20 August 15 -

Are you asking the right questions on your innovation journey?

Every year, I attend RMIT University’s Business Lecture: Navigating the Innovation Journey. Last October, I published this article about it.

This year, I didn’t set out to write about the event, but after hearing what the speakers had to say, I couldn’t resist. There were many nuggets of wisdom that strongly resonated with me. Perhaps they’ll resonate with you, too?

First some background. For those who don’t know, these business lectures are a series of events organised by RMIT University, VESKI and Ernst & Young. The focus is on the practical application of innovation. Three entrepreneurs tell us what they did, and how they achieved success. Sometimes, the best advice the presenters give is what you shouldn’t do.

At the July event, we heard from:

The common theme across all three presentations was ‘asking the right questions’. It struck me because lately I’ve been asking a lot of questions about the way I work, what I contribute to the team and how I can achieve my goals.

As I was taking the 109 tram back to our Richmond office, I reflected on what questions each of the entrepreneurs asked of themselves and how they went about answering these questions.

Here are those nuggets.

Am I making an ‘ass of u and me’?

Alexie Seller and her team at Pollinate Energy give India’s urban poor access to electricity through clean energy and technologies. They do so in an effort to address the issue of energy poverty – an absence of modern energy services. By gaining access to electricity and clean cooking facilities, energy poor people can break out of the poverty cycle.

To solve this issue, Pollinate Energy find affordable, clean and manageable products – such as solar and battery-powered lamps and ‘smart stoves’ – and onsell the products to local business people known as ‘Pollinators’. To date almost 9000 products have been installed, servicing more than 41,000 people.

The Pollinators are ‘micro-entrepreneurs’. They sell the products and guide their customers on their safe and efficient use. They also explain the payment plan ($30 over five weeks).

But they are much more than that. Pollinators tend to form close relationships with the people and communities they assist. To arm them for success, Pollinators receive training in sales, business and finance, a transport allowance, smart phones and other tools.  It’s a rewarding experience for the Pollinators and the people they help. You can find out more by watching this 3-minute video.

Alexie’s presentation focused on the idea of going back to square one. After a few years of running the program, helping communities and training Pollinators, Alexie and the other cofounders decided to test some of their original assumptions.

So, they asked each team member a simple question: what is it about Pollinate Energy that makes you love coming to work every day?

The response surprised and delighted them. Alexie and the team fully expected that helping people gain access to clean electricity would win out. Instead, the overwhelming majority answered that it was the opportunity to learn.

In fact, they found their team wanted to learn more. There was an appetite for information on how to better manage their micro-businesses. Finding this out helped break down assumptions.

Another key learning was this: When Alexie first started Pollinate Energy, she didn’t have a lot of marketing experience. So, she found someone who did, who she could learn from. This person became an early mentor.

In adopting this attitude and having a desire to learn, Alexie was able to adapt to the fledgling needs of a start-up.

She learnt to test assumptions and, more importantly, ask the right questions of herself and her business.

The nugget

You don’t need to intrinsically know everything. Find the people that make up the gaps in your own knowledge.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Is there any harm in taking things back to square one?
  • What assumptions have I made?
  • What don’t I know? How do I fill those gaps?

Should I set small or big goals?

Like many young Australians, Sheryl Thai didn’t know what she wanted to do after finishing high school. Her uncle had a jet-setting lifestyle as an IT consultant, so Sheryl picked a career in IT. When she landed a job of working for an IT company in New York, she thought her dreams had come true.

However, moving to New York was only the first step in her innovation journey. Once she walked through the doors of Magnolia Bakery, she found cupcake heaven – and her calling. Sheryl started baking and sharing recipes with friends and online. At the time, it was a hobby.

And then the GFC hit. Sheryl was made redundant from her job and she decided it was the perfect time to turn her baking hobby into something more substantial. People told Sheryl that she was aiming for the impossible. That it was unrealistic to set up a commercial kitchen in her own home and sell cupcakes.

Sheryl challenged that thinking, asking herself: Why should I listen to people who haven’t even attempted this type of business before?

To begin Sheryl set her herself a few small goals and three months to achieve them. Those goals were: register the business, renovate her kitchen, and pay the deposit for a stall at a market.

