Tuesday, April 29

Creativity and Innovation

Since visiting the IDEO office, I have been inspired by their way of working and have sort look at ways of implementing their innovation techniques into Fluid Pixel. What I have come to realize, is that nothing they are doing is particularly revolutionary, or even necessarily difficult to implement. So why then are they consistently able to succeed where others haven’t? I think one of the reasons goes back to my last post about failure, and the culture that has been nurtured at IDEO is very much failure friendly, even encouraged, but the failures are short lived, and it’s not long before success is born from the disappointments.

The attention to detail and the concentration on the customer experience is ingrained within the walls in the IDEO offices, whether it’s the end customer using the product they are designing, or the client, IDEO knows how to look after people. This goes hand in hand with their project and team management which are chosen based on skills and interest, rather than experience. Teams are flexible and dynamic, and the company structure flat, enabling people to concentrate on the job at hand, rather than office politics.

They are also masters at taking inspiration from all corners of the world, including their Tech Box, chocked full of interesting shapes, materials and solutions that act to inspire the “technology brokering” effect by sharing ideas between industries. Something like this could easily be implemented in a software studio, instead of physical objects, it could be a collection of images, code and websites that inspire and provoke new ideas for new product development, assisting in the design process.
I was lucky enough learn firsthand about the techniques used during IDEO style brainstorming and project development at the recent BBC Innovation Labs event and seen how, if executed correctly can be a great asset to any company. I’ve also never seen so many Post It notes used in one week!

However, I don’t believe any of these things are the main reason for IDEO’s success, but they are all the result of this one thing; the employees. Each team member at IDEO goes through a very rigorous recruitment procedure, and they are vetted by a large number of the employees in the office. Handpicked from all over the world, for their abilities in their field, as well as their ability to gel with the team already in place are both vital aspects for new employees.

Sunday, April 27

Risk and Failure

The ability for a company or an entrepreneur to try out new ideas quickly can be key to their success. Even more of a factor is their ability to see at the earliest possible stage when their ideas are not going to succeed and abandon them with the minimal loss of time and money. This could be through analysis of the situation, or simply because the venture failed dramatically.

One of the advantages young companies have is the speed in which they can act, and bring new ideas to market, without the need for lengthy corporate analysis and countless review boards. Ideas can be generated in a morning, and testing by the afternoon to see whether they should move forward with a plan of action. It’s this quick turnaround that can be the difference between success and failure in today’s fast moving markets.

However the challenge comes when deciding which ideas to pursue, and how far to take them before either more resources are allocated, or the project is sidelined before it eats up too much money, or just looks like it’s not going to be as successful as necessary to make it worthwhile. The techniques that can be implemented in doing this, include bootstrapping the venture, outsourcing development work, small scale – holistic testing and keeping flexible in the face of changes; so generally everything that successful entrepreneurial companies do anyway.

What these policies encourage within a company is to try many new things, and test how well they work, or in many cases don’t work. By learning from failures the company is in a better position to go forward, learning from these lessons. If the company is able to do this using minimal time, money and other resources then even if the venture is a failure then they have been successful. This can give them huge advantage over large companies that don’t have the ability to do this, and must produce piles of extensive and expensive market validation, and consumer feedback before even contemplating going to market with a new product.

As Randy Komisar puts it, “Innovation is about taking risks to do things that haven’t been done before” and goes on to rightly describe that if you could understand which ventures were going to succeed before you did them, then there would be no need for innovative companies, as the giants of the world would simply be able to pick them first. As long as the business models (and share holders) of large companies aren’t able to put up with the amount of failure required for innovation then there is space for entrepreneurs to take the risks necessary for success.

How entrepreneurs deal with failure can go as deep as the cultural level, with areas such as US and China having a much more positive outlook on failure than other areas such as Western Europe and India. The ability to fail in business, even go as far as to plan to fail, is a key discerning factor for success in the fast moving business world of today. You only need to look at companies such as Google, Facebook to see how many times they stumbled to get to where they are today, whilst searching for the killer business models that has got them to where they are and it shows how important failure can be, but more importantly is the ability to adapt and learn from failure.

