Startup tools and approaches for managing innovation (and bringing order to the chaos)

It’s an accepted truth that startups are more innovative than established corporations. Having worked for both, I explore the differences in the way these businesses are run and highlight the pros and cons of the tools and approaches startups rely on.

Go to the profile of Jon Beer
Nov 16, 2018
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This week, I spoke at the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) seminar ‘Innovate or Perish’ on the tools and approaches we use here at Zapnito to innovate. Presenting mainly to established STM publishers, I decided to look back at my 15 years working for similar corporations to explain what’s different now that I run a startup, and how those differences enable innovation.

Of course, it’s probably not necessarily true that startups are more innovative than established companies. ‘Innovation’ simply means doing something new and startups, being new companies, are therefore often innovative by default. Yet while their product or service may be new, their approaches may not be.

That said, there’s no getting away from the fact that it is different working in a startup to working in a big corporation and many of those differences help startups to come up with new products, new features, new ways of working more easily and more rapidly than more established companies.

If you’re a working at large organisation and are wanting to do something new, you could do worse than looking to the tools and approaches used by startups. But before you run out and buy a Slack licence, be warned that there are pros and cons to how many startups work.

So, let me guide you through some of the main differences that I have observed in switching from corporate to startup, and what’s good and bad about each of them.

Click here for my full event presentation or here for the Zapnito Innovation 101 whitepaper

Slack vs. email & meetings

It’s a fact: startups love Slack. This “collaboration hub”, or IRC with a nice interface as we think of it, is easily our main form of communication. (In fact the name Slack is an acronym, Searchable Log of All Information and Knowledge.)  

We usually only email each other about things that are so important that they need a permanent record and our only regular meeting is our weekly showcase and planning session (and even then, at least one person will participate virtually using Slack). Our 10-person team sent around 10,000 Slack messages in October. And that was a quiet month.

Slack enables innovation as we have a permanent ‘Ideas’ channel to capture ideas as they arise, rather than relying on laboured ‘innovation sessions’, and even outside that channel, I’d estimate that 10% of messages relate to doing something new. We can brainstorm ideas in real-time as they occur, rather than trying to follow lengthy email chains, and - perhaps most importantly - Slack reduces the hours we spend in meetings so that we have more time to build new stuff.

But it’s not all good. Slack can be VERY distracting. Sometimes it seems that everything about it is designed to distract you. 10,000 messages a month can lead to a lot of notifications. Responses are less considered than even email, which can quickly send people down the wrong path. And because it’s ‘just’ chat, new ideas discussed in Slack usually don’t result in action. (Mind you, that’s not such a bad thing, as it can act like a filter so that only the best ideas become reality.)  

Pros & cons of Slack

Pros

  • Doesn’t force innovation: lets it happen naturally

  • Creates a record of ideas

  • Participation is optional

Cons

  • Interrupts your day, a lot: occasionally it feels like you’re in 10 simultaneous meetings with a dozen people

  • Responses are less considered

  • Not as likely to lead to action

Top Slack tip: turn off your notifications and visit on your own terms

‘Startup Agile’ vs. ‘corporate Agile’

In my experience, corporates have long adopted Agile development practices and moved away from the Waterfall model. The former is generally thought to allow more innovation and feedback throughout the development process and to result in an outcome that better fits customer needs. But there are differences in how we ran Agile development projects when I worked for a big corporation to how we run them here at Zapnito.

In corporate land, we were very attached to estimates, to determining and logging how much effort a piece of work would require and then assessing how much effort it did actually take. We spent more time planning and assessing than doing. We used estimates to allocate resources and set schedules. This process was ultimately a product of top down financial management and planning. The estimates weren’t for us they were for the Finance Director, and they were usually wrong.

At Zapnito, we gave up on estimates a few years ago and instead focus on priority-order of work and on getting features released as soon as is practical without compromising on quality. If work feels like it is taking too long, we scale back the scope. If it needs more resource, we juggle the team’s to-do list accordingly. This saves us a lot of wasted effort in, well, estimating effort and means that we are more open to the scope of work evolving to accommodate good ideas.

We still use a classic Kanban board to track items of work but we do so in a more low-tech way, using Trello rather than Jira or other somewhat bloated systems.   This has led to most areas of the business deploying Kanban using Trello to manage their work, not just the development team. Our CPO and Creative Director both have their own personal Trello boards. We even used Trello to manage our sales pipeline for a while. It worked better for us than other well-known CRM systems.

