Innovation without Technology

Can a new product, a new service or application, be commercialized without new technology, without inventing a widget or writing new code? It can, when it’s based on knowledge, know-how, or understanding an old thing in a new way.

Remember the phrase – all the buzz ten years ago: ‘the knowledge economy’? While it certainly seems like machines are getting smarter ( but that’s another story), new knowledge has been translated into ICT, social media and the emerging IoT (internet of things). Billions of burgeoning new businesses (ok I’m exaggerating) became because people invented new hardware or software. Which is good. And of course, based on knowledge.

And while some of us were busy creating the new knowledge all those electronic, interconnected, disruptive technologies are based on, many others were discovering other new knowledge. In the past week, I’ve come across five new useful products, businesses or services or practices, that are based on knowledge. Not new technology. Just people being able to help more people because we’ve learned some stuff. And this too is what comes of research and translating research into a form that can be used to benefit society.

In no particular order, this is what I’ve learned about:

1. Understanding Childhood Behaviour. A medical condition can effect children – ODD1 – oppositional defiant disorder. Sometimes, putting a name on worrying behaviour makes it easier to deal with. This disorder is associated with excessive anger and vindictiveness in children towards authority figures, including their parents. Recognition helps people get coaching to facilitate positive ways for children and parents to interact. New ideas. New perspectives.

2. How the Body Changes in Pregnancy. The hormone relaxin2 is secreted, making all joints more flexible. There is a growing hypothesis that some women will secrete more than others and that the excess flexibility throughout the body can cause long term complications like arthritis. Awareness of the possibility can help woman take care, through exercise programs, to strengthen their msucles in such a way to protect their joints.

The other things I’ve learned about recently were at a wonderful event put on by Durham Sustain Ability on indoor air quality.

3. Knowing What’s Harmful in Indoor Air. Caroline Barakat-Haddad, a professor from UOIT, reviewed the scientific literature on indoor air quality, pointing out what had been found to be the most harmful types of indoor air pollution. Our bodies have adapted to deal with some particles in our environment but not others. It’s important to know what to guard against and to pinpoint causes and effects. And use this knowledge to create better indoor spaces.

4. Practical Approaches to Improving Indoor Air. Gail Lawlor presented us ideas for addressing common indoor air problems based on standards for air circulation in buildings. Such a nebulous concept – when is the air in a building good? Such a practical definition. If 80% of the people are comfortable, it a good start. Mould Get rid of the moisture. Old homes have a variety of benefits because they are built of materials that don’t interest mould But they aren’t air tight, which is both good and bad. While it avoids ‘sick building syndrome’ because there is natural air circulation, they lack optimum circulation to clear away the inevitable byproducts of our material things.

5. Living Walls – more than just a beautiful facade. Anyone who has seen one of these knows they are awesome. Alan Darlington, from Nedlaw Living Walls gave us an overview of how these storeys high, vertical displays of lush greenery are constructed and function. Something about an expanse of plants rising into the sky, dominating a foyer or other indoor open space evokes the feeling of calm, like you’re in the sunshine, in a forest or jungle, yet going about your daily business. Really, these wall are feats of engineering, horticulture, microbiology, and artistry. A serious combination to make a light-hearted atmosphere. And while there may be proprietary technology in the construction, what I heard was primarily a new way of putting together existing technology. The genius is in the creation of the whole.

There’s nothing I like better than learning new things. My recent experiences are a reminder that new knowledge, useful knowledge that can be delivered by business to make all of our lives better, comes in many forms, not just new gizmos or apps (although those are good too).

1http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/oppositional-defiant-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024559

2http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/relaxin.aspx

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When is a Smart Vehicle too Smart?

I recently heard a story about a novel technology for the car. A logical approach to safer driving. It scared me silly.

An excellent presentation by Ron Dicarlantonio of iNAGO blew my mind, and in one of those rare, tectonic upheavals of comprehension, I saw where smart automobiles/interconnected machines/autonomous applications, could go. And it made me shudder. The presentation is here (at about the 20 minute mark).

