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Amazon veteran Russ Grandinetti speaking at Amazon Innovation Day in Sydney

Customer obsession and innovation are “very much on a continuum”, Russ Grandinetti – Amazon’s Senior Vice President, International Consumer – told the audience at Amazon Innovation Day in Sydney, last week.

Grandinetti, who was amongst Amazon’s first 2000 hires and sits inside its top 40 employees in terms of tenure, spoke of the need for innovation to “start with what matters for customers”. Relevantly, he said a crucial part of Amazon’s innovation process has been “working backwards from what customers demand” (as opposed to starting by saying ‘what can I do with the skills I have?’) and delighting customers in ways they don’t yet know how to articulate. He explained, “customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied – even when they don’t know it, they want something better”.

Noting the importance of “staying close to customers as a source of innovation and defect elimination”, Grandinetti drew attention to Jeff Bezos’ “anxiety-inducing” Question Mark Method, where the Amazon CEO and his leadership team forward customer complaints, in the form of a question, directly to team leaders.

“We send these [emails] around the business and teams scramble to figure out how what we thought was happening and what customers are experiencing are not the same thing,” Grandinetti said. “I probably get three or four question mark emails every day about some experience a customer [found] unsatisfying… summed up over many days, months and years, [this] is the big force that allows us to move the customer experience as fast as we have.”

Grandinetti’s belief that customers are “the essence of innovation” was a sentiment shared by this week’s lineup of “Let’s Talk…” commentators. We asked nearly two dozen thought leaders, including entrepreneurs and executives, to identify the biggest drivers of innovation in their companies.

In the words of one commentator, “Innovation must be single-mindedly driven by your goal and the core problem you are solving for your customers”. Another advised readers, “customers are leading partners in cutting-edge business advancements – engage and involve them to drive your innovation.”

A strong survival instinct and employees with creative freedom were also considered key drivers of innovation. Read on for further insights from this week’s lineup…

Vu Tran, Co-founder of GO1.com: “Problem solving and creativity form part of our DNA at GO1.com and very much underpin our company’s core values and beliefs. Through the practice of growing a strong culture focussed on these key ingredients, people form the key driver for innovation at our company.

“I have the opportunity to work with some of the greatest problem solvers and creative thinkers I will ever have the privilege to meet. Through our team and the values that form the foundations of our culture, we have been able to create a mentality where the question we ask when encountering a problem is not ‘can we do this?’ No, it’s ‘how do we do this?’ This mentality allows us to apply our collective creativity to not only solve problems that others find impossible to solve but solve them in ways that others might never have been considered.”  

Noah Abelson-Gertler, CEO of ShareRoot: “Dreams – that’s where the magic happens! The more sleep, the more genius ideas come to mind. I aim for a minimum of 18 hours of sleep a day… kidding everyone, just keeping you on your toes! The biggest driver of innovation is undoubtedly the team members. As a CEO/founder, you need to empower your team to gain knowledge and share that knowledge effectively with the rest of the team. When ShareRoot pivoted three and a half years ago, it made sense from a statistical standpoint that the route forward would not come from either of the two co-founders, but from one of our team members. And we were right. Never underestimate the impact your people will have on the core business, rather equip them with the right tools and attitudes to encourage and guide innovation and push boundaries.”

Michael Caggiano, CCO, OnTheGo: “At OTG, the biggest driver of innovation for our business is our customers. They challenge us every single day to be better, faster, smarter, more efficient, and more transparent. Our whole business is built around customers – whether it is driving us to innovate our internal practices or procedures, or genuinely forcing us to look at things differently to how it has traditionally been done. We have built our business around our customers and innovation is the pursuit of doing something differently – which is something we strive for on their behalf every day.”

Damien Vasta, Managing Director of Sniip: “The biggest driver of innovation in our business is our customers. Our customers are consumers and we ourselves are consumers. We are therefore always striving to innovate to deliver a superior consumer payments product by asking what our customers need us to deliver in order to achieve that objective. We see innovation as simply the principle of using technology to solve a problem – if it doesn’t solve a problem, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated your technology is.

“Until now, consumers haven’t been able to make payments easily on a mobile device. This is a massive problem, given our mobile-centric culture. So, we will continually strive to use the technology at our disposal to create a more convenient payment experience delivered via mobile, solving this problem for our customers.”

Dr. Gero Decker, CEO of Signavio: “The customer has always been king – but for the first time they actually want to be treated that way.’ The urge for better customer experience has been a major driver for many of our customers as part of their business transformation and operational excellence initiatives. This forced us to rethink our products, which now help organisations translate customer journeys into operational reality.”