Wednesday, April 23

To business plan, or not to business plan

Having not come from a business, or particularly academic background, I have always been negative towards lengthy and overly pretentious business plans. My views, which have been verified by my experiences with the Kauffman Foundation are that plans should be crafted to serve a distinct purpose. There’s definitely a different view on plans in America than in the UK, where they are commonly taught as the solution to starting a new business. Having been introduced to the 7 slide business plan concept by Bill Aulet, and seen the reliance on business plans attacked by figures such as Carl Schramm and Ted Zoller which backed up my gut feelings on the matter.

I’m not saying that you don’t need to create a business plan, because I think that the process is a necessary step in the journey of starting a business. However, my belief is that the process is the important part, and not the outcome of the plan. By having a framework to work on, it’s easy to spot what the areas of weakness are in your research and be able to tackle them.

A lot of plans that I have seen are more of a research paper, than a plan for business and I this is a mistake. By all means do the research and have all the in depth information that is necessary, but don’t then just transfer this blindly into a “business plan”. My view is the plan should be succinct and to the point, it should contain only the information necessary to get your point across and should draw your audience into the story of the business, not be a bible to every last unnecessary detail.

The same is also true for the financials, in that they are a necessary step in thinking through a business, but this is where their usefulness ends. Of course completing a projected forecast for the next 3, or even worse 5 years is purely academic, what it does do is to force you to think through the different aspects of the business in detail, and it will soon become clear when you have forgotten an important aspect of running the business when you are unable to complete the forecast adequately.

I am convinced that investors are also indifferent to the business plans themselves, and what they are really looking for is the competence and awareness of the founders to create a plan that not only makes sense, but shows a good understanding of business acumen and a grasp of the financials.

Saturday, April 19

End of BBC Innovation Labs

The North East and Yorkshire BBC’s Innovation Labs is sadly now over, and what a great experience it was. The last day involved some great pitches from the companies, all of which were very impressive and posed some tough decisions from the six commissioners from the BBC. It was enjoyable to work with the nine other teams at the Labs, all of which were brimming with ideas and exciting developments. Meeting and working with other teams was one of the best bits of the Labs and I’m definitely going to be following closely how their companies progress and maybe even work with some of the teams at some point.

In the end a number of great projects were picked for further development and funding from the BBC, and although our IPTV entrance wasn’t one of them it was still a great event. The mentors deserve special thanks for their hard work and patience throughout the week. It was great to work with Matt Marsh (First Hand Experience), Nick Durrant (Plotsite), Frank Boyd (Unexpected Media), Rachel Jones and Matthew Cashmore (BBC) during the week. They were extremely easy to work with, and it was interesting to get their perspectives and utilise their tools for developing ideas throughout the labs. I hope that our paths cross again and we get to work together with them in the future.

Overall spending a week at Swinton Park and having the time and space to utilise some of the great tools that the mentors cultured within the groups was invaluable. Actually getting to put the theories into practice around user based experiences, 6 thinking hats, and scenario based thinking was invaluable. There was a lot to take in during the week, but I hope that the experience and lessons that I learnt will be invaluable in the future.

Bring on Innovation Labs 2009!

Thursday, April 17

BBC Innovation Labs

I’m half way through the BBC innovation Labs experience, and it’s been an exhilarating ride so far. Based in the picturesque Swinton Park Hotel, North Yorkshire we have been put through our paces and so far just about surviving the ordeal.
The week started with some loosening exercises which allowed everyone to meet with the other ten teams ranging from one person shops through to large London based design agencies.
After pitching our ideas to each other, and presenting each other’s ideas back to the group. The following few days consisted of IDEO style brainstorming and included a lot of rapid brainstorming using a number of techniques that encouraged idea generation and diverging away from the original idea to see how it could be developed further. After the first three days we had pitched the idea at least 5 times, each focused on a different area or viewpoint on the idea. We were encouraged to create detailed personas to develop the idea around and concentrate on the user experience throughout the process.
Due to the location of the labs, you can’t help feel relaxed and tranquil whist you are here, even though the activities and challenges presented to you means everyone is a little sleep deprived, mainly because the breakfast is so good that no-body wants to miss it.
With the big pitch to the commissioners on Friday, this week is really building up to be a great trip.

