How to Spark Startup Innovation

by | Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

In January, Michael Mandal’s Progressive Policy Institute research study speculated that big corporations were more innovative than startups. The study suggested that big companies do better in global marketplaces, that they alone have the resources to find/hire the best talent, that they alone have the scale to address big problems. An online debate ensued about startup innovation.

Many folks — RE:INVENTION included — declared that startups can indeed be as innovative as corporations (if not more so). And pointed to numerous exceptionally innovative startups as examples.

Recent media stories — from American Express OPEN Forum and Fast Company attempt to explain how startups can incubate innovation. Here’s a quick audit of their recommendations:

Startup Innovation Tips from American Express OPEN:
1. Study industry trends.
2. Focus on your customer for answers.
3. Inspire creativity from employees.
4. Invest in continuing education.
5. Seek mentorship.
6. Take mini-retreats.

Startup Innovation Tips from Fast Company:
1. Choose a big problem.
2. Don’t boil the ocean (i.e., try to tackle everything at once).
3. Build the foundation for a wider play.
4. Gain traction quickly (i.e., achieve critical mass of users and usage)
5. Connections – take up residence with the hottest investor-operators of this generation.

Those 11 tips are excellent, albeit not complete.

Want to spark innovation in your startup? Startups will ONLY thrive at innovation by doing these SEVEN (7) additional things:

  1. Raise capital (and manage cash flow)

  2. Capital (and cash flow) is the lifeblood of a startup. Of any business, really. It’s hard to incubate innovation without cash. If you don’t have the right amount of working capital at the right time, you’re done before you’ve even started.

  3. Seek legal protection

    You need to protect innovation when you are bringing it to the marketplace. Intellectual property (IP) rights — including patents and trademarks — protect those who commercialize innovations from unfair competition. Like it or not, IP is an important component of company valuation.
  4. Commit to talent/culture development

    Startups need to convince bright minds to join, toil, and stay. A startup is only as innovative as its management team and employees. Outsourcing as necessary is also key to startup growth. High commitment human resource management practices are crucial for startups that want to innovate — and it ain’t just about inspiring “creativity” from existing employees.
  5. Iterate/pivot quickly

    Above all else (save capital), startups need to validate their vision and iterate quickly — before running out of resources. Successful startups double down, release early, swiftly iterate, and course-correct (“pivot”) fast. The faster a startup can course-correct, the fewer the negative consequences suffered. As Eric Ries suggests, “pivot and perserve.”
  6. Build or borrow advanced technology

    Technology is critical for startups, rampups and speedups. Startups that thrive design open systems, deploy daily, automate as much as possible, and develop coding standards. Advanced technology drives startup innovation.
  7. Measure things

    You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Yes. Innovation CAN be measured. Begin with basic metrics like: cheaper, better, and faster. Add customer satisfaction, employee retention, market expansion, growth in revenue from new products/services, and overall revenue growth.
  8. Design well

    Design is an important part of startup innovation — user experience, information architecture (IA), interaction design (IxD), prototyping, visual design, and storytelling (copy writing and messaging). Design creates meaning and value.

Add all these seven tips to the list — and you’ve got yourself a great guide for sparking startup innovation.

So – what do you think? What would you add to this list?

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