Sabri Suby, Founder, King Kong: “When you have a relentless desire to achieve the best results, you will find yourself becoming frustrated by limitations and challenges that require innovation to overcome. My team and I are always wanting to do bigger and better, and that sees us needing to innovate so we can solve problems and exceed expectations that our competitors are happy to live with. This could be in efficiencies, the way you achieve outcomes, or how results are measured. If like us, it’s in your DNA to push boundaries and to be the best, then the only way you can do that is to create new ways of doing things by innovating.”

Emma Lo Russo, CEO of Digivizer: “The increasing power of the digital customer drives the opportunities that we strive to deliver solutions for.  The customer is changing, voting with thumbs and wallets fast, so helping companies understand and engage in meaningful and valuable ways drives our innovation. Innovation is only of value when it has purpose and drives value for someone else. Perhaps the best definition of that over-used word “innovation” is making a difference to the customer in a new or novel way – in other words, putting the emphasis firmly on serving the customer. I get nervous when I hear companies talking about innovation on their terms.”

Jonny Wilkinson, Co-Founder, Equitise: “Being a company that works to secure funding for disruptive early stage businesses, our clients are some of our biggest drivers for innovation. They’re often in the tech space and have a concept which is not only backed by innovation and technology but by a team which is completely passionate about their idea. Seeing this every day allows us to learn and integrate through our own innovation in our marketing, customer service and the technology behind our platform.

“Another major driver is our team. Equitise has 10 employees who are all enthusiastic and committed, with a wide range of backgrounds and skills. They believe in what we are doing and take reward when investors get to own a piece of a company they are passionate about. To keep momentum going within the team, we hold brainstorming sessions on how we can continuously improve so we always have something to strive for. This creates a very innovative culture for the team, which is furthered fostered by our innovative co-working space, Tank Stream Labs.”

Anthony Quinn, Founder of Arctic Intelligence and AML Accelerate: “At Arctic Intelligence and AML Accelerate, regulatory technology innovation is at the centre of what we do and at the core of how we differentiate ourselves in the markets that we operate in. The biggest driver for innovation in our businesses is our belief that regulated entities regardless of their size, sector or geographic location, should have access to accessible and affordable technology to manage their audit, risk and compliance obligations.

“We have worked hard to bring together several new innovative regulatory technology platforms to help businesses to identify, assess, mitigate and manage their financial crime risk exposures, as well as, helping them to assess the design and operational effectiveness of their compliance programs. Our approach to innovation is agile, customer outcome-focused and fast – we experiment, make mistakes, make progress and deliver high-value outcomes to our clients and business partners.”

Matt Butterworth, Co-Founder and CEO of Easy Weddings: “Yearly surveys with customers, suppliers NPS or suggestions to our R&D team and data analysis push us to think outside the box. And with the rapid growth of other tech products such as new phones or browsers we’re thinking outside the box with the new features that are available to us.

“We hold quarterly ‘it would be cool to build…’ sessions to hear from staff where they want to see the business going. We devote a decent amount of our development budget towards new features while also making sure we have an agile approach when it comes to getting the ball rolling and launching things as soon as possible.

“But at the end of the day it’s not business that drive innovation, it’s the people. We have a great network of innovative people across our staff, clients and customers. People are naturally competitive, and we love competition here and overseas. It compels us to keep improving to stay in the number one position. ”

Andrew Joyce, Co-founder of Found Careers: “At Found, a driver of innovation is our constant focus on solving problems. After all, if you can solve a big enough problem for enough people, then you’ll have a great business on your hands. On a day-to-day basis, this means constantly talking to customers and users, seeing where we can improve our existing product, and what else they’re frustrated or struggling with in our space.”

Richard Watson, Regional Director at Twilio: “At Twilio we want to unleash the creativity of developers and enable them to innovate at speed. Twilio’s platform is purpose-built to encourage experimentation and iteration, and we believe that when you give developers the power to try new things, that’s where the biggest innovation takes place. With over two million developers on our platform globally, we are constantly learning from the innovation they are creating – and that’s what drives key business decisions such as launching in new markets, what products to develop or delivering on new CX. The developer community is at the core of everything we do at Twilio and I absolutely love that!”

Tim Moylan, COO of Shootsta: “The biggest driver for innovation at Shootsta is giving people the freedom to focus on the outcome of a project. We run a quarterly ‘Shack-a-thon’ that unites co-workers from different teams to work on a solution together. We want them to embrace an idea, make a decision on how to solve it, and move forward to develop a plan. The presentations at the end always make for an engaging afternoon, and the clap-o-meter usually tells us how well an idea is received.