Tuesday, April 8

Why Don't Entrepreneurs Scale?

I think the question on whether the entrepreneur is the one to take the company forward to an IPO or large scale venture is a complex one. It firstly has to start with what the individual’s aspirations are and whether they will feel comfortable taking on this role. This is not so much how capable they are, but how dedicated they are, and how much their values and long term goals fit with this role. This is separate to the needs of the business, as it might be in the best interest for the business if the inventor is the public face of the company, if these two sides are opposing, this could cause a conflict with the business.

A lot of the time the choice as to whether the entrepreneur runs the business isn’t up to the entrepreneur at all. If the venture succeeds in getting investment, or has the possibility to go to an IPO then the choice will be out of the entrepreneurs hands and be up to the board of directors, and usually ultimately the investors.

John Hamm has some interesting views on entrepreneurs and how they have difficulty transitioning from a start-up to a large organization. His main point is that the qualities entrepreneurs have to enable their ventures to succeed initially are the exact qualities that cause them to fail during the later stages of a business. These four tendencies are:
• Loyalty to comrades
• Task Orientation
• Single Mindedness
• Working in Isolation

Each has its benefits when working on a startup and can allow the startup to thrive
in its early stage. However as the business grows and the pressure from all areas increases, the entrepreneur will fail unless they are will to learn and adapt to their new situation and change their behavior. This is probably difficult to do from within, as the entrepreneur has to give up doing something that has been successful, but if they are willing to listen to their advisors and strive to understand the best way to behave there is no reason why they shouldn’t succeed.

Facebook has had to go through many of these issues, but has overcome everything that have currently been thrown at it, and Mark Zuckerberg has successfully navigated the company into new markets and successfully created a very lucrative revenue model for the site. I think it’s been successful by staying true to its core market and focusing efforts on rapid development and the user experience on the website. Areas such as photo sharing have proved far more popular than they could imagine, but the experience has been tweaked to make this the best they could make it. The user created applications have also been a huge help with its success, although it’s teetering on the edge of going too far with these applications.

There doesn’t appear to be a magic formula that will predict whether an entrepreneur will succeed into the future, it doesn’t matter what education, or even experience they have. The important factors, as echoed by John Hamm are they have to be open to learning and rise to the challenge.

Sunday, April 6

Free Flash Lite wallpapers and screensavers

Fluid Pixel has just released some of its top selling Flash Lite wallpapers and screensavers for free on its website. This is something that I have been considering initiating for a while, but wasn’t sure if it was the right way to go. The initial idea came about from studying mobile phone markets in other areas, and finding that in areas such as Japan and Korea companies offer a large number of their content for free, to attract a larger audience to their site. By doing this they get a huge number of hits to their sites, where they offer further content for direct sale or on a subscription basis. My observation of the structure of the eastern market is that it’s about 5 years ahead of the western market in the way they sell and market the content to consumers, who are much more in tune with the availability of content, and download a lot more of it.

I’ve also noticed recently that Fluid Pixel's site has been attracting more hits for people looking for “free flash lite wallpapers” through google and other search engines so this is providing a landing page for them to find, and hopefully will encourage more traffic through the site.

The wallapers and screensavers on the site currently has the Fluid Pixel brand on it, but not in a way that the content isn't useable, but I will probably experiment with a variety of options for this, including having an ident before the content plays, and maybe even looking for sponsors in the future depending on the success of this experiment.

I will be keeping a close eye on how successful the free flash lite content is to see how the model could be rolled out to other ventures.