Ron introduced me to the concept of cognitive load which I later found is a well established in psychology. Cognitive load relates to how much of your attention something requires. For some of us, a call from mother may demand a lot of attention, others less so. Think about how hard it is to input your PIN on the credit card machine while discussing plans for next week with a colleague.

iNAGO and Vocolage are collaborating to engineer ‘Safe Driver Notifications’ – an interface between humans and computers in the car. Makes all kinds of sense to try and design a dashboard interface that extracts useful information from traffic reports, along with info about how the car is running, weather and road conditions. And since many of us now communicate, via voice, text and other means, while driving, why not make it even safer to do so through the car interface? This sounds like a wonderful product.

Will there be a day when all news, email, text, social media posts are delivered to us while we drive? That is quite the arsenal of distraction. One possible approach to making cars safe while delivering this information is to modulate the delivery of messages by balancing the cognitive load of the messages with the driving requirements. Light traffic, freshly paved straight-away on a sunny day, the driver receives the message from the kid’s teacher about their unruly behaviour. Driving in rush hours in a blizzard? – no communications get through. This sounds like censorship. Does it make it any better that it will be personalized censorship, since the factors that create cognitive load are different for each person? On the other hand, public safety is at stake if a car goes off the road while the driver watches the latest kitten video.

A related emerging issue for the data-capturing and analyzing automobile, is the ownership of the data.

Who owns the data related to an individual’s driving? If someone routinely travels 20km/hr above the speed limit, will this information eventually make it to his or her insurance rates, to the police, to a potential employer who wants to know how law-abiding the person is? Or will it make it to a dating profile, to select appropriate mates for the risk-taking?

I think this is an area ripe for a lot of discussion and legislation. According to this article from 2014, the answer was a firm ‘don’t know’: “It is not clear, certainly under German law, whether the drivers, the owners or the manufacturers of vehicles can be said to own the data generated by them” .

From my very unscientific survey of one person who recently bought a car, car owners currently are not signing agreements to use their data.
More substantially, this report titled ‘The Connected Car: who is in the driver’s seat’ which seems comprehensive in its look at the privacy perspective states:

 ‘It is not known what proportion of dealerships address the issue of customer data in their dealing with customers. The website of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (“CADA”), had no privacy policy or related information when accessed on Feb.7, 2015, and the CADA Code of Ethics does not address protection of customer data. A survey of three dealerships in Whitehorse, Yukon in February 2014 found that none of them had privacy policies nor did their standard purchase agreements include any term about collection, retention, use or disclosure of the customer’s personal data.’

Another issue is reliability. When it’s cool and damp outside, my 2006 vehicle flashes dashboard fault lights, which I have learned through trial aren’t accurate. I believe moisture gets into a sensor and causes false signals to be sent. Having read of similar experiences with my brand of vehicle by others, I know repair isn’t cost-effective, since there are no mechanical faults, just one in an ancient computer system. Extrapolate to a much smarter car, with more control over the system. My creative mind can imagine random possible faults, such as: the car refusing to operate on a road if there is another vehicle within 500 meters, or if it’s Tuesday, or maybe it will block all messages from the boss because the driver mutters something about ‘when hell freezes over’ in response to a message from her.

Designers are aiming for fewer traffic accidents, through less distraction in the vehicle, which is fantastic. There are lots of emerging questions to keep entrepreneurs busy developing people-friendly versions. One simple solution to ensuring that the driver’s cognitive load isn’t over-taxed by personal messages is to leave the driving to the car. Auto-manufacturers are working towards bringing us new technology in a way that helps us to adapt¹ which I think is what we need to embrace self driving cars.

¹ ‘the industry’s slow-and-steady approach — using computers to help the driver at the wheel rather than replace him or her’ http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/dce10162-b5f1-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html#axzz3i4uHx22l

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Where Are We Going in Self-Driving Cars?

If ever there was a disruptive technology, it’s self-driving cars. Imagine a world full of autonomous vehicles, and the ripples through all aspects of our lives.

Visionaries see a time when our roads will be filled with computer-driven cars, cars that completely control navigation – selecting the route, setting the speed, obeying traffic signals. Artificial intelligence systems in the vehicle will sense road conditions and surrounding objects, people and animals and integrate this information with data from other systems such as weather reports and traffic conditions, to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently.