“The driver comes from putting them to work together to reach a goal. The freedom to do this comes from cutting away the red-tape, throwing out the corporate rule book, and empowering them to focus on 1 single outcome. People don’t wake up in the morning wanting to comply with the companies systems and processes, so let people think outside the box, and some of the best ideas could come from the most unlikely employees.”

David Collien, CTO of OpenLearning: “Innovation at OpenLearning is driven by a philosophy of fostering a supportive and socially interactive learning environment, a focus on cross-disciplinary thinking, and a sense of playfulness. Conventional teaching which authoritatively assigns work and corrects responses, leaves little room for divergent thinking and creativity. Our practice of creating personalised, constructive, learner-centred, and peer supported environments is not only a way of differentiating the value we provide in the education sector but is also core to our workplace culture to give our team freedom of expression, to explore and create.

“Ed-tech innovation requires an in-depth understanding of educational theory and practice, paired with technical know-how on the practical possibilities. As our team shares a wealth of knowledge across both disciplines, our everyday lunch conversations explore new cross-disciplinary ideas. This all comes with a healthy side of light-hearted fun, as it’s easiest to have new ideas when even the silliest are encouraged.”

John Heaton, CTO of Moneycatcha: “For the longest time, building a better mouse trap (cost reduction & efficiencies) was a big driver for innovation. Today, however, I think the biggest driver for innovation is survival, responding to the demand to do things differently. Becoming or being more digital is forcing organisations not only to revamp or replace their technology but also completely redefine their business model.

“Technologies such as serverless computing, container-based development and delivery, software defined networks and blockchain are challenging the status quo and facilitating this change but demand is driving it. While some would say this is building a better mouse trap I would disagree and say with the recent trends of organisations divesting (Woolworths into mobiles and insurance, Qantas into healthcare) from their core competencies and being successful this is not just an improved mouse trap but an entirely new mouse trap.”

Jonathan Jeffries, Co-founder of Think & Grow: “Nothing is more critical to the success of a business than its people. When it comes to innovation it’s important to provide an open channel for your people to collaborate and contribute ideas. Having a culture that’s open to feedback — without repercussions — is essential to fostering an innovation-led organisation.

Anneke van den Broek, Pet Care Expert and founder and CEO of Rufus & Coco: “Having won several awards for innovation in product design, every new product we introduce to market needs to offer a better solution to the everyday issues and niggles that pet owners face. Rufus & Coco are something of a David and Goliath story, as a small Australian brand that entered the market against some very big players.

“Our success has been largely due to our ability to truly understand our market, and innovate to solve unmet needs. We understand the small changes that can make a massive difference. Our Elasticised Litter Tray Liners are the only product in the Australian market with elastic edges to keep them securely in place despite scratching. Ideas like this have allowed us to set ourselves apart in Australia’s $3 billion+ pet care market. We’ve introduced new, innovative products to supermarkets every year since 2009. If your business isn’t innovating, it won’t survive.”

Tony Ward, Country Manager at Dropbox: “Collaboration and knowledge sharing are the key pillars upon which great ideas and businesses are built, so in that sense collaboration is a key driver of innovation.

“Collaboration enables diverse and cross-functional teams – internal, external, local and global – to come together to find new, creative ways to solve complex challenges in real time. Instead of working in silos detached from each other, businesses can leverage technology to break down barriers – creating opportunities to not only drive efficiency and productivity but to create ‘collisions’ of ideas – this is when creativity happens.

“Businesses are also using collaboration as a way to increase the speed and quality of decision making. Speed is the new currency of business and organisations that can iterate and innovate quickly will be more successful.”

Brett Shanley, Co-founder and CEO of Study Loans: “The biggest driver of innovation at Study Loans is our pursuit of finance for education and  our dedication to empowering institutional providers to give more Australians access to learning and professional qualifications. We believe education is completely different to gaining finance for other tangible items such as a car, a house or a business and therefore needs a specialist product and specialist credit engine. Study Loans collects and uses historical data points on a range of financial and educational criteria for each individual to ascertain how likely someone is to complete a course or gain an outcome.

“Our platform also has the power to calculate vacancy rates in an individual’s exact area or career field at the point of completion. In essence, Study Loans is a data driven business, which specialises in the education space. Our aim is to provide more credit for people taking critical steps in securing their future through education by providing them with the necessary finance to undertaken the education in an intelligent and comprehensive manner where the product is made for purpose.”

