Of innovation and hype

Let me tell you what happened once…

Some time ago we were approached by a then-client who needed help with software development. They were in the midst of an ambitious project— equipping shopping carts with tablets that would beam ads and promotions for products in nearby aisles. The tablets could also read shoppers’ stored shopping lists and help locate items, scan products in carts and display bill totals. The client planned to procure the tablets from China for $200 each (this was circa 2008). For testing purposes, they had built a real-to-life floor of a huge store within the laboratory premises, complete with racks and aisles. Venture capitalists were brought on board; the project was highly bankrolled, and was touted as the next big thing in retail. However, smaller yet significantly important details were missed out on— the cost of manufacturing and importing tablets, RFID and barcode scanning for each cart etc. Ultimately, the project didn’t really take off as expected, and was scrapped.  The funding of course went down the drain; the capital was used to test everything but the “leap of faith” assumption that technology would offer a solution for $200. Had they tested this assumption first, they could have saved millions. The lives of shoppers went on as before.

And then…

Moral of the story- oh, and there’s a huge one here- innovation may not always be the game-changer it is made out to be, especially if the premise is not analyzed for strong credibility. While it is important to know your audience, understand the mindset and approach, it’s crucial to test your “secret sauce” for validation before you present the brilliant idea that blows your venture-backers’ minds. The importance of starting off with hypotheses or assumptions with low-cost experiments and validation cannot be emphasized enough. Start-ups need to get out of “stealth mode lock-up” and prolonged development with no immediate feedback and analysis. Continuous validation and feedback helps iron out kinks in your idea, giving you a fair, practical reality check about your direction and the obstacles to be expected.

You’ve heard it too…

We all know of some of such examplesCyberDrawer was another bright flash. It would enable users to bookmark banner ads by clicking an icon on the ad for later reuse. That leap of faith assumption wasn’t thoroughly tested however, with a sample target market group. Consequently the execution just didn’t work, primarily because of this acute oversight— users either didn’t notice or didn’t care for the small icon placed in a corner of banner advertisements. Some major companies running the ads were not convinced about the utility of the idea so didn’t agree to display the icon over their ads. A tool to save coupon and discount codes online for different retailers should have received instant consecration from all online shoppers. However, validation was not achieved at a lower level, in this case for icon placement on banner ads. As a result, the targeted audience didn’t respond as expected to the pitch, and another good idea failed in implementation.

Failing fast and cheap and implementing lessons from each failure into the next round of deployment is the most effective route for a start-up aiming to go big. Smaller iterations of delivery build confidence and credibility, and are the best way to add layers of features. The Build, Measure, Learn loop minimizes wastage of code and features, and cuts down on spending and lessens risk of failure.

Let’s put that on hold for the moment, shall we?

Innovation could be vastly over-rated at times. Just coming up with brilliant ideas is not difficult; putting them into implementation is where the challenge lies, and where most people falter. The transition from drawing board to deployment is one speckled with landmines— one wrong move can threaten the survival of the plan. Test as you go, verify every single component of the plan (don’t leave out that ace up your sleeve either; nothing is infallible), and you’ll have good chances of making it through.


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