With a little more than $2000, she quickly achieved those small goals. It gave her momentum, validation and the confidence to start a business that now turns over $3 million a year. That business is Cupcake Central.

During her talk, someone asked Sheryl if cupcakes – like fashion trends – rise and fall. She joked that a lot of people had asked her if the ‘cupcake bubble’ was about to burst. Instead, she explained that her business isn’t about selling cupcakes. It’s about experiences and emotions.

Like Alexie, Sheryl benefited from understanding exactly what it is that she’s offering. She tested the assumption of what she could sell beyond the idea of cupcakes.

Sheryl and her team spend time, money and sweat to ensure that when you walk into one of her stores you have a delightful experience. For instance, she runs workshops to help people bake her recipes. In the summer months, when people zero in on fitness rather than fancy treats, she tests new ideas like a cupcake-shake or infusing nitrogen into cupcakes to make a cold sweet treat.

It’s this constant focus on creating great experiences and emotions that has made her business a success.

The nugget

Sometimes it’s better to aim small and quickly hit those goals. If you don’t hit them, you’ve failed fast and can move on. It gives you the momentum you need to tackle the big goals.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What are the small goals that will validate my idea/project?
  • What is it that you’re offering? Is it just a product / service? Or is it what your product / service enables?

What should I do when things get boring?

Standing in line to buy a drink at a music festival, Georgia Beattie was miffed she couldn’t buy a glass of wine. After talking to a few people in the event management business, she found that event organisers found it too hard to serve wine at large and outdoor functions.

Asking herself why there isn’t a solution for this, Georgia went home and started to develop her own prototype. Her solution: a shatterproof PET plastic ‘glass’ prefilled with wine designed for places where glass is dangerous or just inconvenient. Think music festivals, large exhibitions, concerts…

Now that she had the idea, Georgia asked herself: what will make it a success? Georgia decided to manufacture the product herself but wasn’t sure how. She needed to understand the science, technology and engineering behind getting her product to market. Talking to experts, Georgia found shareholders to support her business and raised the capital she needed to set up the factory in Dandenong. Her company Single Serve Packaging was born.

Georgia’s product quickly found its home at events and stadiums in Australia and around the world. She now has two brands: Lupé Wines and Beattie Wines. The company was named in BRW’s ‘Top 10 Start-up 2012’.

It was the Asian market that most surprised Georgia. Wanting to know why she was experiencing increased revenue from this market, she talked to a few people and discovered that wine wasn’t a common beverage in the Asia region. People that hadn’t drunk wine before didn’t want to buy a whole bottle to find out if they liked it. Instead, a single serve was a great way to be introduced to the wonderful world of wine. A large portion of sales are now generated in Asia, where the product is also found in retail stores.

The business was a resounding success, but Georgia got bored. She found she was merely in the business of taking and fulfilling orders. Instead of selling up and moving on, Georgia asked herself if she could evolve her idea further. It’s a move I thought was admirable – she could have simply cashed in and moved out. Instead Georgia dug deeper and innovated.

So Georgia’s company bought out the other shareholders. She is working towards establishing her own product and thus her own intellectual property. Keep an eye out for the launch of her single serve sparkling wine.

The nugget

Instead of wondering why not, start prototyping. See what works and what doesn’t. And if you do get bored, it’s time to cash out or push the envelope.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Do I truly understand the story behind the numbers? Explicitly, what are the numbers not saying?
  • If I find myself cruising along, what can I change? How can I lift another gear or stretch myself further?

Learn anything?

From these three business journeys, I’ve seen how each of the three entrepreneurs asked questions to get them to where they needed to be. From these stories, I have more questions to ask of myself. And that’s a good thing.

We humans are inquisitive by nature. Every innovation and invention starts with a question.

Are there stupid questions? Well, yes. You need to ask the right questions to help you take the next step.

If you want to know more about asking the right questions, here are two articles to get you started:

While the articles focus on personal questions, they can still be of value to your business or start-up.

Both articles implore you to stop asking questions that send you spiralling into self-doubt. Questioning your ability or skills might not necessarily get you to where you need to go. But asking questions around the assumptions you’ve made, what small goals you can aim for and how you can shake things up to get a better result are great questions to ask on your own journey.

So, what questions are you asking yourself?