Innovation is hard, but not as hard as you’ve been told

This post focusses on something I rarely look at - how things work at home, that said it rings true for most of Australia. Canberra is a great example of a young start-up community. There are brilliant people working in a huge variety of spaces, bringing new ways of thinking and approaching issues to the world.

 No matter where you work, in what field, sector or size organisation, there is a notion that the status quo is simple and most cost efficient, innovation and change are expensive and hard.

My response to that is simple - wrong. (This article was always going to get controversial, so I may as well start early) The most dangerous and expensive thing for any organisation, industry or market is to assume if nothing is changed the situation will always be the same. There are endless examples of this not being the case, from the automotive industry, to retail and even the software market.

Canberra is looking to diversify its financial base, which in a traditionally public sector town means building private enterprise. While there is a spread across industries, markets and sizes of organisation, the current focus seems to be on the tech sector and start-ups.

This brings to Canberra a phenomenon every young start-up community faces, the need to show, teach and offer handouts. This is where the breakdown comes in to the equation.

Start-ups fit the cliche - they’re looking for a hand up not a hand out. Reducing barriers is more important than small financial incentives. Most entrepreneurs have skills they can turn to to bootstrap themselves and their business, what they need is to be enabled to do their thing.

Financial help can be vital, I’m not pretending it isn’t, and pre-seed funding can be the difference between success and failure (which, remember, isn’t a terrible thing).

That said, the notion I hear in Canberra of “once you’ve mortgaged your house to help you fund this we’ll look at you” is ridiculous. I’ve written before about my belief that we hunt best when we are hungry, but there is a difference between being lean and efficient with funds, and being destitute. No one is performing at their best when they are facing stresses and pressure on all fronts.

The thing about funding, whether grant, investment or venture is, in my opinion, it is best off coming from the private sector. Government initiatives are brilliant, they help make things possible without doubt, but from a funding perspective they simply can’t meet all of the needs of a start-up. Moving quickly, changing direction and iterating product design are key to a start-up reaching market and revenue.

This is where the title of this post comes in. It is hard to innovate to the point where people are adopting something. But it isn’t impossible, by any means - and the biggest thing for me is to those who really think that way and try, it comes naturally. Is it hard work for those people? Absolutely it is, but it isn’t hard to understand, and when they are doing it, it happens without straining (the straining comes in different parts of commercialising).

Why is this important? Because people think in different ways. In almost all cases the start-up entrepreneur is going to think very differently about an issue to someone from the public sector, from business rules and regulations, to cash flow, financing, employment and the product itself. There are different paradigms being worked in by each side of the equation and while efforts are being made to bridge the gap, we’re not there yet.

The Digital Canberra initiative is a great, (semi) proactive one from the ACT Government. It has one major flaw though - it diminishes the scope and capability of the people it is targeting. There are fantastic creators throughout the city, and there are huge advancements technology can make to life in it.

Digital Canberra does one problematic thing, I think and hope unintentionally - by setting what the government sees as the “problem” it cripples the possible outcomes. The parameters relevant to government and those which drive the start-up scene are fundamentally different, and to try to fit them into each other means neither will be truly met.

To me, Digital Canberra reflects much of the rhetoric I see throughout Australia from outside the start-up community. We need help. We’re inexperienced, verging on ignorant of the way things work, and need to be educated on the system to succeed.

To take myself out of the space, the people I meet working on their start-ups are, by and large, the most intelligent, focussed and dedicated people there are. They are truly inspiring to be around. They are problem solvers - the fact they don’t work to the system is intentional, it is because they see it (or part of it) as being broken and are doing what they need to to fix it.

To look and talk down to them is not only crazy, but insulting. Nowhere in the process should anyone be saying “you need to do it this way”, if we want innovation the question should be “what do you need to make this work?”

My message, at the end of the day, is this: great talent breeds great ideas, great ideas lead to great innovation. Innovation leads to prosperity. Start at the beginning, with the talent, work with them. Don’t try to jump straight to the outcomes.

Everyone needs to be brave and let things grow the way they need to. The best help comes from opening doors, not locking the ones you don’t want people going through.