution.

Therefore, innovation is a process or tool that delivers potential new products or services that can reap financial, or otherwise, rewards. So yes, worth fussing about. A country with a culture that values innovation will most certainly increase their chances for economic growth.

An interesting challenge exists in developing a behaviour that is entrepreneurial and innovative. Such shifts in behavioural patterns to develop these qualities are often the most challenging, as a lot of its makeup has to do with culture.

Interestingly, because innovation is a process, it can therefore be planned. It most certainly is not some eureka moment, or flash of genius, while sitting in a dark room smoking an intellect’s pipe. Innovation comes about through the constant challenging of a status quo, whatever that may be.

The most important aspects of being innovative are essentially understanding how innovation is derived, and after, how it can be validated.

Eureka moments for an innovation happens after a process of recognising a potential solution to a problem that has never been done before. Commonly, the problem is seen from different perspectives, in different domains, through a rigorous challenging process of questioning and through research. Yet the key point in all this is not only the process, but the strict focus on a single idea or problem.

In fact, even when an innovation is deemed noteworthy and is launched into a market, it will most likely be a cyclical process of tweaking and re-innovating. This is due to the fact that once a solution is launched, customer data can be gathered and used to develop solutions of fit within a market, or in other terms, innovations that add value to a market.

This is no newly discovered scientific process of deriving innovation.  Sir Alexander Graham Bell was not trying to invent the telephone but rather was making improvements to the telegraph in a cyclical fashion. The interest and persistence in such improvements came about due to his mother’s gradual deafness which resulted in his research in acoustics.

The process of labelling an innovation comes with customer validation. Proving it within your market fit will deliver the necessary positive change for it to be felt, measured and therefore quantified.

The technology industry has understood this clearly. It understands that innovation is felt mostly once it is used, as value can be transposed or associated with such an innovation. Therefore, tech companies offer 30 day free trials and other taster forms in order to prove its innovation and value and then win the sale, without ever mentioning the term innovative.

So when should we use the word innovative? Innovation is like proper management. Every company needs it, though writing it all over your office walls is nothing more than cheesy.

In Malta, innovation through the entrepreneurship model is beginning to emerge. A quietened murmur of tech start-ups can be heard within the economy as well as an increasing availability of individuals with entrepreneurial spirit. It seems that the stars may be lining up for Malta’s emergence as an entrepreneurial society, which means that the likelihood for real innovation to be seen will be on the increase.

Lessons learnt from a startup weekend in Malta

Malta, the little island in the Mediterranean, shed some light over the weekend on its potential through the StartUp weekend held at SmartCity.

Being the first ever start-up event ever held in Malta, I was not sure what to expect, in terms of both turnout and ideas.

I was pleasantly surprised in the end as the weekend offered the coming together of several individuals that showed a huge amount of both passion and technical ability.

Startup weekend Malta

Being a mentor for the weekend, I honestly feel that I have learnt a huge amount from the teams that were present. Some of which being:

Ideas are seeds to value

Everybody has heard of the saying ‘ideas are cheap’. In truth, ideas are what they are, an expression of interest on a particular subject or problem with underlying suggestive motive to influence change or improvement. Though ideas may deliver little value, they are however seeds in our minds that allows us to develop concentrated thoughts on a particular subject. During the initial idea pitches, most of the ideas were cheap in that it offered little value to anything other than highlighting a ‘could-be’ problem and a makeshift solution. That said, once a team was thrown together focused on problem and solution for an entire weekend, both the problem and the solution was defined and structured and therefore become of value. True, an idea is cheap, but so are seeds. Give it enough time and energy and that seed can become something great, even if the seed isn’t perfect in any way.

Energy is contagious

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” True. Put those five people in a room full of energy and doing great things, and that average will improve multiple times over. Energy and passion is contagious and comparing the difference between the shuffling of feet when entering the startup weekend, to the energy of the room at the end, it was clear that the little community over the weekend worked on developing each others momentum to be better. Truth be told, some of the energy was excitement for the after beers, but then still, you can guess what conversation revolved around at the watering hole.

Malta has huge potential

Last but definitely not least, was the eureka moment by seeing Malta’s potential in a tangible manner. Malta boasts a thriving financial sector, global leaders in the igaming scene, a popular tourist destination, and yet tech is not considered to be a pillar of its economy. The start up weekend taught me that we have the essential pillars to become an ICT hub delivering innovation through start-ups. I knew we had excellent technical people. I knew we had some of the best designers on the island. I knew that we had specialists in key verticals that are essential to solving industry problems. I however did not know we had a community willing to come together and share ideas, take risks, and look at the world as being full of endless possibilities.

Malta certainly has the potential to be great within the tech industry, for both locals wishing to start up a company and take over the world, as well as for foreigners looking to relocate to an up and coming jurisdiction that has a lot of potential in terms of ideas, talent and infrastructure. What about tax reasons? Well, that is just the cherry on the cake.

 

Why a business plan may not be the best tool

Writing a business plan is the last stage before getting onto the roller-coaster ride of a start up. It is referred to as the most important stage before starting a business because it clearly dictates the road which you are to take and defines the vehicle that will get you there. However, how realistic is this?

This post has not been written to influence anyone into not writing a business plan, but merely for the person to be a realist before going about it.

The normal procedure behind writing a business plan begins, like everything else in life, with a Google search, “How to write a business plan” or “Business Plan template”. If this is a start up then there would be the word “free” included in the Google box.

 

The result of this would be a document or template with a sample business plan. This is where the process of adaptation begins. We read what is in the document, and transcribe our thoughts about our venture within the document, section by section. We make assumptions, many of them. Days later, and at best, after scrutiny, the business plan is ready. This has been done over a couple of days being stuck behind four walls. 

Alarm bells! How can you prove to anyone, let alone yourself, that the business venture has an X% chance of it working when you have been locked in a room?

True, this might not be the ideal way to write a business plan, and any serial entrepreneur will disagree with this post, but think about it. The step of writing a business plan is done within a frame of mind of excitement. You have been thinking about a concept or venture for a while and are so convinced that it will work that you go through the pain staking process of writing a business plan.

The end result is a business plan that is written with the sole purpose of reconfirming your idea to yourself.

With all that said, the worst part of writing a business plan however is its viewpoint. A business plan is written from the perspective of a business owner looking outwards, looking at the market and building a business case on why the next venture will work. Didn’t Kotler (or was it Armstrong) tell us to deliver what the market needs? How can a business plan understand such a venture when the market information section is treated in the same light as financials when they are compositely different?

A business plan needs to be complimented with other efforts, and all need to be affected before the Google search. Put your idea through the test by interacting with the market. Allow them to criticise it and tear it to pieces. Understand their needs and challenges, as well as the depth of that need or challenge. It is when you start seeing a sustainable amount of customers giving you the nod that a business plan can be written.