Archive for the ‘innovation’ Category

Breaking System Constraints

During a class discussion this week the idea of ‘constraint’ came up- how we’re constrained by elements of our environment and the systems within which we work. I think we’re coming to an interesting point in the cycle of development for those systems. For hundreds of years, we’ve  worked to make processes more efficient and to make life easier. We’ve developed systems to accomplish this. But as these systems have grown, they’ve become so efficient that, in many cases, we’ve placed constraints on our ability for organic innovation. This is especially true in business systems.

What I find extremely interesting is how current technologies are beginning to explore this tension between business systems and innovation- and are trying to use systems to push innovation rather than stifle it. Social media is a great example of this, per my summer experience at NewsGator. NewsGator’s solution echoes informal online interactions that are a part of our personal lives – and transfers that form of communication to a company setting. The goal is to allow firms to leverage the speed and sharing capabilities of online systems like Facebook, thereby driving communication and innovation throughout the company.

So while Facebook turned informal in-person chats into a system of online communication, new technologies are turning that system of personal online communication into a system of business communication. What organizations that adopt NewsGator (like Citi, the US Air Force, etc.) realize are that the typical business systems they use are placing constraints on innovation and that something needs to change. By leveraging communication that allows faster sharing of information, greater informality in brainstorming, additional freedom in visual expression and the ability to create teams, NewsGator (and like companies) provide a system through which companies can replicate the informal interactions that can lead to fertile ideas while managing the process of that creation in a searchable, repeatable way.

This construct (using next-generation technology to take systems to another level of human interaction replication) becomes really interesting what you consider what companies like Oblong are doing (watch the awesome video below):

Once our operating systems begin to visually replicate how our minds and bodies work, we’re breaking a big constraint in a very cool way.

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Growing the Soil

My “Corporate Innovation & Design” class is one I’m pretty excited about (taught by Professor Jeanne Liedtka) and in our first week’s reading, a quote jumped out that blew me away. It was from a VP of Innovation at a big pharma company who said:

“It’s not just about the seed, but it’s about the soil…You know, it’s not just about having the idea or the project or the initiative, but it’s also about the conditions in the organization that enable that idea to actually flourish and get to market successfully.”

As I thought through that idea, I realized- that’s why I came to business school! That’s why I like entrepreneurship! That’s why I want to work in technology! Throughout my life and career, and in my first year at Darden, I have never worried about the ‘idea.’ I’ve never sat there and said, I really need to think of something killer- of the right idea. I’m not saying that’s not important (it obviously is)- it’s just that the idea has never been as interesting to me as what you do with it. The jobs I’ve loved, the clubs I’ve had fun in, the friends I have- these are all grown from the enjoyment I have in the soil. I like the growth, I like the development, I like the J-curve.

What is most interesting to me, and most inspiring, is how that idea becomes a thing. How that idea grows and succeeds (or fails!).

Luckily for me, I’ve always been able to find an ‘idea’ that’s interesting enough that I can jump in and try to do what I love more- build something with that idea.

What I need to learn is how to be the best at fertilizing the soil- that’s why I’m here. I couldn’t think of any awesome metaphor, but basically, I need to know finance, decision analysis, marketing, strategy, leadership, ethics, innovation, operations. I need to be even better at the soil; I’ll find a seed to grow somewhere.

UPDATE***It’s not an awesome metaphor, but I did think of a way to express it- it’s the South Park Gnome episode! I’m in school to get better at Phase 2. The underpants I care less about.

Education Needs More Chinese Resturants

Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation “Education Innovation in the Slums” blew me away; I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago.

The man spent years researching innovation in education (and the need for it) and his speech is drawn from the innovation and change he saw happen in places as challenging as Rio and Kibera slums. What was most striking to me is how important innovation and change in education is for not only the developing world, but for first world countries as well. From his presentation:

