Spontaneity in innovation – Does unbridled exuberance lead to success?


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Spontaneity, that eureka! moment, when it seems that the whole universe is prodding you to succeed, is a key factor in innovation. However, it’s not that it comes to you right out of the blue. Behind it is years of research, struggle, experience, application, trial and error, call it whatever you want. Whether active or passive, much has gone into bringing on that one idea with which you shall change the world.

However, the debate has been whether innovation thrives in an unstructured environment where you let it come to you unannounced or in a more structured environment where you create the ambience for innovative work focused on revealing what the next big thing is. Perhaps in a step-by-step fashion and eventually, it will unfold and show returns.

Studies have shown that with more formal innovation structures and processes, there is higher satisfaction and better outcomes. However, there needs to be some chaos, the ability to imagine and dream, even within formal structures in order for the unconventional to reveal itself, break the mold and set a trend. It’s important to have a product management and development structure within organizations but, its more important to separate the people focused on current products and releases that follow schedules to meet current client needs from those whose role is to imagine, dream, try to test out new things without the pressure of supporting ongoing business needs. Ensuring there is an open line to receive client feedback on current products can help influence the direction of research to keep it close to the markets being served. However, there is a balance that needs to be drawn here to ensure that the influence is not so much that the team ends up serving client custom needs but is actually focused on creating better products with better outcomes, sometimes in a sense that may even create a new pivot.

High cross functional collaboration, greater risk tolerance appetite, research driven organizations with supportive eco systems tend to do better than those that are narrowly focused on bottom lines. The truth is that true innovation results in improved employee morale, spontaneity and better bottom lines naturally.

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Zirtual – A Startup Story Gone Wrong


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Unless you learn to get comfortable with failure, you cannot aspire and look forward to success.

By now, most of you have heard of Zirtual, an on-demand personal assistant company founded in 2011 that went out of business last week and laid off more than 400 employees. The employees received an email on Friday, 08/14 notifying them that the company was shutting down due to financial issues. And the clients received their notifications too.

According to Zirtual’s now, ex-CEO, Maren Kate Donovan, the business was on an $11 million run rate, and was burning $400,000 a month.

There were various causes that frothed up for what happened.

Maren Kate Donovan blamed it on “burn” which is more money being spent than what came in. She also regretted not having a full-blown board in place. Another reason given was the conversion of 1099 contractors into full-time employees without considering the implications of the 20-30% employment expense increase. The lack of a full-time CFO although the size of the organization demanded one, was another factor that came up as well.

The irony is that Zirtual raised about $3.2 million in just this past June and July. Although it might look surprising that a company that just weeks ago, raised funding went under, there is more to the truth than that. Zirtual’s SEC Form D filings show that they tried to raise $5.75 million in June and July – but got only $3.2 million in total. And mind you, this is debt with its own contractual obligations.

Startups.co, depending on how you see it, came to Zirtual’s rescue or gobbled it up post the disaster and acquired it. Startups.co CEO Wil Schroter, negotiated a cash-and-stock deal and added Zirtual to his company’s portfolio of online services for entrepreneurs. In fact, Zirtual, apparently resumed services this past Monday and Startups.co re-hired 60 former employees on a contract basis and looks forward to re-hire more. Startups.co has also initiated efforts on bringing back some of Zirtual’s clients, while the competition is also pursuing them.

Meanwhile, Zirtual has its own set of issues post going out of business. A few former employees filed a class-action lawsuit against Zirtual Inc. in U.S. District Court in the state of Delaware, questioning the company’s violation of labor laws by not giving effective notice of termination. The transfer of that liability to the new owner is still in question. On the other end, there are clients who are hurt by the breach of trust and are hesitant to go back or for that matter, doubt the industry as well.

Lots of lessons here for entrepreneurs. Here are a few:

  • Make sure you raise money way before you need it and raise enough so you and your team are not eclipsed with that worry while you pursue your vision.
  • Debt Financing is great with predictable cash flows; else it can very soon become a nightmare!
  • Do not penny pinch when it comes to finding the right talent and bringing it in when you need it. Find your savings somewhere else.
  • Check, double check and triple check everything. You can never go wrong with overanalyzing operational finances.
  • Proactive and quick decision-making is important, but be wise about your decisions.
  • Your customers and employees come first, everything else comes after them for without them, there is no business.

