Is innovation the latest smartphone, or is it the novel processes piled on top of each other that make the final product possible? An object is the result of innovation, sure, yet the process is far more involved than simply inventing faster processors and new materials. It requires the innovation of systems, a leap of faith and the conviction that the status quo might not be the best way forward.
It takes guts, but most importantly it takes innovative thinking.
We spoke to three Australian entrepreneurs who trade in innovation and have very firm opinions about what it means to their business and their future strategies.
Innovation is a ‘doing’ word
Jo Burston is a serial entrepreneur. Her company Job Capital reinvented salary packaging and her latest venture, Inspiring Rare Birds, aims to help shepherd the next generation of entrepreneurs towards success.
“For me innovation is essentially taking something that already exists and improving it,” says Burston.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be technology. It can be personal, social, product, process, the Arts -- all it means is you’re changing, reworking, remaking something that already exists to have a different outcome.”
Burston is fitfully inquisitive with a focus on processes and efficiency -- qualities that have enabled her to build a multi-million dollar business that is high-transaction and involves “a lot of hands”. For Burston, innovation is about removing the number of hands involved in a process.
“Essentially entrepreneurs work with land, labour and money -- in the French sense of the word,” she says.
“I’m always asking myself, how can I reduce cost, increase efficiency and have an impact on outcome?”
In recognising innovation as a ‘doing’ word, Burston ensures the entrepreneurial process is dynamic, with a view to the future and an eye on the past.
“I always think about the end first, which means I have to think about future strategy. While I can see where I want to get to in five years, which will take innovation of process, I also have to look back to see what’s impossible to remove in that process.”
Innovation is a rare commodity and well established firms grappling with disruption quickly realise that it can’t simply be summoned on command. Adversity on the other hand -- very much experienced in places like Tel Aviv or the US in the post-war period -- breeds innovation.
“It’s not because there are two companies competing with each other -- it’s because there’s a massive issue, a massive problem that creates an environment that’s forced … Individuals within an environment [like that] have to innovate to survive,” she says.
But while we can innovate products and processes, Burston wants to take it further -- to rethink networks and the ecosystem itself.
“With Rare birds we’ve innovated an environment,” she says.
“There is already a series of organisations that exist for women and they have a certain role to play, but there was a stop in their process, and I knew there was a role for me to continue that on. As long as humans have the capacity to think intuitively, innovation will not stop.”
Innovation is solving a problem
As Melanie Perkins stood in front of her design class, a sizeable problem was staring her in the face: all around her students were struggling to take in the complexities of the design software.
For the past seven years, the Canva co-founder has been on a mission to solve that very problem. The demand is clear, with 550,000 users now on the web-based graphic design platform and early Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki now on board. Early on, the homegrown start-up managed to secure funding in the millions before they even had a product or customers.
“If you solve a problem that people will care about, then that’s innovation,” says Perkins. “Whether it’s on a small scale or a large scale it’s the same thing.”
Canva makes graphic design easy and it seems that Perkins and her team have their sights set firmly beyond the status quo.
“We cast our eye toward what the future of design should be and then just work towards that. We don’t take much notice of what other people are doing. We just focus on solving the problem and understanding what our users want.”
Making bold leaps into the unknown is intrinsically risky and bound to face opposition; it demands of the innovator both a thick skin and the gift of persuasion, something which Perkins admits was a big hurdle in the beginning.
“In the early days it took us a very long time to articulate the problem,” she says. “Our pitch would be 70 per cent talking about the problem, but then when people understood the magnitude of the problem, articulating the solution was comparatively simple. Innovation is the space between those two points.”
Canva has been live for less than 12 months and in speaking with Perkins it became clear that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. The problem is a big one and so are the aspirations of the team.
“Innovation is connecting the dots between now and the future,” says Perkins.
Faster, cheaper, more efficient
Meanwhile, Rebekah Campbell views innovation as about finding better ways to do things. Her company Posse has transformed the potential of restaurant and shopping recommendations and created a social network that offers unique tips with a customised aesthetic.
However, she warns of scaling too quickly and says that structure is an important complement to enthusiasm.
“We’re constantly innovating, but start-ups can be at risk of moving too fast and becoming unfocussed,” says Campbell. “There are always so many new ideas, every day. You have to be disciplined about how you innovate. Having the right processes can help you manage it.”
Having a novel idea wasn’t enough for Campbell; she wanted to re-imagine the process and the strategy, as well as the product. The result is a four-monthly operation cycle, with objectives set at the beginning of each month -- such as a target number of shares or interactions. These are then broken down into “monthly sprints”, says Campbell, “and with those we’re really disciplined, they don’t change -- otherwise we’d just never get anything done.”
Unlike a lot of tech company founders Campbell doesn’t have a technology background. While on one level that may seem like a disadvantage, on another it can offer a lot of creative freedom.
“There are no restrictions,” she says. “I’m not held back with questions of how long it’ll take, or if it’s too technical, or asking what rules it might break. I just think from a pure perspective -- I focus on what’s going to create the best experience.”
When I asked Campbell about the innovator’s dilemma that faces large and cumbersome companies as they try to adapt, she shrugged and shook her head. “We don’t really worry about them to be honest, we know that they can’t move quickly.”
And as I pried deeper with questions about her own creative journey, Campbell’s eyes lit-up with a passion unique to the entrepreneur.
“What we do know about those big companies is that there are very few of their people waking up in the middle of the night, like we do, thinking ‘how can I do this in a great way, a way that’s going to win and beat everybody else?’ The motive just isn’t there.
“I think a small team that is really passionate about solving a problem can really run rings around a massive company.”
Follow John Treadgold on Twitter @johnnytreadgold.