  • Motivation: The challenge, as Leadbeater points out, is that education in the developing world can’t afford the luxury of time in motivating students- “Education in these settings works by pull, not push.” Curriculum and compulsory education won’t motivate students to learn, because they offer rewards that don’t apply in the developing world.
    • In the developed world, info was pushed on us and we tried to learn it well so we could move on. We did so because the motivations fit (or we thought they did).
      • Extrinsically there was a payoff 10 years down the road (do well now, get into good college, get high-paying job later).
      • Intrinsically there was a payoff- our self worth (and the value we see others put on us) was linked to performance.
    • In the slums of Rio and Kibera, though, that doesn’t work! Payoff for education 10 years down the road doesn’t apply when you have no food or both your parents have died of AIDS.
      • Motivation must therefore be different- education must contain information that is necessary and useful now, in this moment, and it must be engaging. Education that succeeds in the slums begins with the premise that you must engage students before they will learn.
  • Chinese Restaurants: To accomplish this on a worldwide scale, a “Chinese-restaurant” model of education is necessary. Schools shouldn’t follow the McDonalds franchise model (exactly the same, precise and dependable everywhere) but rather the Chinese-restaurant model of growth.
    • Leadbeater talks about Madhav Chavan, who helped found Pratham, and how he came up with this model. Typically you don’t see Chinese chains, but you see restaurants everywhere. And yet, despite that they are not chains, everyone knows what to expect inside, although there will be subtle differences. Schools will feature new and different ways of learning that will catch on and spread across to other cultures, in slightly different ways.
    • He points out we spend a lot of money on sustaining the model of education we have in places like the U.S. (trying to improve it by sinking billions of dollars into it.) What we need is innovation in how we do it.
    • “We need a global wave of social entrepreneurship to create highly motivating, low cost ways to scale in the developing world.”

I thought this was an amazing speech and it is frightening in how it applies even to countries like the U.S. I won’t go into details to argue about for education in the U.S. and how it’s failing- suffice it to say that I think most of us can agree it needs to change. Not only does it need to change because it’s not working, but it needs to change because the world that students are entering is vastly different as well. Extrinsic motivation in the United States must change to mirror our circumstances. Seth Godin writes in his excellent and inspiring new book “Linchpin” that we have been indoctrinated in a system that has failed us. We went to school believing that if we did well, we would find good jobs. If we found good jobs, those companies would take care of us. We would rise through the company, be rewarded and have a pension.

None of that is true anymore. You don’t get paid for showing up, you aren’t sure of a promotion, and your company won’t take care of you in the future. The world has changed; if it weren’t already dead, this recession killed it. And if that extrinsic motivation no longer exists, then why should we learn?

Just as the developing countries need to change their method of teaching, so do we. Seth Godin thinks we need to teach two things: (1) solve interesting problems (2) lead. I think it may be a few more (Cameron Herold gives an interesting TED talk about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs) but regardless of what it is, it has to change.

The world is no longer the same- why do we continue to reward educational achievements that don’t connect to reality? Shouldn’t these things align? Don’t we need them to?

Barcode scanners and digital content? What iPhone app is that?

Did the update to iOS4 on June 21st, although I can’t afford to invest in the iPhone4 right now. Enjoying the upgrade and the features, but more than that even, lately I’ve had time to enjoy some apps I’ve been playing with- thought I’d share some.

  1. The “not used daily but too friggin awesome to not mention” award goes to the StickyBits app. StickyBits lets you attach digital content to real world items by scanning it (you hold a product in front of your iPhone until the camera captures the UPC), attaching a text/photo/message to it online and uploading that. So the next time someone else scans that product (not the actual item but a product with that UPC), they can see what you uploaded! While right now this is just a “for fun” item, imagine the possibilities for viral marketing?
  2. The “must have on the bus” award goes to Instapaper. This is easily one of my top everyday apps- a Read Later bookmark for the internet. When you find an article but don’t have time to read, open Bookmarks and click on the Instapaper bookmark you’ve installed. Then go to your Instapaper app, open it up, and voila the article is there. I use this very specifically to ward off frustration from my constantly absent AT&T service in downtown Denver. I use Instapaper to pick a couple articles, mark them for read later, then open up the app right there and load the articles (it needs an initial internet connection to sync). Then I close it. Later on, when AT&T inevitably fails on the bus and I can’t access my RSS reader, I open Instatpaper and read those pre-loaded articles.
  3. The “wouldn’t read/know half as much without it” award goes to NewsGator’s NetNewsWire. I do love my RSS reader…seriously. FeedDemon for Windows is my absolute favorite thing in the world, but NetNewsWire is easy to use and star. It’s my everyday on-the-go fix.
  4. The “keeps me out of a lotta trouble” award goes to the extremely useful and always accessible Evernote, which keeps me from forgetting important things. I like it better than the original iPhone notes for a couple reasons. Having the option of text, pictures, voice notes is great but my absolute favorite part is that I can email things directly to my notes that are then saved remotely.
  5. The “just for fun” game of the month- Scribattle. Check it out; the graphics are so much fun because they make you feel like you’re cutting 5th grade history class to play; it’s just old skool like that.