To make this a reality, two major areas of technology have been advancing for the past two decades and will continue for decades to come:

1. Car technology. In broad categories, this consists of automated sensing, integrating and controlling. Automotive components and systems have been developed to sense the environment (a current example is the camera that shows what’s behind the car when backing up, and the detector that beeps more frantically as the car approaches an object). The next step is a system to integrate various information and control a subsystem of the car, such as breaks that automatically engage when the car is about to run into something. Subsystem control is available now and truly self-driving cars are being tested on the streets of California. Various sources¹ suggest we are ten to twenty years from truly self-driving cars dominating the roads.

2. The Internet of Things. The capacity to coordinate cars and traffic relies on a level of connectivity of many things, including each car, the traffic lights, community events (for examples a few thousand vehicle trying to exit the stadium parking lot after the game or a road closure for a charity event). This capacity is growing, perhaps exponentially, but I believe is still in its infancy.

Self-driving cars are anticipated to bring all manner of benefits, such as:

  • safer roads. No more human driver error.
  • more accessibility. Anyone can sit in the ‘drivers seat’ of an autonomous vehicle, regardless of their age, mobility, visual acuity or what they’ve been doing previously, like sitting in a beer tent.
  • more leisure time. The time we all spend driving becomes time to read, chat, or catch up on our communications (safely).
  • less traffic congestion. If the cars control the traffic, they can optimize the volume, distributing the traffic so there are no jams, rerouting around accidents long before everything comes to a halt, except…
  • fewer accidents, because the cars should be better at avoiding them. So, that’s even less congestion and more efficiency.

Depending on how the system evolves, we may stop owning cars and call them on demand. This could eliminate the need for parking, further easing congestion and freeing up a lot of real estate. When ready to go for groceries, send a text and the car appears. The cost will depend on the distance travelled, number of passengers, other items carried, whether we are willing to make a slight detour to share the fee. The fee would encompass maintenance, fuel, license fees and insurance.

What will become of taxi drivers? Other industries are likely to be effected. If there are fewer traffic violations and accidents, we’ll need fewer police, ambulance workers and tow-truck drivers. Auto insurance could be a thing of the past. If the cars are centrally dispatched and maintained, then there’ll be less need for fuelling stations and auto-mechanics. There may be less wear and tear on the roads and less construction.

All this efficiency and safety sounds very appealing, even if it has the potential to impact many industries and professions. Cars are a big part of our lives. People like to to drive. Think of the family tradition of loading everyone into the car, with no specific destination, and going for a drive. There are parents, at wits end to comfort a crying child, who bundle the infant in their car seat knowing that just ‘driving around’ is a sure fire way to send the little one into silent slumber. I get in my car to see new places, turn down roads I’ve never been down to find out what’s there, and take the long way because there’s a breath-taking view or tricky curves where I can put my steering skills to the test.

I’m sure we all hope autonomous vehicles will make road rage go away, but I’m skeptical. Impatience and feeling a lack of control seem to fuel road rage. The driver of the car that fills my rearview mirror who can’t get home fast enough to the icy cold beer he/she needs after a day of being scrutinized by the boss may not appreciate a self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle is unlikely to break speed limits, totally unsympathetic to the rider’s need to get where they want to go faster (although I can imagine that if we develop a safer automobile transit system, speed limits could increase).

When I was a kid, getting your driver’s license at 16 was a significant rite of passage. With self-driving cars, there may be no more licenses. With luck on my side, fully functional driverless cars should fill our streets about the time I’m too old to get my license renewed.

As a new technology, self-driving cars have the potential to deliver enhanced safety and efficiency in our transportation systems in an environmentally positive way, but they also have the capacity for profound social and lifestyle effects.

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¹ As examples:

https://www.navigantresearch.com/newsroom/three-quarters-of-vehicles-sold-in-2035-are-expected-to-have-autonomous-capability

http://www.driverless-future.com/?page_id=384

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To Business Plan or Not to Business Plan

This should never be the question. I have come across many folks in the innovation space who denounce business plans, suggest writing a business plan inhibits forward motion and the entrepreneurial spirit. Bah-humbug. This blog is in defence of business planning.

What I am definitely NOT saying:

1. Months should be dedicated to carefully writing a document, with perfect grammar and prose, to described the business plan.

