5 Ways to Make Innovation a Way of Life in your Startup
Director of Engineering - 12 October 2020 -
Director of Engineering - 12 October 2020 -
As someone who works exclusively with startups, I often hear the word “disruption”. Disruption is here-to-stay, and every startup must make innovation a way of life. Innovation need not always be top-down and breakthrough; my experience says that small incremental innovations coming in from every level can change the game.
For the last three years, I have been a part of the innovation initiative in our organization. This initiative was aimed at having a structured way that would encourage thought processes in the right direction to identify innovation opportunities and open up diverse approaches towards problem-solving. During this journey, we conducted multiple workshops and reviewed various innovations that were ‘one of their kind’. As I’ve worked as a submitter as well as a reviewer, I’m sharing these learnings distilled out of my experiences while working with multiple startups-
While working on an insurance underwriting workflow, we proposed and implemented auto-decisioning rules to reduce the time required for underwriting policies. We came across a similar use case in a construction tech product, which again had an approval workflow directly influencing the project timeline.
By drawing parallels to the previous use case and with changing technology landscape, we proposed to build a machine learning solution to auto-approve/reject documents and reduce the turnaround time, which will help bring down the project delays caused by approval workflows. This way, we could translate the knowledge we gained from one domain/vertical to another. Since we work with multiple startups, our engineering managers act as innovation enablers by abstracting out solutions and draw parallels among similar problems.
In startups, team members with diverse domain backgrounds can achieve this by conducting roundtable discussions where they share previous solutioning experiences. When a problem surfaces up, they should take a step back and see if any past experiences can help draw parallels and come up with solutions. For example, shopping flow for apps through the app store. For example, shopping flow for apps through an app store, Netflix-like OTT subscriptions, or e-commerce merchandise, can be abstracted to a generalized shopping flow, similar behavior can be observed, and analogous solutions can be implemented.
In another instance, an ongoing discussion with a senior executive at one of the FinTech startups revealed that he spent two hours daily collecting data from different financial portals and crunching it daily. One of our QA engineers simplified this time-consuming exercise by using his UI automation skillset (generally used for UI testing) to build a utility that would fetch this data automatically every day.
It was a simple solution developed in merely two days without any fancy API integrations or data pipeline setup. Sometimes, simple and out-of-the-box thinking could give you frugal innovations, and unconventional use of tools & technologies can do wonders.
The startup ecosystem is very agile, nimble, and cost-sensitive. Frugal innovations, which reduce the unnecessary complexities and costs, are very much the need of the hour. Teams can come up with frugal innovations in areas where they face constraints and out of the box thinking could help to overcome them.
For one of the telecom products that we worked on, the business was losing revenue, and it was going unnoticed. Even though subscribers were willing to subscribe, they were unable to do so because of insufficient balance.
The engineering team was very much aligned with the business process and kept an eye on the offerings and product KPIs. This in-depth knowledge of the business not only helped them to identify lost revenue opportunities but also provide a solution with the use of simple technology. With the right understanding of business and technology, a minor change in technology can enable a massive impact on business.
To implement similar incremental innovations, have a keen eye on the business and product KPIs, and understand how the KPIs change with every new feature launch. This will help your teams to not only align with business or product needs but also drive tech-enabled innovations.
While building an investment platform for one of our customers, we came across a common problem of managing the database performance to build analytics in a monolith with a relational database application. An obvious approach to solve this problem was to go with performance monitoring tools such as New Relic, but keeping in mind the limitations, our team decided to build a tool that best serves the purpose while overcoming challenges associated with out-of-the-box solutions. This tool not only gave in-depth insights into database performance but also provided support for all kinds of slice & dice operations.
So, we built our homegrown solution that would bring the right kind of efficacy required with considerable impact, right from scaling the business to having a better experience for existing users. With an in-depth knowledge of architecture and technology, any solution brought to the table will undoubtedly add immense value.
To bring in such innovations in your startup, ensure that the team has a learning mindset: promote deep understanding and hands-on exposure to technology from the classic concepts to the latest architecture patterns/frameworks/developments. You can emulate an approach that incorporates learning as a part of core values, competency, and performance measures, and have recognition frameworks for appreciation.
For one of our FinTech products, we developed a future-ready middleware to on-board customers easily and quickly. For another insurance product client, we had built a separate product to on-board insurance companies quickly with customized forms. In both these cases, we aimed at reducing the onboarding time and making the process less cumbersome, which is one of the key essentials for startups to succeed.
Additionally, it was crucial to keep the end-user in mind while ensuring the best practices and easy operations. Operational innovations are often neglected since they are thought of as “common sense”. However, innovation can change any part of the business, be it a one-off scenario or routine operations.
When you consider your startup, especially if it is a platform business, create a playbook to solve common and recurring challenges after considering similar cases.
When people talk about innovation, they usually refer to something gigantic and disruptive. However, those are merely small parts of the whole innovation puzzle. Most of the innovations successful at refining customer experiences are much more incremental. In our experience, incremental innovation is not only the key to differentiate your startup from others but also a stepping stone for something breakthrough.