Over the last few years, we’ve often been asked why we set about building smartcrowds.  We get to this at the end of this blog, but for those that are interested in the story of how we got there and our innovation learnings along the way, we thought it would be good to share 4 of our own short innovation stories over this 2 part blog – hopefully you’ll find these entertaining and helpful!

The seeds of smartcrowds came from a realisation, around 2015, that whilst we (Bridgeall) had a reasonable history of trying to break new ground with our IT solutions, the actual results of our innovation efforts were…mixed, to put it mildly!

An IT development company at heart, we were (and still are) in the favourable position of being able to develop a solution to solve almost any problem in the digital world.  However, as anyone who is involved in innovation will be acutely aware, there is a world of difference between developing something that is new or ground-breaking, and bringing to market something that demonstrates true innovation – a difference that is clearly highlighted in the simple definition “Innovation is the successful exploitation of new ideas” (UK Department of Innovation and Skills).

The one that got us started

Our company started back in 2002 when, as IT professionals working for an energy retailer, we had become frustrated watching our employer being held to ransom by one of its software vendors when even the smallest change was made to the central market data-file definitions that enabled customers to switch from one retailer to another.

Having subsequently moved on from employment with the energy company, and with a mind-set of taking a fresh approach to the problem, we set about creating a software solution that would put energy companies back in control – enabling them to easily configure the file-definitions and back-office processes themselves, significantly reducing the time, cost and risk involved each time the industry announced a change.

A few months later and bingo! – our new ‘Gas Gateway’ product was surely going to take the market by storm by being better than the existing vendor solutions on the market.

Unfortunately, that’s not how our story went.  This may well have been the most flexible and efficient solution but trying to unseat competitor products that were already ‘embedded’ in complex retail processes proved to be a hurdle too great to overcome.

Whilst this was “the one that got us started”, as an approach to innovation this clearly wasn’t a textbook approach.

Measured against any traditional measures of innovation success, our new product never really took off the way we had expected.  So, what happened?  Looking back, it’s now clear that we didn’t fully explore our own hypothesis that we had identified a great solution to real-world problem.

What avenues of exploration should have featured in our thinking?

  • Market Opportunity:  Was the market size large enough to create real opportunity?  What was a realistic conversion ratio?
  • Customer Pull:  How excited might prospective customers be with our new approach?  How much pain were they really experiencing with the current status quo?  And how likely, therefore, would they be to switch to a new solution vendor?
  • Financial viability:  What price point would we need to achieve to entice enough customers to switch to us?  Could we run a viable business at the price point?
  • Organisational/Technical Feasibility (Customer):  How difficult would it be for organisations to replace an existing IT system that was already embedded in numerous back-end processes?  Would this create a barrier to entry that would likely be too great to overcome, irrespective of the ‘customer pull’ of our new approach.
  • Organisational/Technical Feasibility (Bridgeall):  Did we have the marketing capability in our team to make an impact in a crowded, established market?

By avoiding these questions, we were certainly able to get started quickly and bring our new product to market in short succession, but did anyone want it, and did it create a viable business opportunity?

Luckily (although, apparently, people make their own luck), a new Energy market entrant appeared on the scene just when our attempts at selling to the limited number of retailers had all but exhausted – they saw our product, loved the agile, flexible approach that it offered, and suddenly we had a customer to get us started with our fledgling business.

The one that flew

A few years later, recognising that we were not likely to gain further customers of our “flagship” energy product, we came to the stark realisation that we needed to try something different.

To get us started, some group Idea brainstorming seemed like a reasonable approach.  What could we learn from our extended networks – family, friends, colleagues, previous customers – about ‘pains’ that they were experiencing in their own industry sector?

With upwards of 20 ideas proposed that were scribbled on a whiteboard, we gave ourselves what seemed like a fighting chance of identifying a breakthrough opportunity.  Amongst them, one grabbed each of us with that gut feel that can often emerge in an Innovation project – an idea that looked exciting, appeared to be new and meaningfully unique, and had the potential to deliver significant impact.

The father of one of the Directors, the Head of Service in West Lothian Libraries, had been pioneering research into an ‘evidence-based stock management’ approach to library collection management for a number of years – effectively taking the guesswork out of library stock purchasing and the placement of books within each branch, and replacing it with an approach that was supply and demand driven.  The work was showing strong potential in West Lothian but was being implemented manually using spreadsheet-based modelling – it had all the hallmarks of something that could be turned into a software solution.

Having taken some learnings from our previous attempt at product innovation, we treaded more cautiously and moved into a more traditional ‘exploration’ mode.

  • Customer Pull:  Would the market validate what our expert had been telling us?  Did the customer really care about the problem that the idea claimed to solve?  How significant was the real-world pain that they were experiencing?
  • Technical Feasibility – Existing methods:  Had this really never been done before?  Were we going to be in breach of any patents or pre-existing methods by doing this?  Following a reasonably extensive search, incredibly as it seemed at the time, no-one had tried this before.
  • Technical Feasibility – Development:  We had already identified that delivering a solution on the ‘cloud’ could help us deliver a more cost-effective service – but these were the days before cloud software solutions were common-place.  Did we have the in-house skills and expertise to develop this type of solution?  Would it be able to support the computational demands of multiple customers simultaneously?  Could we scale the solution rapidly if we needed to?  We skilled up quickly, created a rapid proof of concept and resolved the remaining technical uncertainties as quickly as we could.
  • Financial Viability – Pricing:  Would the library world, already facing severe budget cuts and branch closures, be able to find budget to purchase our solution?  Would the customer be impressed enough by our benefit promise to make the proposed price-point acceptable to them? 
  • Financial Viability – Market Size:  Were there enough library services customers in the target group to support the venture?  Could we reach them economically through our marketing and distribution efforts?
  • Financial Viability – Organisational:  Would our proposed Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model, which relies on incremental effects of many customers paying a relatively low annual, recurring subscription price, create a viable financial business case for our business? 

So – lots of scary looking hurdles to overcome that might have caused us to consign it to the “too difficult” bucket had we carried out complex idea vetting and risk scoring at this early decision point.

In fact, what we were really facing was a series of ‘uncertainties’ that required resolution, using appropriate avenues of exploration, before moving forward.  Fundamentally, the idea was exciting & unique, and if we could pull it off, could be a game changer.

In hindsight, and more by chance than design, we resisted what we now often observe to be common pitfall in many innovation initiatives – killing potentially great ideas before ever giving them a chance due to ‘red flag fright’.

Instead, we shortlisted the idea, progressed rapidly to a series of ‘fail-fast-fail-cheap’ exploration cycles to resolve the uncertainties (which has enough content for another blog on its own!), and arrived at a ‘Go’ decision that we might otherwise have missed out on through fear of the perceived risks.

Whilst it was never a straightforward journey, by the end of 2011 (6 years after our initial idea) with over 200 customers across the UK, US, Canada and Australia and by then highly profitable, it was clear that the business could best move to the next level with a new owner who had much better reach across the US and the wider English speaking library world.  We took the difficult but correct decision to divest that part of the business to the leading US supplier of library books and are happy to report that collectionHQ continues to improve a growing list of libraries around the world to this very day.

Coming next …

In part one of this blog, we introduced two of our own innovation stories, highlighting different approaches to our idea decision making and demonstrating the (probably not very surprising) different outcomes of both.

Join us in the second part of this blog where we take a look at two further innovation journeys that we followed, with alternative learnings and outcomes which help us explain more clearly the “why of smartcrowds”.