2. A consultant needs to be hired to do something like #1.

3. An entrepreneur should stop all other activities until the business plan is written.

4. The plan needs to be written at all.

5. A business plan should be created and then followed rigidly for the next several years.

An important distinction is:

Every entrepreneur should have a well thought out business plan.

Every entrepreneur needs to write a business plan.

 

Many people dread the idea of writing a large document. Although I recommend writing things down because it generally results in a new level of thought about the subject, if it turns your stomach, find a creative way to get the same result. Video tape it. Make story boards. Put it in a series of tweets (as long as you are ok with it being public). Use one of many templates available on the web, with fill in the blanks. Another benefit to some kind of record of the plan is the ability to review the original goals and modify either the goals or the direction the business is taking at a later date when you’ve learned more.

Business planning is not the opposite of the Lean Startup method, or the enemy of innovation or entrepreneurship. In fact, a good business plan encompasses the lean startup method, because it has at its core plenty of research. And it’s fluid.

What is important: The elements of the business plan.

Can you answer the questions:

  • What is unique about your business?
  • What is the competitive environment for your product?
  • Is there a market for your product (who is going to buy it and how much will they pay because you are solving a problem/fulfilling a need/relieving their pain)?
  • How are you going to finance your business?
  • Can you make enough money to support the investment required?

Most importantly: Are you being honest with yourself that you’ve answered these questions to the best of your ability? Not asked three of your friends and going with your gut. Or asked questions in such a way that you are sure to get an affirmative answer. For example, if you asked people if they would like a more fuel efficient vehicle, most would say yes. Fewer of them would be enthusiastic if it mean they had to pay twice as much for their car or double the insurance premiums.

There are times when there isn’t much data to draw on to validate your assumptions but even then there are potential customers to ask. This is the essence of the lean startup method. Get the minimum viable product into customers/users hands and see how they like it. Incorporate your findings into the business plan. But the principles of business planning still remain. As you learn from more potential customers, your plan will mature, you will be better able to answer what need your product fulfills and therefore be better able to define the market and financial plan.

Be innovative in how you determine and articulate your business plan but planning it has advantages:

  • makes you think through your assumptions about the business
  • brings perspective about the external environment
  • helps to foresee challenges
  • helps focus activities and spending
  • required to seek funding from all sorts of investors: government, angel, venture capital, traditional lenders
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Beyond the Internet of Things (Already!)

Can Moore’s law – that computing capacity expands exponentially – be extrapolated to the Internet of Things (IoT)¹? This is one of the questions that went through my mind at the MedEdge Summit (#MedEdge)  – a half day with the tag line ‘disruptive innovations in healthcare’.

It was a really good meeting. For me, a memorable meeting makes you think. I met interesting people, from diverse backgrounds in healthcare-related industries. I learned new things. Healthcare is a good example of an area at both the forefront and tail end of technology innovation. Perhaps that’s why the themes of change and connectivity resonated for me.

Here are some of the observations and predictions I had after attending the Summit. I’ll end with some thoughts about Moore’s Law.

For medical care, this initiative is going beyond the Internet of Things, to the Internet of Healthcare. The Internet of Healthcare includes people – updates from and to all the medical professionals – combined with data from other sources. The pilot project was presented at the Summit by collaborators from Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital, Thoughtwire and Blackberry. Blackberry has some interesting inputs, especially in security, a significant challenge in the IoT, and even more so in healthcare.

This is the forefront of technology, beyond the internet of things to the internet of all objects, devices, information, and people involved in caring for patients. And yet, at the MedTech Summit, there were reminders of the challenges in the business of healthcare and particularly to commercialization or adoption of novel products. I learned about OHIC (Ontario Health Innovation Council), an initiative of the Ontario Government with a mission to accelerate the adoption of new technologies into our healthcare system. I particularly liked the diagram, a motif in this OHIC report , with a hustling Innovation Broker in the centre of a mesh of the myriad stakeholders in healthcare.² This is a connectivity of a different type. Different forms of communication are required for the connection between patients, their families, medical practitioners, healthcare organizations, businesses, regulatory bodies, academic institutions and investors. This abundance of stakeholders makes commercialization particularly challenging in the healthcare sector, compared to others, like manufacturing, consumer goods or consumer software (apps).