Michael Stelzer, VP (ANZ) at Verint: “As the Customer Engagement Company, Verint has the customer at the core of our innovation. We’ve made a name for ourselves simplifying and modernising customer engagement with powerful technology solutions that are developed with a key focus on how businesses need to drive deeper customer loyalty and trust. Verint’s product design, implementation and support is driven by our own customers’ requirements and feedback. Our ongoing research and development also enables us to develop advanced innovation that address our customers’ changing business requirements, and their customers changing business requirements. Your customers are leading partners in cutting-edge business advancements – engage and involve them to drive your innovation.”

Ben Pfisterer, Country Manager (Australia) with Square: “The biggest driver of innovation at Square is our commitment to helping our businesses start, run and grow. We still think there is a lot that can be done to build products and services that better empower more business owners to run their operations more effectively. In this world of rapid technology change, no company can rest on their laurels and be satisfied that a product or service is the best it can possibly be. In any industry, there is constant competition and an ever-present need to evolve. It’s our job to innovate on behalf of the businesses that use our platform so they can focus on what they do best – growing their business and providing for their customers.”

Steve Hughes, Managing Director of Mood Media Australia: “Innovation must be single-mindedly driven by your goal and the core problem you are solving for your customers. Then you have the freedom to innovate how you deliver that.

“For example, our goal is to elevate the in-store customer experience and we are the founders of retail music in Australia. Innovation has led us to evolve background music from CDs, into a music solution that is on-demand and scientifically curated. And because our innovation is true to our purpose, we didn’t simply apply new technology to our solution. We could have used algorithms to curate playlists, but instead we use a team of (human) music specialists to hand-pick music and use unique technology to deliver it. We’ve also innovated our business to include marketing that targets other senses – sight, scent and touch.

“If you want to innovate well, then don’t look for new, shiny things. Instead ask how you can better fulfill your business purpose. The result – always innovation.”

Dan Taylor, General Manager of Innovation with TAL: “We live in an age of unrelenting change, with rising consumer expectations and emerging technologies creating an imperative to innovate. Our goal is to deliver meaningful new products and services to our customers that lead the industry through this change.

“Innovation plays a critical role in enabling organisations to meet ever-growing consumer expectations, and we’re focused on embracing emerging technology to help address this. Losing sight of the relationship with consumers and the need to understand, anticipate and respond to their rising expectations is what sees organisations left behind.  At TAL, as evidenced by our dedicated innovation function and the pipeline of products and services we are launching, we have a deliberate strategy to lead the industry through these challenges, constantly seeking ways to reinvent before others can do so.

“We are focused on practical innovation that will make a real difference to customers, so that our customers understand and value their cover and have confidence that we’ll be there when they need us most.

“One such technology where we see real customer benefit is Artificial Intelligence, where we have been at the leading edge of applications to streamline our processes, such as underwriting, and develop better experiences for customers. For example, TAL’s new support service for claimants uses an independent messaging tool to help customers return to health by creating a network for them to share and exchange experiences, insights and advice with former claimants.”

Fadi Geha, CEO of Simble: “We know SMBs are feeling the ever-increasing pain of escalating energy costs. They not only eat into a company’s profits, but limit the ability to reinvest cash flow into technology and innovation, which in turn slows productivity and overall company progress.

“We’re committed to helping our SMB customers thrive by providing intelligent tools to ensure the most efficient use of their resources. Our real-time energy visualisation and analytics platform, SimbleSense, helps identify energy savings opportunities, therefore helping businesses reduce their energy costs, consumption and carbon footprint.

“Being a small business ourselves, our people are the real drivers of our innovation and we have demonstrated our ability to move quickly and evolve our IP with future innovation.  This puts our customers on the front foot when confronting the energy ‘bill shock’ dilemma.  We enable our customers to stay ahead of the curve, giving them the power to drive costs out and allow innovation in. ”

Jonathon Miller, MD of Bit Trade: “The biggest driver for innovation in the Bit Trade business is always learning from everything we do to solve problems for other companies, and to continue to make its business leaner and more progressive.

“An example of this is the work we’re doing under Bit Trade’s affiliate company, Bit Trade Labs. It is a hub for innovation, working with leading financial institutions and start-ups to develop blockchain solutions. It’s doing some really progressive work to solve problems within businesses across a range of sectors. It has recently completed a couple of significant projects; it has developed a self-sovereign identity solution in collaboration with an international consortium to solve problems with identity fraud. It has also created the world’s fastest and most secure blockchain based voting platform with secure.vote. ”

About “Let’s Talk…”

This exciting new, weekly initiative provides entrepreneurs and industry experts with a forum to share rapid-fire views on a range of issues that matter to start-ups and SMEs. Every Wednesday, we pose a themed question to a line-up of knowledgable industry figures, with a view to picking their brains for valuable insights to share with you, our readers.

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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