Five things I've learned about building an innovative technology company

This is a guest post by Vicky Brock, CEO of Clear Returns. Vicky recently won ‘Innovator of the Year’, sponsored by Ocado, in the 2014 FDM everywoman in Technology awards. Clear Returns won IBM SmartCamp in 2012 and Ecommerce Innovation of the Year at the Scotland IS Awards, 2014.

Five things I’ve learned about building an innovative technology company

1. An idea is nothing without execution

Vicky Brock.jpgIdeas are overrated. They’re 10 a penny.  I definitely am one of those irritating ideas people who believes as many as six impossible things before breakfast and for whom blue sky thinking is so very limiting to this small corner of the solar system. (What’s wrong with green sky thinking?) 

I will find myself pondering whether being invisible would help or hinder a zombie’s competitive advantage. Or if horses are telepathic and could that be helpful?  I’ve had to develop a process for ditching ideas, rather than having them, or I’d never get anything done. 

Yet I think in business terms, we put way too much store in the big original idea. And people are put of starting businesses simply because they are not ideas people, which is a huge shame.

Innovation is ultimately about better solutions – that means technical execution and market validation.  A derivative idea, with great execution and laser-like focus on market needs, is far more innovative than an original idea trapped in someone’s head.

Although I have worked in technology for most of my career, I studied English Literature at Kings College London.  I remember learning in our Creative Writing module that there were only seven basics story plots in the world.  My tutor advised us to stop worrying about trying to be original and put more effort into being compelling – endeavour to tell one of those seven  stories better than anyone has before.

Understand the market need and execute well – that’s innovation to me.

2. Don’t be a solution in search of a problem

Solving a real world market need or problem is the critical function of innovation in my opinion.  Invention and innovation are different things.  I think invention can be indulgent, madcap, cool but pointless, or simply decades ahead of its time.  But innovation is about better solving an existing problem, a new market need or refining a process.  So it makes sense to me to take a market led, rather than technology led approach to innovation and to truly understand the problem in all its complexity before you rush to solve it. There are lots of great Einstein quotes, but this is my favourite:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein

That’s not to say I favour procrastination – far from it – it’s just that by truly having focussed on understanding the problem, when you are ready, you can execute the heck out a working solution and rapidly achieve new efficiencies.

3. You can’t do it alone.

If your goal is to build a technology company that scales, you simply can’t do it alone. Building a diverse team from the outset really matters and leaders have to look beyond recruiting replicas of themselves to achieve this.  Diversity of gender, diversity of skills, of age, of cultural outlooks and of mindset are critical.  Because while it may be good for a leader’s ego to fill their team with people who agree with everything they say, and are just like looking in a mirror, that approach stifles innovation and it limits the problem-solving capabilities and emotional development of all.

Actively recruiting and collaborating with people who see the world very differently from you, and who often require different management styles and structural support, can be a huge challenge for a young company or inexperienced leader. But differences not homogeneity are the catalysts of innovation – you have to actively seek them out and build a culture that welcomes and supports diversity.  It’s not politically correct, it’s a commercial imperative.

4. Approval seeking kills innovation

Ah, this is a tough one!  I do like a motivating pat on the head, but in the process of building this company I’ve finally learnt (I hope) to ditch the approval seeking and turn that into a far more constructive process of seeking unbiased critical feedback.  Approval and violent agreement may be good for a leader’s ego and it can be tempting to seek out feedback only from those who agree with everything you say, but it doesn’t help your prospects of commercial success.

Seek out those people – especially potential customers – who are not only happy to tell you your baby is really ugly, but are prepared to go into painful detail on all the reasons why.  These are the people to listen to. Treat every bruise to your ego as a free gift.  I don’t think its negativity, provided it is your target market or people who understand the problem – it is priceless input that will make your solution and your business better. Digest, soul search, iterate, determine to come back and knock their socks off if you can – but don’t put your hands over your ears and block out the feedback you don’t like.

You’ll get your pat on the head eventually!

5. Getting it wrong is part of the process, embrace it

Innovation is a numbers game.  Really, what are the chances you’ll be right first time? Much more likely you’ll have to eliminate a whole load of possibilities and approaches before finding the right product/market fit.  Getting it wrong, making mistakes, not quite convincing the potential customer just takes you closer to getting it right – provided you are constantly learning, listening and iterating as a team.

Give yourself a break and be proud you tried! Getting it wrong is nothing to be ashamed of.  It is just practice – a necessary step on the right path (in this business or your next).  Real failure only occurs if you’re dishonest with yourself and with others and there’s no excuse for that.


Twitter: @brockvicky @clearreturns



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