I suspect we’ll see a rise in innovations in home and consumer-based healthcare but the business environment for this sort of product can be challenging. Physicians can prescribe outside medical care, such as oxygen therapy, physiotherapy or massage. Suppliers of these sorts of services or goods can’t actively recruit customers, since the physician decides who needs the product. They can’t set the price, since reimbursement, from either the government or insurer, controls pricing. Product innovations and features are limited by regulatory bodies. New offerings in this area will need creative business plans to flourish.

How fast will we see change in healthcare? The revolution in the IoT is the exchange and compilation of information from, and about, many things. Not all the things communicate like computers. People, animals and other complex phenomena like the weather use hard to model processes to make complex and random moves or subjective decisions. Objects like furniture and cars, especially those manufactured in the past, have no ability to communicate electronically and while newer versions can do so, the world is still full of old ones.

Connecting people and inanimate things into the Internet of Things is no easy task and will take more than just advanced computing power. It will require completely new ways to make connections and this will take time. My prediction for the Internet of Things is that it will bring policy and policy reform in many iterations and this will slow its growth. Thus, the creation or formation of the IoT is going to depend on a whole lot of other factors than the processing speed of a semi-conductor. Moore’s law is going to need a few amendments that take people into consideration before it can be applied to the IoT, because people, after all, is what healthcare is about.

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¹ The Internet of Things is a concept that encompasses connecting all objects, – books, pill bottles, pets, cars and everything else -, on the world wide web or through other electron communication systems. The internet of everything doesn’t exist right now and probably will never, but just might. However, currently there are internets of a subsets of things, for example the connection of everything in your house.

² It reminded me of why I have ‘spider’ in the name of my business. Here’s the blog post.

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Pop Up Shops as Business Development Tools

Can retail entrepreneurs use the Lean Startup approach? Popularized by Eric Reis, many companies in the tech sector embrace this approach which uses customer feedback to guide product development. I think there is a way for retailers to have a lean startup : pop up shops.

Pop up shops are a recent phenomena, perhaps inspired by a desire for spontaneous action or the ‘just do it’ approach to entrepreneurship. “A pop-up is a shop, a restaurant, a collection of shops, or an event that opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time” ¹ I’ve recently become aware of pop up shops because the Downtown Oshawa BIA (business improvement areas), of which I am a member and volunteer for, is considering an initiative to facilitate them.

Established brands may use the pop up concept to test new products, do a promotion or generate interest. E-retailers also may find it useful, for similar brand promotion reasons, to have a physical presence for a limited time. For examples, this article  mentions Target as a traditional retailer that tried a pop up to promote a new line of clothing, and e-retailers, Shop.ca and Frank & Oak, have used pop ups. Pop ups may also be useful for seasonal goods or time-limited markets.

For entrepreneurs looking to start a new venture, launching the business on a temporary basis through a pop up has many advantages, which include:

  • obtain valuable information about target market and direct feedback from customers
  • start earning money while in the planning phase
  • use current business techniques like lean startup
  • gather information to help you decide how to optimize your business model, test your assumptions.

Here’s why property owners might want to provide pop up space:

  • allowing vacant retail spaces to be used for pop up shops provides some income
  • having a temporary tenant gives potential permanent tenants a better feel for the space in a low pressure environment – it’s like a month-long open house for the premises
  • pop up tenants may become permanent tenants, paying full rent
  • the pop up initiative, as it builds vibrancy in the local business area, increases the value of all the properties in the area.

Pop up initiatives can be used for economic development, pairing vacant storefronts with entrepreneurs – to the benefit of all involved. Such programs can be a positive experience for property owners, entrepreneurs, existing retailers and supporters such as local governments. One great example of a local success for pop up shops in a retail area that was in need of revitalization is Danforth East in Toronto. Organizations such as Renew will assist towns or areas within cities to establish a pop up program and report successes. Local BIA’s and other economic development groups may support a pop up initiative because:

  • to support mandates to promote the area as a business and shopping district, for urban renewal, to refresh the image of an area
  • the infusion of new, temporary retailers should draw additional visitors to the business area, benefiting all resident businesses
  • providing a novel, fresh approach to retail in the area will generate additional interest in the area

For the entrepreneur, pop up shops provide opportunities for aligning products with customer needs and building brand awareness. A facilitated pop up initiative, lead by a group such as a BIA or town, can provide benefits to all business owners in the community, through increased awareness and the attraction of a more diverse audience to the area.

