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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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SA startups in Visa final

Leading fintech companies from the Sub-Sahara Africa technology startup community have made it to the finals of Visa’s Everywhere Initiative.

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Among the 12 chosen, from the 238 total entries, South African startups Howler and FinChatBot will compete against innovators from across Sub Sahara Africa for a chance to secure funding of up to US$50,000 to develop their ideas when the initiative concludes in Johannesburg on July 24. 

Fintechs in Africa are making incredible strides; not only to bring more convenience to consumers, but also to enable people who would not otherwise have access to financial services or even a way to connect to the formal banking system. Venture funding for African startups jumped by 51% to $195 million in 2017 and fintech in Africa is expected to grow exponentially in the next few years as it continues to disrupt the traditional financial sector. With a clear goal of reducing reliance on cash, building digital payment based economies and increasing financial inclusion, Visa is committed to fostering an entrepreneurial spirit and driving innovation in its payments landscape. 

The Sub Saharan Africa edition of the Visa’s Everywhere Initiative challenged local fintech startup to deliver solutions based around three real life business challenges: 

  • How can startups leverage Visa Developer APIs to either:  Enable smaller merchants to accept payments in-store digitally OR Provide a safe and secure solution for online merchants to drive eCommerce and reduce cash on delivery?
  • How can startups use Visa’s APIs to leverage mass reach and social media partner platforms like Facebook to help businesses operating in fast-paced consumer centric environments improve cash flow and receive payments? 
  • How can startups leverage technology to provide services that are functional for illiterate customers to provide them with secure transaction experiences that build and enhance their confidence in the banking system?. 

Entrants were asked to submit ideas to leverage Visa’s network and technologies to resolve against at least one of the challenges. One winner per brief will be selected, with each receiving funding of US$25,000. Winners will be invited to a working meeting with Visa and may be presented with the opportunity to create a prototype. Visa will then select one overall winner to receive an additional US$25,000.

Geraldine Mitchley, Senior Director – Digital Solutions, Sub-Sahara Africa, Visa, said: “We are delighted with the response to our Visa’s Everywhere Initiative and the quality of submissions we received is an indication of the region’s rich talent pool and innovative spirit.”

“Launching this innovation program in the region has been an exciting time for the Visa SSA team, and the takeup reflects Africa’s enthusiasm to develop and pioneer solutions to the continent’s challenge – particularly in the payments technology space. I would like to congratulate the finalists and  wish them luck as they enter the final stretch.  When they come together for the final, they will not only have the chance to turn their ideas into reality, but also potentially help shape the future of payments in the region.”  

Howler which enables cashless transactions and end-to-end ticket handling for consumers and event organisers is competing in the first challenge and FinChatBot, which aims to automate part of customer services for financial service providers through AI-powered conversations is competing in the third challenge. 

The SSA edition of the Visa’s Everywhere Initiative will wrap up on July 24 in Johannesburg, with each finalist having an opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges from Visa and the payments industry. 

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Win a Poster Heater with Gadget and Takealot.com

This winter Gadget and Takealot.com are giving away three Poster Heaters, which look like posters but become heaters when you plug them in.

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Three Gadget readers will each win a unit, valued at R550 each. To enter, follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter and tell us on the @GadgetZA account how many Watts the heater consumes.

What’s the big deal about these heaters? Many of us are struggling to keep the balance between soaring electricity costs and the need to keep warm this winter.

However, the recently launched Poster Heater by EasyHeat and distributed in South Africa by Takealot.com is not only one of the most cost effective electric heaters currently on the market, it is also easy to setup and use.

As the name indicates, it is a poster similar to one you would hang on a wall. But, plug it in and it turns into a 300 Watt heater. The Poster Heater isn’t designed to heat hallways or large rooms, but rather smaller ones like a bedroom or a baby’s nursery or a dressing room.

It uses radiant heating, which means that it heats up in a couple of minutes and the heat is directed at the objects or people around it, quickly taking the chill out of the air and providing a comfortable ambient temperature.

The other advantage of radiant heating is that it doesn’t dry out the air like infrared or gas heaters. Users also don’t have to worry about their children or pets getting too close to it because, even though it gets hot, it can be touched.

To enter the competition follow the steps below:

Competition entry details:

1. Follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter. (We will ONLY be accepting entries via Twitter, so please don’t enter through the comments section of this article.)

2. Tell us on Twitter, via @GadgetZA, mentioning @Takealot in your posting, how many Watts the Poster Heater consumes.

cleardot.gif3. The competition closes on 31 July 2018.

4. Winners will be notified via Twitter on 1 August and Takealot.com will be in touch to organise delivery.

5. The competition is only open to South African residents.

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