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10 tips for corporations – from upstart start-ups

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ROGER NORTON, CEO at Startup Studio Playlogix.com, looks at what lessons corporates can learn from startups about innovation and what they can do differently to compete better. 

Innovation is the new competitive advantage, and large companies are realising that it’s hard to do when culture, processes and mindset don’t support this new way of thinking. Startups, however, are increasingly proving to be great vehicles for creating innovative products as they continue to disrupt markets and outcompete the more entrenched larger and slower companies (until they get acquired at least…).

Acquiring external innovations and merging them into a larger company is an approach that often fails. This is because the dynamics that drive a corporate for things like risk reduction and cost optimisation are totally at odds with the dynamics that have allowed the startup to thrive in the first place. Applying key practices to create the right environment could significantly increase the odds of success.

Firstly, startups are small autonomous teams that work under conditions of extreme uncertainty, searching for a repeatable, scalable business model by being laser-focused on the value that they provide to their customers. There are also many dynamics at play in a startup and an important number of constraints. For example, time and money, and the type of funding startups raise needs constant validation and proof that they’re on a winning track to encourage them to keep experimenting until they are sure (in theory, but in practice, it’s a lot messier…)

To recreate these startup constraints, while removing the big corporate ones, is no simple feat. Here are some tips on what helps that we’ve picked up along the way so far:

1. Run many small projects simultaneously, not a few large ones.

You’re not going to get the best ideas in the beginning (no matter how good you think it is now). Running lots of small experiments allows you to ‘learn how to learn’ faster and increases your odds of finding amazing opportunities. It’s a numbers game –  ask any venture capitalist. This approach also allows you to focus your energy and capital on what really matters and leave off the ‘nice to have’ features.

2. Create a safe-to-fail environment. 

Running lots of small experiments is a great way to achieve a safe-to-fail environment, but an extra effort should be made to celebrate the failures as these indicate the things that you’ve learnt. It’s also important not to overhype small experiments and create high external expectations. Every project you invalidate early saves you the money you would have previously spent trying to launch it. Fail fast and early.

3. Create cross-functional teams. 

Use multi-disciplinary teams from many different areas of expertise and various levels of management. Diverse teams not only bring very unique perspectives to each problem, but they also allow the space for the idea to morph into a bigger opportunity in an adjacent area. Hierarchy bridging teams help allow decisions to be made fast and implemented faster. You need to keep the feedback loops tight.

4. Have a single driver for each project. 

If you’re trying to build a startup, you need an ‘entrepreneur’. One person that is involved in every aspect, has all the context and can make decisions really quickly. The buck needs to stop somewhere, and at least one person needs to be 100% focused on making it work. This person also needs to document the project and decisions along the way, something that is critical when needing to report to the traditional business.

5. Have a clear validation path for each project with clear milestones that needs to be followed. 

Mapping out clear objectives, what is expected at each stage, what support is available, and what the team should be focusing on at any given time helps create the laser focus on what’s most important. The objectives should also set out time and budget limitations throughout the process (we’ve put together the Lean Iterator process under a Creative Commons license to help with that).

6. Focus on solving a customer’s problem, not on a particular solution.

By trying to build a particular product, it’s not complete until it is, and that means that you can’t learn anything until the end. By focussing on a customer’s problem, you will easily find ways to make improvements early on, and you will learn your way to the best solution. It also means you’re more likely to build something people actually want (this point is covered in detail here).

7. Identify the business unit that will be the custodian if it works and engage them early on. 

If it works, then the project is going to need to move onto a department’s balance sheet. Keeping them in the loop of the project from early on will help you build something that makes that process much easier. Find out what their KPIs are and how you might effect them. Understand the corporate governance restrictions that you’re going to have to navigate. This aspect is one of the biggest failures of the “successful” projects that I’ve seen.

8. Define success before you run experiments and review regularly. 

Every experiment needs a hypothesis. You need to know what you’re testing for before you start. Clear success criteria help you work out what is most important and is the easiest way to prevent getting distracted on things that don’t matter. It helps you hear the signal in the noise. Research competitors as early as possible to make sure you’re differentiated and keep testing for feasible revenue streams early.

9. Allow anyone in the company the opportunity to try something. 

Innovation is not limited to an ‘innovation team’ or a particular level of employee. To build an innovative culture and environment, you need to allow anyone in the organisation to try something, give them the time away from their normal responsibilities they need and not punish them when they go back to their role.

10. Have clear incentives for winners.

Startups are hard. The risk, pressure and energy required to make them work need to be worth the reward. The type of reward will depend greatly on the project, but there should be a rewards framework defined up front. This compensation could be in bonuses, recognition, profit share or something similar.

The bottom line is that in a corporate environment that optimises for cost reduction, failure is seen as a waste. But failure is inevitable when you are trying something that hasn’t been done before. It is better to optimise for ‘maximum learning’- which is how you optimise to come up with new innovations fastest. And we believe that creating startups is just a more reliable way to do this.

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VoD cuts the cord in SA

Some 20% of South Africans who sign up for a subscription video on demand (SVOD) service such as Netflix or Showmax do so with the intention of cancelling their pay television subscription.

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That’s according to GfK’s international ViewScape survey*, which this year covers Africa (South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria) for the first time.

The study—which surveyed 1,250 people representative of urban South African adults with Internet access—shows that 90% of the country’s online adults today use at least one online video service and that just over half are paying to view digital online content. The average user spends around 7 hours and two minutes a day consuming video content, with broadcast television accounting for just 42% of the time South Africans spend in front of a screen.