Trello is cheap (free in the first instance) and it enables everyone in the company to work in the same way, which helps us all get a better understanding of what each other is working on at any given time, the pressures each other is under and the flexibility (or lack of) that we have to take on new things. This transparency enables us to create space in which to innovate as we have a clear idea of everyone’s current and upcoming work.

Of course, removing the discipline of estimating and the rigour applied by more complex software like Jira means that we are more at risk of scope creep and are more easily distracted by new ideas. And we still tend to underestimate how long a piece of work will take.

Pros & cons of ‘startup Agile’

Pros

  • A consistent approach across development and commercial teams means increased transparency and ‘space’ to innovate

  • Using lower-tech software means less time grappling with systems

  • It’s cheap!

  • It’s also very flexible: you can apply Trello to any kind of work pipeline

Cons

  • Scope creep

  • Easy to be distracted by new ideas

  • Still a tendency to underestimate effort (but that was always the case)

  • Requires self discipline to comply with process / pipeline conventions

Top ‘startup Agile’ tip: Kanban using Trello for everyone, not just developers

In the future vs. right now

We don’t have a long-term business plan. We don’t have a (detailed) 5-year forecast. We don’t have a product roadmap. We don’t spend most of Q4 poring over spreadsheets or in lengthy strategy sessions only to prepare documents that are quickly found to be inaccurate because, increasingly, none of us can predict the future.

That’s not to say we don’t have goals, objectives, financial targets, investor expectations, plans for how our product and business will develop. It’s just that we focus on what we know to be true, now, rather than trying to execute against a document that we wrote months or years ago.

This frees us to innovate in all areas of our business, from what our product is and how it works to how we operate day-to-day, because we haven’t already decided what we are going to do.

We work in 6-12 week cycles; we run our development process in short, weekly sprints and have occasional skunkworks when we need to focus on something bigger.

Check out my post on how a skunkworks can shake up your Agile development process.

This way of working is increasingly common in startups, thanks in no small part to the excellent book Rework, written by the team at software firm Basecamp, and an essential component of the startup toolkit.

We feel this focus on ‘right now’ is essential for market responsiveness and realistic given how difficult it is for a company of any size, but not least a startup, to predict the future. Freeing your company from long-term planning (in some areas at least) means you can spend more time doing, can seize opportunities as they arise and are much more likely to fail fast, to learn, iterate and move on. All of this is essential for innovation.

This approach can mean, however, a greater risk of changing course too often, as well as distraction from core business. And documented plans do have the advantage of holding people accountable for their work and enabling reflection when you realise you have drifted off course.

Pros & cons of right now

Pros

  • Less time planning, more time doing

  • Able to seize opportunities as they arise

  • Learn fast from failure: it’s ok to change your mind

Cons

  • Risk of changing course too often

  • Easy to be distracted from core business, easy to be reactive

  • Less reflection and accountability

Top ‘right now’ tip: Read Rework for a practical guide to changing your company’s culture.

Learn from where we have failed

The entire Zapnito senior management team have spent more of their careers working in established, large companies than we have in startups. And our company is the better for it. We’re glad not to be straight-from-uni, VC-backed young entrepreneurs. We apply the discipline (and profit focus) we developed in the corporate world every day.

But we have found that startup culture has enabled us to become more innovative.

If you are looking to innovate, please do apply some startup tools and approaches to your business. But also learn from where we have failed. Turn off your Slack notifications as soon as you install it.

More differences between startup and corporate tools and approaches:

  • All hands on deck vs. defined roles

  • MVP vs. endless cycles of UAT

  • People vs. databases

Read about them all - in my full event presentation.

Go to the profile of Jon Beer

Jon Beer

CTO & Co-Founder, Zapnito

A technical leader and hands-on CTO with 17 years' experience implementing web technologies. I lead the technical delivery of the Zapnito platform, ensuring a scalable multi-tenant architecture, disruption-free daily release cycles and a highly effective development team that delivers platform enhancements for our customers. Get in touch with me to discuss your requirements for this or any Zapnito network or to share your feedback at any time.

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Jen Thoroughgood
Jen Thoroughgood 28 days ago

Great post Jon :-)

Go to the profile of Charles Thiede
Charles Thiede 28 days ago

Nice post Jon and great talk. Clearly written by someone who has lived in both worlds:)