Anyone have any other sexy apps I may be missing?

Rice Husk Power in India: Guest Blogger Samir Shah

Samir Shah, a classmate at Darden, guest blogs today on a visit our class had from Chip Ransler, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, which delivers power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner. Samir’s post below:

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What stinks?

Look around your immediate location.  Take a second to analyze what’s there, the purposes those things serve, and how they could be made better.  It might be a small issue like the ergonomics of your computer mouse, or something more significant, like the difficulty of keeping documents organized (As you might have guessed, I am looking around my own desk right now).  Take another second to think about how you would fix it, and what you would need to accomplish that fix.

So what stinks?  And how can you make it less stinky?  Chip Ransler, co – founder of Husk Power Systems recently discussed this idea with our Entrepreneurial Thinking class.  He felt that ‘what stunk’ was the fact that 350 million individuals in rural India lived lacking reliable electrical power.  What stunk even more is that these individuals could not be part of the economic revolution currently revitalizing and invigorating much of the country.  Rice, a large agricultural product, produces a waste product, rice husks, which were also being wasted.  That stunk too.

Now what do you do?  You found something that stinks, something that needs a solution.  Ransler and his partners found a way, through technology and the free market, to develop a power system that used rice husks to generate electricity for villages in rural India.  Facing obstacles like working with clients who are not easy to reach, ‘not in tune’ with paying for electricity (read: they usually steal it), a 40% payment default rate, and a corrupt government, Husk Power has grown to reach these rural Indians and provide power solutions to more and more people.

It has been largely successful, and the exact details of their growth story are made clearer on the company website. The story of Husk Power Systems is inspiring and compelling, and Ransler brought forth some key ideas in developing solutions for problems that stink.  So what ideas are relevant for aspiring entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

  1. Get it done.  Put your feet to the fire and get your idea out there.  You need to have passion that borders on insanity and be willing to go to the mat for your idea and vision.  Be ready to sacrifice (Ransler, along with his partners, lived in rural India for months at a time to get the system running properly), adapt, and give up what is secure.  Finally, talk to people.  Then, talk to more people. After you finish talking to everyone, find some more people to talk to.  Communicate your idea so that you can find a way to put things together.
  2. Know your customer and frame your idea properly.  Husk Power wasn’t giving away electricity, but selling power units to a market that had a demand for energy.  They tailored their product to their market, and made sure it was a sustainable way to earn revenue, grow, and maintain the initial objective of fixing what stinks.
  3. Ransler talked about the concept of second and third right answers.  I probably need more time to digest this idea, but he noted that while developing a power solution was the first right answer, subsequent right answers came from adapting ideas to develop the target market – for HusK Power, this included selling smaller amounts of power, and having customers prepay for power, bringing the default rate from 40% to 0%.  These second and third right answers have helped Husk Power develop and grow, reaching more people in an ever expanding market, which has in turn helped them develop their technology and infrastructure and continue the cycle upward.

Ransler didn’t talk much about the effect of injecting this power system on rural Indians.  I can only imagine how the company has allowed thousands of people to expand their productivity.  He did give us one quote from a local resident, who noted that “We gained independence from England 60 years ago, but it feels like we just gained our independence today”.  I have to admit, this quote choked me up just a little bit – the image of rural Indians being empowered was an inflection point in the presentation being made – things didn’t stink as much for these folks anymore.

Having visited India, and having family who grew up in lower class areas of the country, I can empathize with this quote, and it made me stop thinking about the story of entrepreneurship and start thinking about the power of the free market to fix what stinks.  In what some might call the heart of human poverty, an idea and product have been developed to promote social good and economic development.

So what stinks?  What can you do to fix it?

Samir Shah

Indian Entrepreneurship & Emerging Market Innovation

A post from the randoms bucket….

  • Emerging Markets & Innovation: Additional thanks to Sean for linking to a great Economist article on innovation in emerging markets. Some really interesting examples of how innovation in emerging markets take shape. Consumer research is often necessary, but hard to compile in normal ways (hence the interesting things that companies like Unilever are doing in China). At the same time, even when you know what a customer wants, how do you actually distribute it in an emerging market that may have different forms of distribution than the ones your company typically uses? And how do you reach consumers- especially poor ones? Companies must have a definable strategy in place. Awesome article.

