Q&A with Ignite CIO: How startups can create value through collaborative innovation

David Ross teaches innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment at Carnegie Mellon University Africa, and serves as the manager of the Industry Innovation Lab. During a recent class, he welcomed representatives from energy company Ignite to discuss how startups can create value through collaborative innovation. Angela Homsi, Ignite Power co-founder and CIO, and Gil Karie, Head of Innovation, caught up with Ross during a class entitled “IT Innovation and Business in Africa” last month, attended by students pursuing their Masters of Information Technology at CMU-Africa. Ross: “We’re very pleased to have Angela and Gil to help us build on our knowledge of collaborative innovation. Can we start off with learning how Ignite looks at collaborating with external organisations and how it fits into your business strategy?” Homsi: “One thing that is important to raise is that Ignite was built from the onset very much as a learning and evolving organisation. We recognised early on that some of us are less than all of us working together. If we want to be an exponential-growing organisation, collaborating with great people with great technologies in a thoughtful way will be the key to achieving our goals.”   Ross: “In what areas are you collaborating with external organisations and startups?”   Homsi: “There are two areas in which we’re looking to embrace new technologies and new partnership continuously. First, new products and technologies that serve our customers and secondly, new processes and methods that help us do what we do better, more efficient, or smarter about how we do things.” Ross: “The diversity of serving 1.5 million customers across six countries opens up significant challenges to solve for. What have innovators and entrepreneurs that have been successful in working with Ignite and your platform done differently?” Karie: “There are many problems and diverse challenges in the markets that we serve. Successful entrepreneurs deeply understand the challenges, have done their homework about their markets, about us and what we have and can do, and seek to align their solution with the problem and our platform. They propose collaborations that seek not just to introduce a solution and be done, but to learn something new or validate existing assumptions. 

It is not uncommon among innovative people to fall in love with their idea. Their idea is their baby.  Everyone who has children knows that their baby is by far the most amazing, cute beautiful and smart baby that’s ever lived on the planet. This is what we call the “cute baby syndrome”. To get beyond this natural and normal feeling we have to learn from others. We like to work with people who are eager to learn and challenge their assumptions, who are not too in love with their idea, who will go the extra mile and think deeper about the people, their needs and how a solution can adapt to meet those needs.” Ross: “When in development of a startup’s lifecycle should they be seeking pilots to collaborate with other organisations?”

Karie: “If we follow the Lean Startup model of proof of concept (PoC) followed by minimum viable product (MVP) we like to see that startups have had multiple MVPs. “We prefer this because in the markets that we serve there are so many different customer needs and having a single MVP may not adapt to a broad customer base.  We prefer to hear from an entrepreneur that’s had two MVPs that failed and one MVP that was successful going into a pilot because it shows that they’ve learned a lot more than an entrepreneur who had one MVP and was successful. It also shows alignment with our method of testing and validating assumptions for product-market fit.” Ross: “Would you say that adaptability to the market conditions and to your platform is a key to success for entrepreneurs who are seeking collaborations?” Karie:  “Yes, this is a great way to describe what we’re and other organizations like us are looking for in our collaborations.”

Ross: “Am I correct in thinking what should be taken from your underlying methodology or belief system is that development of innovations and the development of the entrepreneurial process can be seen, perhaps as a series of experiments that test a series of cascading assumptions that build upon each other?

“If assumptions are validated, then you can build from that assumption and make further assumptions towards the growth of your innovation with an iterative process of hypothesis and testing. Is that in line with a similar methodology that you follow?”  

Angela Homsi, Ignite co-founder and CIO Karie: “Yes, that is absolutely how we see it – 100 per cent.” Ross: “Thank you for that.  Now we have a question from one of our students.” Steven Kijooma at CMU-Africa: “Do you have a methodology or specific way that you listen to your customers? Also what do you do before you take action in investing resources or time into a pilot with an entrepreneur?”

Homsi: “Not just for pilots, but for our ongoing operations. We have a constant feedback loop that we’ve put in place seeking to achieve continuous improvements. We have call centres, we have surveys, and we have our people on the ground serving customers that we listen to across numerous channels. “When we think about pilots, we think about the technical, commercial, and operational factors that we could learn the most from in conducting a pilot. We think about one region and one group of people in which we can deploy a solution on a small scale. We think about the supply chain, the areas that need to be tweaked or adjusted to make the pilot successful in terms of working in a potentially remote area. We think about what training is needed to whom about what. We try to do as much thinking around the solution as we can before investing significant resources.” Ross: “How do you suggest entrepreneurs and companies should iterate with pilots?” Karie: “A pilot is a test, a test to validate assumptions. For example, a solution may sound amazing and it may be amazing, but may or may not work. I don’t know if people will want to use it. I’m not sure if people will want to pay for it. With every new technology we are piloting, we first try it in one village, so we will be able to learn something new about it. Then, we try it in another village and we learn something new. Then we roll it out throughout a district and we again learn something new. Each time we, our collaboration with the entrepreneur, and our ability to serve our customers got better and better from this iterative process.” Ross: We’re big fans here at CMU of customer discovery and gaining insights from customers’ experiences. There’s so much insight that that can be generated from seeing how your customer uses your product or interacts with your product. So while we’re talking about data, are there types of KPIs or data that people should be tracking while they’re running a pilot?”

Karie: “That’s a great question, and since you asked me to be controversial, I’ll say that most people are looking at new products or service innovation, but that’s not always the best area to focus on. Many great companies have grown not because of their innovative products or services but because of the strategy, business model, or something that helps the customer in a way that others haven’t done before or effectively. I’d encourage students to challenge yourself and think about how you can innovate and do something really crazy using something that already exists, but done differently in ways that people haven’t seriously considered before in a way that makes your customers very, very happy.” Ross: “Adapting innovations for the market in ways that others aren’t – sounds like great advice.  Angela, do you have any controversial advice for our students?” Homsi: “Entrepreneurship is a challenge like no other and there are many different types of ways to be an entrepreneur. I’ve seen some great companies emerge from two people going after a similar problem that have joined forces. In the world today, knowledge and experience are becoming more complex and more specialised. Joining forces and developing a web of knowledge and expertise is becoming more and more valuable. My advice is to develop collaborations with others while you develop your own knowledge and never stop exploring how that collaboration can create value in unexpected ways.”

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