Consumers in South Africa spend nearly as much of their daily viewing time – 39% of the total – watching free digital video sources such as YouTube and Facebook as they do on linear television. People aged 18 to 24 years spend more than eight hours a day watching video content as they tend to spend more time with free digital video than people above their age.

Says Benjamin Ballensiefen, managing director for Sub Sahara Africa at GfK: “The media industry is experiencing a revolution as digital platforms transform viewers’ video consumption behaviour. The GfK ViewScape study is one of the first to not only examine broadcast television consumption in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, but also to quantify how linear and online forms of content distribution fit together in the dynamic world of video consumption.”

The study finds that just over a third of South African adults are using streaming video on demand (SVOD) services, with only 16% of SVOD users subscribing to multiple services. Around 23% use per-pay-view platforms such as DSTV Box Office, while about 10% download pirated content from the Internet. Around 82% still sometimes watch content on disc-based media.

“Linear and non-linear television both play significant roles in South Africa’s video landscape, though disruption from digital players poses a growing threat to the incumbents,” says Molemo Moahloli, general manager for media research & regional business development at GfK Sub Sahara Africa. “Among most demographics, usage of paid online content is incremental to consumption of linear television, but there are signs that younger consumers are beginning to substitute SVOD for pay-television subscriptions.”

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New data rules raise business trust challenges

When the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect on May 25th, financial services firms will face a new potential threat to their on-going challenges with building strong customer relationships, writes DARREL ORSMOND, Financial Services Industry Head at SAP Africa.

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The regulation – dubbed GDPR for short – is aimed at giving European citizens control back over their personal data. Any firm that creates, stores, manages or transfers personal information of an EU citizen can be held liable under the new regulation. Non-compliance is not an option: the fines are steep, with a maximum penalty of €20-million – or nearly R300-million – for transgressors.

GDPR marks a step toward improved individual rights over large corporates and states that prevents the latter from using and abusing personal information at their discretion. Considering the prevailing trust deficit – one global EY survey found that 60% of global consumers worry about hacking of bank accounts or bank cards, and 58% worry about the amount of personal and private data organisations have about them – the new regulation comes at an opportune time. But it is almost certain to cause disruption to normal business practices when implemented, and therein lies both a threat and an opportunity.

The fundamentals of trust

GDPR is set to tamper with two fundamental factors that can have a detrimental effect on the implicit trust between financial services providers and their customers: firstly, customers will suddenly be challenged to validate that what they thought companies were already doing – storing and managing their personal data in a manner that is respectful of their privacy – is actually happening. Secondly, the outbreak of stories relating to companies mistreating customer data or exposing customers due to security breaches will increase the chances that customers now seek tangible reassurance from their providers that their data is stored correctly.

The recent news of Facebook’s indiscriminate sharing of 50 million of its members’ personal data to an outside firm has not only led to public outcry but could cost the company $2-trillion in fines should the Federal Trade Commission choose to pursue the matter to its fullest extent. The matter of trust also extends beyond personal data: in EY’s 2016 Global Consumer Banking Survey, less than a third of respondents had complete trust that their banks were being transparent about fees and charges.

This is forcing companies to reconsider their role in building and maintaining trust with its customers. In any customer relationship, much is done based on implicit trust. A personal banking customer will enjoy a measure of familiarity that often provides them with some latitude – for example when applying for access to a new service or an overdraft facility – that can save them a lot of time and energy. Under GDPR and South Africa’s POPI act, this process is drastically complicated: banks may now be obliged to obtain permission to share customer data between different business units (for example because they are part of different legal entities and have not expressly received permission). A customer may now allow banks to use their personal data in risk scoring models, but prevent them from determining whether they qualify for private banking services.

What used to happen naturally within standard banking processes may be suddenly constrained by regulation, directly affecting the bank’s relationship with its customers, as well as its ability to upsell to existing customers.

The risk of compliance

Are we moving to an overly bureaucratic world where even the simplest action is subject to a string of onerous processes? Compliance officers are already embedded within every function in a typical financial services institution, as well as at management level. Often the reporting of risk processes sits outside formal line functions and end up going straight to the board. This can have a stifling effect on innovation, with potentially negative consequences for customer service.

A typical banking environment is already creaking under the weight of close to 100 acts, which makes it difficult to take the calculated risks needed to develop and launch innovative new banking products. Entire new industries could now emerge, focusing purely on the matter of compliance and associated litigation. GDPR already requires the services of Data Protection Officers, but the growing complexity of regulatory compliance could add a swathe of new job functions and disciplines. None of this points to the type of innovation that the modern titans of business are renowned for.

A three-step plan of action

So how must banks and other financial services firms respond? I would argue there are three main elements to successfully navigating the immediate impact of the new regulations:

Firstly, ensuring that the technologies you use to secure, manage and store personal data is sufficiently robust. Modern financial services providers have a wealth of customer data at their disposal, including unstructured data from non-traditional sources such as social media. The tools they use to process and safeguard this data needs to be able to withstand the threats posed by potential data breaches and malicious attacks.

Secondly, rethinking the core organisational processes governing their interactions with customers. This includes the internal measures for setting terms and conditions, how customers are informed of their intention to use their data, and how risk is assessed. A customer applying for medical insurance will disclose deeply personal information about themselves to the insurance provider: it is imperative the insurer provides reassurance that the customer’s data will be treated respectfully and with discretion and with their express permission.

Thirdly, financial services firms need to define a core set of principles for how they treat customers and what constitutes fair treatment. This should be an extension of a broader organisational focus on treating customers fairly, and can go some way to repairing the trust deficit between the financial services industry and the customers they serve.

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