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10 tips for corporations – from upstart start-ups

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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Time is running out for Microsoft SQL Server 2008

Companies are urged to update from the dated database management software as end-of-support looms, writes BRYAN TURNER.

The 11-year-old Microsoft SQL Server 2008 database management software is reaching the end of its support on 9 July. The applications that use databases running on this software will be at risk of security and stability issues.

On self-managed databases, upgrading to the latest database version comes with a lot of risks. Many IT departments within companies go by the motto: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”.

Microsoft made it very clear that it would not be updating SQL Server 2005 after its extended support date and even left it vulnerable to Spectre and Meltdown by not releasing patches for the dated version.

Updating SQL Server versions may seem daunting, but the benefits far outweigh the effort it takes for a migration. In the last major version update, SQL Server 2016 introduced simpler backup functionality, database stretching, and always-encrypted communications with the database, to name just three features.

While backing up the database may be the last thing on the typical database administrator’s mind, it’s become increasingly important to do so. In SQL Server 2008, it’s clunky and causes headaches for many admins. However, in SQL Server 2016, one can easily set up an automated backup to Azure storage and let it run on smart backup intervals. Backing up offsite also reduces the need for disaster recovery for onsite damage.

Database stretching allows admins to push less frequently accessed data to an Azure database, automatically decided by SQL Server 2016. This reduces the admin of manually looking through what must be kept and what must be shipped off or deleted. It also reduces the size of the database, which also increases the performance of the applications that access it. The best part of this functionality is it automatically retrieves the less accessed records from Azure when users request it, without the need for manual intervention.

Always-encrypted communications are becoming more and more relevant to many companies, especially those operating in European regions after the introduction of GDPR. Encryption keys were previously managed by the admin, but now encryption is always handled by the client. Furthermore, the keys to encrypt and decrypt data are stored outside of SQL Server altogether. This means data stored in the database is always encrypted, and no longer for the eyes of a curious database manager. 

The built-in reporting tools have also vastly improved with the addition of new reporting metrics and a modern look. It includes support for Excel reports for keeping documentation and Power BI for automated, drag-and-drop personalised reporting. Best of all, it removes the dreaded Active X controls, which made the reporting in a webpage feel very clumsy and bloated in previous versions.

A lot has changed in the past ten years in the world of SQL Server database management, and it’s not worth running into problems before Microsoft ends support for SQL Server 2008.

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Local apps to feature in Huawei’s App Gallery

Huawei’s mobile app store, the HUAWEI AppGallery, will soon feature a multitude of apps and designs by local developers. The company says this is part of its drive to promote South African digital talent and include more useful apps for Huawei smartphone users. HUAWEI AppGallery and HUAWEI Themes are pre-installed on all the latest Huawei and Honor devices.

“South African consumers are increasingly wanting more apps that are relevant to their unique circumstances, addressing issues they experience regularly – such as load shedding or safety concerns – but also apps that celebrate South Africa’s multitude of cultures and this vibrant country,” says Lu Geng, director of Huawei Consumer Cloud Service Southern Africa Region.

Akhram Mohamed, chief technology officer of Huawei Consumer Business Group South Africa, says: “Huawei is committed to catering to the needs of South African consumers, but we also know that we do not have all the answers. For this reason, we aim to work closely with South African developers so that we can give our users everything that they need and want from their devices. At the same time, we also hope to create an open ecosystem for local developers by offering a simple and secure environment for them to upload content.”

Huawei Mobile Services was launched in South Africa in June last year. Since then, both the HUAWEI AppGallery and HUAWEI Themes – which features tens of thousands of themes, fonts and wallpapers that personalise user’s handset – have become increasingly popular with the local market. Even though it is a relatively new division of Huawei, there has been a great increase in growth; at the end of 2018 Huawei Mobile Services had 500 million users globally, representing a 117% increase on the previous year.

Explaining what differentiates the HUAWEI AppGallery from other app stores, Mosa Matshediso Hlobelo, business developer for Consumer Cloud Service Southern Africa says: “We use the name ‘HUAWEI AppGallery’ because we have a dedicated team that curates all the apps in terms of relevance and ease of use and to ensure that there are no technical issues. Importantly, all apps are also security-checked for malware and privacy leaks before being uploaded on to the HUAWEI AppGallery.”

Huawei recently held a Developers’ Day where Huawei executives met with South African developers to discuss Huawei’s offering. 48 developers registered their apps on the day, and Huawei is currently in discussions with them with the eventual aim of featuring the best apps and designs on HUAWEI AppGallery or HUAWEI Themes. The Consumer Cloud Service Southern Africa Team at Huawei plans on making Developers’ Day a quarterly event and establishing a local providers’ hub, where developers can regularly meet with Huawei for training on updates to programmes and offerings.

“We have a very hands-on approach with our developers, and hope to expand that community so we can become an additional distribution channel for more developers and expose them to both a local and a global audience,” says Geng. “For example, we regularly feature apps and designs from local developers on our Huawei social media pages, and do competitions and promotions. We want to do everything we can to make our Huawei users aware of these local apps and upload them. This will encourage the growth of the developer community in South Africa by giving developers more opportunities to generate revenue from in-app purchases.”

* Developers who would like their apps featured on the HUAWEI App Gallery, or designs featured on HUAWEI Themes, should visit https://developer.huawei.com or email Huawei Mobile Services on sacloud@huawei.com.

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