Fostering Innovation

Many companies today want to foster innovation within their organizations. Probably the most famous example is Google's policy, which allows employees to work 20% of their time on whatever they want.

We have our own internal program, which we call Tivix Ventures. Tivix employees can pitch the rest of the company on an idea they have for a new software application. If the idea seems compelling enough, the company will invest a little time and money in taking it to the next level. This past spring we did it with Francis David Cleary's Hive Reader.

This fall we've chosen three new internal projects to allow our team members to spend a little time on. Tomasz Baranowicz, Kyle Connors, and Silin Na have each been approved to spend 40 hours of company time prototyping a new mobile app idea (with other members at Tivix helping out as needed).

The only rule is that they have to strictly follow the same Tivix methodology which we preach to our own clients.

Fundamentally, this includes the following:

  • Talk to actual customers before building anything. As Steve Blank wrote in a brilliant Harvard Business Review article earlier this year, "Business plans rarely survive first contact with customers."
  • Start with a Pre-MVP. Entrepreneurs today talk about the concept of a Minimum Viable Product — an initial product with only the critical features necessary to gather feedback from customers. But at Tivix we actually believe in starting with a Pre-MVP, a prototype with which we can gather feedback from real-world customers before actually starting any real development. With today's tools, a skilled developer can build a prototype in a week's worth of work. The information that can be learned in building a Pre-MVP and showing it to customers is absolutely invaluable. In my career I've many times seen companies spend millions of dollars on a new product only to find out customers don't want it. With today's tools and methods, that's a completely unnecessary crime.
  • Fail Fast. We may pull the plug on all three of the new Tivix Ventures projects if, after 40 hours of prototyping and some customer interviews, there doesn't seem to be any there there. That will be a fine, intelligent outcome as far as we're concerned. Many people hold on to the myth that great entrepreneurs are tenacious and stick to their vision, no matter what. That's a lovely idea, but in 2013 there's a difference between mythology and methodology. We believe in methodology.

One final note: many people are worried that by showing a prototype around for feedback you run the risk of people stealing your idea. From our perspective, that's a fear rooted in another era (during the dot-com boom everyone talked abut being in "stealth mode"). Current methodology, in the words of Steve Blank, "makes this concept obsolete because for most startups customer feedback matters more than secrecy." Or, framed differently, the risk of someone stealing your idea is tiny compared to the risk of building an uninformed product.

We're looking forward to this autumn's crop of Tivix Ventures products. One might succeed. Or maybe none of the three will ever see the light of day. Regardless, we will learn a lot by using the same product development methodology that we preach to our clients.