If you are an entrepreneur interested in a pop up shop in downtown Oshawa, the Downtown Oshawa BIA would love to hear from you. Let them know if you are interested, what kind of facilities you would need and any questions you have about a pop up initiative. Email here: info@downtownoshawa.ca .

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¹From this Forbes article, quoting Pop Up Republic.

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Life Sciences Startups – Some Things are Old, Some Things are New

After more than a decade in the doldrums, life science startups are back in vogue. What’s new and what has stayed the same in the path to commercialization for these early stage companies? Yesterday, I attended an event at MaRS, a panel discussion on the Road to Commercialization in the life sciences.

I cut my business teeth in the biotech boom of the mid ’90s – there’s plenty that’s changed, but certain concepts have prevailed. Based entirely on my recollections of the sector twenty years ago, which may be a little hazy or lop-sided, because that’s the way human recollections are, here is what I see as evolved and entrenched between the life science commercialization of 2015 compared to 1998.

What’s different – the ‘hot’ topics¹. Currently epigenetics, obesity, big data approaches to solving problems. In the past, we’ve been through therapeutic antibodies, vaccines, gene therapy, pharmacogenomics, nanotechnology.

What’s the same – discussion about scarce resources, with generalizations that there is insufficient capital for investment in early stage companies. This may be especially true of the valley of death, the gap in interested investors to support companies between startup and IPO or between in vitro proof of concept/target and first clinical evidence of efficacy.

Different – the level of sophistication of investors in the life sciences. Although only a fraction of the total investor pool have the risk tolerance for investment in the sector, those that do are guided by due diligence from people with advanced biomedical degrees and strong connections into the healthcare industry. This wasn’t the case years ago.

The Same – investors say there is plenty of available capital for good quality companies.

Different – consumption of healthcare. I can’t possible do this topic justice here, but how decisions are made about what products are used to treat patients has changed. In Canadian, cost cutting and group buying patterns pervade, in the US ObamaCare has been introduced. Globally, there are new markets.

The Same – debate about the need to support an independent Canadian life sciences sector and associated laments about buyout of Canadian companies by US or multinational firms. This ongoing debate usually raises discussion about a globally competitive market for healthcare products.

Different – the level of government involvement and support. The reason I ventured out from my comfy academic environment into the world of business in the mid ’90s was that public support for research was shrinking, shrinking like a popped ballon, and I believed the future for medical innovation was in the public domain. Today, there are many accessible government programs for early stage companies. Technology transfer from academic institutions reached a zenith and has been replaced with a multitude of programs to support the creation of startup companies in the past couple of years. There were few familiar faces at the event, whereas if I attended in the 90’s, I would have known or recognized at least half the crowd.

I’ve been busy over the past decade supporting commercialization of technology and startups in communication, software, hardware and manufacturing sectors. It’s a pleasant surprise to see the life science startup system has become more sophisticated. That’s a good change – more knowledge, new people, more nurturing support. The things that have stayed the same, and are the same in any sector: good companies, those likely to attract investment, are those with valuable solutions for an identified market, with sound management and business planning.

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¹All medical needs are always of interest but certain technological solutions and disease states garner more attention at any given time.

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Startup Communities/ Entrepreneurial Clubs

Reviewing your projects and initiatives may be about as exciting as spring cleaning, but it feels good once it’s done and you may find something you didn’t know was lost. About six months ago, a colleague of mine (Jeff Kropman) and I started an entrepreneurs group with the support of the people who had the vision to create Core21, the shared office community.

We started Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 to grow the entrepreneurial community in Durham Region, looking to fill a gap – provide a safe environment for entrepreneurs to meet and share their challenges. It’s a venue where solopreneurs wouldn’t be alone. Our group complements networking and professional development sessions available in the area.

With a few simple principles, the get-togethers should be fun – a safe environment to share experiences. No talking heads, but semi-structured. I usually facilitate to ensure everyone gets a chance to participate. The meeting agenda keeps the group from going too far off topic. We introduce ourselves, present challenges, work on the challenges in small groups, then debrief. Applying lean startup principles, we asking for feedback at the end of each meeting, then amend the format.

