It’s the age-old challenge: how can you innovate a new product or service? For Paul Sloane – who has worked with names like Microsoft and Airbus – the skills you need to think big and act bigger as an entrepreneur, and disrupt a market, apply just as well to working in an organisation. To launch something new you will have to convince stakeholders, get funding and find out what your customers really think. Fortunately, Sloane has been here before and mapped out the steps you will need to take whether you are starting out on your own or innovating in-house...
The Four Questions
It’s tempting to just charge into launching your bold new idea, but before you pull the trigger, take a moment to reflect, and you may save yourself a lot of time and effort. Paul Sloane says that backers won’t care how clever your idea is, they will want to know if it solves a real problem. He thinks there are four vital questions you need to ask yourself:
‘If real people do not have a pain point worth alleviating then your new business idea is a non-starter’
1. Problem ‘What’s the problem that your idea will solve? If real people do not have a pain point which is worth alleviating then your new business idea is a non-starter. The bigger the pain the better. If Travis Kalanick was asked these questions in 2009, when planning the launch of his new business idea, Uber, he might have said: People are frustrated because there are not enough taxis in most cities and they are overpriced for the service you receive. Many people want a convenient ride but are put off by a long wait for a taxi and a high fare.’
2. Premise ‘What is the fundamental idea? How exactly (but concisely) will it work? How is it better and different from whatever else is out there? In the Uber example this answer could have been: We will harness the capacity of all the thousands of casual drivers who want to earn some extra money by giving someone a paid ride. We will use a mobile phone app to quickly connect someone who wants a ride with someone who will provide it. They will rate each other so that people can see who is a good driver, or a good passenger.’
3. Promise ‘How will customers react? What benefits will they derive from using your product? For Uber this may have been: Our promise is a much faster, more convenient and more affordable service which customers will love. They will be delighted to have control at the touch of a phone.’
4. Proof ‘What evidence do you have for these assertions? What tests have you carried out to validate your assumptions?’ Kalanick could have replied: We have tested the ideas with various groups in four cities and found that customers really like the idea and the app. We have over 100 potential drivers lined up and ready to start.’
Slashing The Risk
For Slone, the rhythm of a startup is one of a race against time, and the same applies to new ideas in established organisations. Startups and innovations almost always have limited funds and limited time. They are unproven, so no one is going to keep throwing money into a pit forever. So, the way to maximise your chances of success before the money runs out is to minimise the risks, like this...
Get Ready To Kill Your Idea
It may have been that lightbulb moment that struck you out of the blue, the one you’d been waiting your whole life for, but you can’t afford to get sentimental about your big idea. ‘The initial idea is the least important part. This is because the initial idea is nearly always wrong,’ says Sloane. If you are doing your innovation justice then you must be ready to test it to destruction. ‘The first idea is simply a starting hypothesis... Clinging rigidly to your initial ‘great’ idea is a formula for failure.’
Switch The Formula
So, you’ve come up with the big idea, but before you start testing it, go back to the drawing board and put the problem first. ‘Don’t start with the idea; start with the problem which the idea solves. It must be a real problem experienced by real people who you can describe and identify,’ recommends Sloane.
Build And Show
If you’re building a product or service don’t go the whole hog straight away. ‘Build a quick wireframe; not a real product or even a minimum viable product (MVP). Construct a model, a screen shot, a story board or a picture and show it to real customers who have the problem’ says Sloane. ‘By asking for their feedback you can answer most of the key questions without building anything or spending a lot of money.’
Bin Your Ego
In the immortal words of Pulp Fiction’s Marcellus Wallace: ‘At the beginning of the fight you might feel a slight sting. That’s pride f**king wit’chu.’ Pride in your idea can be a real pain if it turns out to be wrong, or require major surgery. ‘The startup entrepreneur cannot afford a big ego,’ says Sloane. ‘With limited time and money the founder must be ready to rethink wrong assumptions and make quick changes to the plan.’
‘Trust your team – let them get on with it and remove the roadblocks that get in their way’
Don’t Keep It A Secret
Protecting your idea to death is so last century. These days, you need as many eyes as you can get onto your innovation in order to get feedback and adapt. ‘Build your MVP, the simplest working prototype which shows what the idea is. Engage with customers at every step of the way.’ And while you’re at it forget about micromanaging your team. ‘Trust your team. Let them get on with it. Remove the roadblocks that get in their way.’
Don’t Founder In Finishing Touches
You might think that delaying a launch to finesse the product will help it succeed, but any delay increases the risk of total failure as funds run dry. ‘Done is better than perfect,’ says Sloane. ‘Software companies often ship products which are 90% complete and let the final product test take place in the hands of the first customers. This carries risks but they are worth it for the fast feedback you get.’
Never Go Out Of Beta
As Sloane says, the idea of a product being tested in the wild is nothing new – witness those Triple AAA video game releases that are launched with a massive marketing push, and then three months down the line millions of early adopters realise they’ve effectively been playtesting a beta version. For Sloane, this is fair game but you should also extend the concept: ‘Stay in perpetual beta. Every product is a beta version needing experimentation and adaption to improve. Accelerate evolution by constantly trying new thing and finding better ways to meet customer needs,’ he says.
Keep Laser Focus Even After Launch
When it comes to developing your product, post-launch, it can be tempting to reach into your grabag of additional features, or ‘other great ideas’ but you risk introducing the error you were so diligent to avoid at the start, potentially diverting vital resources into a black hole. ‘Every feature you add must solve a customer problem. Avoid nice to have add-ons that complicate things,’ says Sloane. ‘Agility, fast feedback and risk mitigation are the watchwords.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Paul Sloane explain, in a few seconds, how to think laterally to create solutions no one has thought of before.