Before Sean sent the article, I had actually just been talking about this with some other students today- Tara and Gaurav (Tara has an awesome cooking blog…). They were teaching us to cook a few “beginner” Indian dishes (toor dal, okra and bengan bartha…mmmm) and we talked about the changes that American companies who were successful in India had made. For example, McDonald’s only serves chicken in India, not beef. And Pizza Hut “Indianized” their pizza, putting Indian spices and traditional chicken on top, rather than sticking with American flavors! Dominoes, on the other hand, did not, and are faring much worse.

All for now. More later.

Guest Blogger: Brianne Warner of Precision Ads on “Bootstrap Maryland”

Another guest post- this one from Brianne Warner, who you may remember from Dobro Media, the company I profiled from the UVA VC Summit (see a description of Dobro Media Precision Ads here and here).

Brianne was just elected President of the Venture Capital & Entrepreneurship Club at Darden and stays very linked in with events in the area. She wanted to preview a very cool event this coming weekend- Bootstrap Maryland. It takes place April 10 (9-5) at University of Maryland. Brianne’s post below starting at *****

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On April 10, I’ll be back at my alma mater, University of Maryland for a pretty cool entrepreneurial event. A friend and fellow Terp, Jared Goralnick, will be putting on his second Bootstrap Maryland. This day-long event features experienced entrepreneurs who have build companies by listening to their customers and responding to the markets – “bootstrapping” their businesses, rather than relying on a huge influx of VC cash.

Jared bootstrapped his own business, Set Consulting, and then started AwayFind, a web application designed to keep you away from the suck of e-mail and focused on productivity. He speaks at conferences regularly and organizes cool stuff generally. I’ve always found his career path inspiring, and when we chat, I get the sense – as I do when I talk to most entrepreneurs – that the world is full of possibilities if you think things through.

Curious, I asked him a few questions about the April 10th event:

How did Bootstrap Maryland get started? Where did you get the idea?

When I got started, I would’ve benefited a lot from a group of peers to explain the unique needs of a web startup.  And before that I could’ve used advice about starting a small tech business as a 20-something.  Bootstrap Maryland fills those voids for tech companies in the DC area.  For much more on why I started Bootstrap Maryland, see here. (http://www.technotheory.com/2009/03/dc-md-va-entrepreneurs-and-bootstrap-maryland/)

Who should attend? Who shouldn’t attend?

People who are or hope to be building tech companies, particularly on the web.  It doesn’t matter how much experience one has–the topics and activities are not what you’ll learn at a typical business or technology event–they’re nontraditional, often personal lessons-learned from young entrepreneurs.  It’s especially relevant for folks who haven’t seen how tech startups are built outside of this area–we’ll focus on some of the advice and current practices taking places in some of the tech hotbeds like Silicon Valley.

People who are deadset on business plans, and believe there’s a clear line between technology and business are probably not going to enjoy our perspective.

What have you changed since last year and why?

Last year’s event was a bit more Business 101.  This year’s topics are more focused and somewhat more advanced.  We’ll talk a lot about aligning our businesses with our (real) customers…and discuss how software built today can involve customer-learning (or even billing) at the very earliest stages.

Tell us about one or two sessions that you are really looking forward to and why:

I’m excited for Jill Stelfox’s talk on marketing–I spoke alongside her at Founder Institute and she’s both engaging and direct in the way she delivers her nontraditional advice.  She’s sold billion dollar businesses before and yet she knows how to give down-to-earth, practical advice.

The range of speakers and industries (though still focused around web startups) is pretty awesome.  I’m excited that it’s not just geeks talking about blogging–it’s technology people who get business (or the other way around).  One of our speakers has 90 million monthly users, for instance–his company is doing well.

You are an experienced conference-goer, speaker, and maker of lists. What should we bring? Anything we should do to prepare and get the most out of the day?

Research the speakers and attendees, so you know who you want to get to know.  Bring questions.  Stay late.  Feel free to ask for introductions or just introduce yourself–while the panels will be great, make sure you get a chance to build a relationship or two that lasts well past our event.

And just for fun: If we get to College Park early or stay that evening, what are a few spots worth checking out?

Ha.  Try our authentic College Park Diner or enjoy some veggie food at Berwyn Cafe (not so easy to find, closes around 7).  But your best bet is really to walk around the campus, which will be quite lovely at this time of year.

Intrigued? Register at www.bootstrapmaryland.com. $25 for entrepreneurs or a mere $10 for full-time students!

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It sounds pretty damn cool – I’m out of town so can’t make it but drop a comment if any of you are planning on going /go to it, and let us know about it.