On average, 10 people attend each meeting but it’s never been the same group twice. This is great, the group is there for those who want to come and chat with their peers. This is our hope, that each individual entrepreneur knows where to find others who they can reach out to.

What have we learned and what can we do better?
The most striking thing is that everyone who attends wants to solve the other attendee’s challenges, immediately. This is wonderful, the spirit of helpfulness. Because people may or may not return to the next meeting, we’ve had a hard time coming up with a system of accountability, or using the group to hold us to our goals, which is something we decided we wanted in the beginning.

Is there something we can learn from similar groups in other cities? There are a couple of (informally) syndicated groups of coffee clubs for entrepreneurs: 1 Million Cups and Open Coffee Club. Perhaps we need a cooler name. The Open Coffee Clubs¹ were started by venture capitalists in London and Boulder, who wanted to build community in their local tech startups. 1 Million Cups², which has chapters in dozens of US cities, was created by two people from the Kauffman Foundation, to tied together unlinked entrepreneurs in Kansas City. I’ve been to a few other events in my local area such as The Inventors Circle and the Small Business Network at the Metro Reference Library, both have presenters with networking before and after the presentations.

The other coffee clubs primarily start at 8 am – do people have more energy in the morning than at 7 pm, when our meetings are? Some are limited to an hour (that makes sense if you’ve got a day of work ahead of you). Formats differ. At 1 Million Cups, a couple of companies share their story and get feedback from the audience. At the tech focused Open Coffee Club, they open with discussion of current events, followed by an open floor for attendees to presentation ask the groups for input on specific questions.

Themes that transcend all the groups:

  • to be the opposite of large events or special events.
  • for the community by the community – to find peers to reach out to when trying to solve problems.
  • providing support to your fellow entrepreneurs – to answer ‘what can this community do to support you?’
  • to be friendly and low key – to get every attendee invested in the success of every other attendee.

How can we build a better group in Durham Region? Should we:

  • hold the meetings at a different time, such as early morning?
  • change the format – have presenters or time limits for each attendee to share or a different agenda?
  • make the attendees more accountable to the group?

How to answer these questions and make Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 a more vibrant entrepreneurial community so that we all have a better chance of surviving and flourishing? I’m going to ask the members what they want. And then do it.

 

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¹ Brad Feld (2012) Startup Communities. Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City John Wiley & Son, Hoboken, NJ

http://www.forbes.com/sites/kauffman/2013/11/05/six-lessons-for-building-startup-communities-from-the-founders-of-1-million-cups/2/

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Convergence 2015

OCE Discovery is one of the largest innovation/commercialization conferences in North America. Inventors, commercialization professionals, investors and emerging companies participate. I attended this year for the fifth time in six years. The main show floor, in the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto, is like a sparklingly bright nightclub full of all of your favourite business colleagues: past, present and future (minus the cocktails, until an appropriate hour).

While my time at the conference was invigorating, chatting to folks about new trends in government support, and seeing emerging business models from new entrepreneurs, back in the calm of my office, I ruminate about what I learned about the evolution of tech-based businesses. It all comes down to this:

Convergence.

Convergence was a buzz word when I was in the investment industry in the late 1990’s. The internet – its anticipated impact – was the shudder running down everyone’s spine. Then, it was a tool for the academics and those in the tech industry. The prophecy – that this communication platform would change the way we obtained all our information: text, movies, music, mail and news. Guess that was a pretty good prediction. Sharing of all content converged to one platform. The internet was disruptive and many business models evolved because of it, but few have become extinct.

Enough nostalgia. Let’s talk 2015. At the conference, the keynote speakers included Eric Ries, of Lean Startup fame, representatives of Uber (the app to let people get rides with other people), and Airbnb (a service that hooks up traveller and those with accommodations to share). There were other companies I met, like the Innovation Concierge, with a skills-to-need matching concept for small, unusual projects, or FreePoint, a company with an innovative perspective on monitoring production on the factory floor.

What’s converging in 2015? Everything we do. The term work-life balance emerges frequently in water-cooler conversations. Is it possible we are moving away from any distinction between work and life? Uber allows people to share rides, turning a personal trip into revenue potential. Similarly, Airbnb provides a way to let people earn a little extra cash by sharing their living quarters with travellers. But each is more than that. Both sides of the transaction can gain something personal, new friends, companionship, new perspectives.

The lean startup model encourages incorporating ample user feedback into product development. The Innovation Concierge solves business needs by looking at the full spectrum of a person’s skills, not just their business experience.

A keynote speaker, Chad Hurley, cofounded YouTube with the goal of allowing individuals to share their videos. We are converging to a global collection of a billions of individuals. Individuals with individual interests, needs and abilities. Uber puts individuals together for car rides, Airbnb for accommodations. FreePoint lets the individual factory worker participate in manufacturing efficiency.

The convergence I see involves loads of interaction facilitated by technology, interaction between buyers and sellers, creators and consumers, those who have and those who need, those who know and those who would like to. At any given time, each of us may fall into several of these categories at once, because of our business, personal or social experience.

When I headed to the conference, I was thinking about making connections for my clients and with new clients. And I did. But I also found connections for my family with businesses, for clients with potential suppliers and partners, and for colleagues and friends.

This is what I discovered at Discovery: Life is converging – business is personal and personal is business. Technology ties it all together.

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Growth Hacker Marketing – a Real time Book Review

I finished reading a book about marketing and 24 hours later implemented one of the new strategies I learned. Is this too slow to call real time? I’m old enough to remember black and white TV commercials, so it seems fast to me.

The book, by Ryan Holiday, is simply titled Growth Hacker Marketing, after a business strategy that is often applied in high-growth, emerging tech companies and is as an iterative approach to incorporating customer feedback to promote the product. The hacking aspect comes alive as an immediate, just do it and amend on the fly mentality, rather than through traditional, highly planned marketing approaches which employ much testing such as with focus groups before launch.

The author describes the concept elegantly in these two excerpts from the book’s Glossary:

‘the growth hackers’ main task is to build great marketing ideas into the product’
and
‘growth hacking… customer acquisition techniques that are testable, trackable, and scalable’

Not too far into Growth Hacker Marketing, Eric Reis’ ‘Lean Startup’ philosophy came to my mind, which was fine because in another few pages, it was mentioned by the author. Similar ideas underpin the two – get lots of customer feedback. Get a product out into the hands of users, see what they think and modify the product accordingly to suit their needs. In Growth Hacker Marketing, this goes a little further, to incorporate features into the product so that the users themselves will build awareness of the product and recruit additional users. From here, it’s easy to see how this kind of strategy can lead to a ‘viral’ market campaign – the penultimate goal of many marketing folks.

Ryan Holiday provides may examples in Growth Hacker Marketing of familiar companies that have used growth hacking and even his own experience with promoting a book launch. As he states, this approach to marketing can be applied to anything. I’ve seen examples too. Wattpad is platform to bring readers and writers together. The writers like it because they have access to a number of readers to raise awareness of their product and the readers benefit by finding new fiction. Readers provide feedback to the writers on their stories. Since the writers find benefit in Wattpad, they talk to their writer colleagues who then join, providing more material for the readers.

A related example is Inkitt, an organization (not sure of its structure) which, like Wattpad, is based on a social platform where writers submit their stories and get feedback from each other. The editors at Inkitt then select the best stories to publish on their website, where readers can consume for free. The philosophy espoused by Inkitt is that better reading material can be created as a communal effort, with many eyes on the early stage product, that is adapted and amended based on user (reader) feedback. I became aware of Inkitt because a fellow writer sent a link to me.

How did I use the principles I learned about in Growth Hacker Marketing? I am working on building the membership in a not-for-profit organization. It’s easy enough to articulate who the target audience is but the most efficient way to reach them is less clear. After reading Growth Hacker Marketing, it came to me: the existing members are likely to know who would be interested in joining. Let the existing users draw in other users. And we’ll make it easy for them to do so by sending messages they can simply push out to their friends.

This is an odd sort of a book review, maybe a good example of Growth Hacker Marketing. I’m not sharing a critique of the book so much as my enthusiasm about how I see the book’s message in practice. Perhaps if you read my review, you will be inspired to read the book because this user had a good experience with it, and you’d like to have that sort of experience too.

Well designed and marketed, Ryan Holiday.

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