Learn from them and go find your success!

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Who do you work for?


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When asked the question, some of the common answers are – myself, my family & my company. There are those that refuse to acknowledge they are working for anyone, be it a person or an organization and use the word “with”, I work “with” xyz. Semantics, I guess. And then, there are those that state they work for their boss.

We all work to provide for our dependents and ourselves. The question is not what do you work for, but who.

If you are an entrepreneur and pride yourself in working for yourself, there is some truth to that, but ultimately, the superior power that determines your actions lies with your customers, suppliers & investors. They can dictate the terms of your work. If you work for an organization, ideally your work and its attributes should be focused at fulfilling your organization’s obligations toward its customers and shareholders. Each of us that works in the corporate world falls somewhere on an organizational ladder with a “boss” that we report into. The boss has the power to determine your paycheck, your upward mobility within the organization and responsibilities you’ll handle. Some bosses are company focused which means your expectations fall in line as well. In such situations, there is more transparency built-in between levels i.e. employee reach extends beyond the immediate boss and through a couple of levels above. This is healthy as hierarchical stress is not as much and opportunities open up for those truly talented and doing the right thing. Others are self-serving and that’s when conflict may arise. That’s when one may end up working for a boss. Corporate politics can dictate where ones’ loyalties lie. Much depends on the employee-boss relationship & the personalities involved therein. Many employees are in the process of pleasing their bosses than in the actual performance of their job to meet the objectives they signed up for. And, these employees cannot be blamed altogether for it since they are acting in defense of their position and in many a case, they themselves are the only defense they may have.

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There have been arguments that state flat organizational structures may be the answer to curb such influences, where employees work in teams and natural leaders emerge as a part of the execution strategy. The emphasis is on actually getting things done to meet common objectives sans a hierarchy within the organization. Well, it may work to an extent in smaller organizations but flat structures are not scalable for growth. As organizations grow, flexibility & controls need to be established using the hierarchy model. And, in every mid to large organization, there are numerous rungs on the corporate ladders. Then, what is the optimal strategy for ensuring that the focus of every employee is truly on corporate goals and not hijacked by personal corporate politics? A strong HR policy propagated by a strong HR team with the support of top management can achieve this to an extent but in a complex business environment, it is difficult to altogether do away with it. Again, having an HR team that functions independently is a difficult thing to achieve in an organization. The HR team too falls on the corporate ladder. There will always be employees serving bosses for various reasons. Although, not completely healthy, this is a true fact in the corporate world and should be managed to optimize it.

When faced with such a predicament, employees who find it detrimental to their principles & career might look for other opportunities so as not to sacrifice their potential & aspirations catering to the whims of an overbearing, self-serving boss. There are also employees who do the boss’s bidding and focus on keeping the boss happy in order to safeguard their jobs. In both cases, it’s detrimental to the corporation, whether through the loss of productive employees for the wrong reasons or by having unproductive employees stay just managing their supervisors. But, at the same time, such bosses are a more serious predicament since their influence and its effect tends to be on a larger scale. It’s the prerogative of every organization to take this issue seriously and work through its channels to monitor and minimize such situations, if not totally eradicate them to ensure optimal productivity of the employee base. Much of it comes from encouraging true transparency throughout the organization irrespective of reporting relationships. And such transparency can be propagated through frequent top-down-top communication, more objective 360 degree performance appraisals, employee reviews as well as supervisor reviews, career pathing, ensuring employees with the right skills are not in wrong jobs etc.

That’s a starter list of ways to nurture healthy employee-work dynamics within organizations. I look forward to see you add to it.

Exit Route – Exercise Your Choice!


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John is on his way to the office one morning. He gets on the 3 lane interstate. In another 2 miles, he would need to take the exit toward his office. He notices that the right most lane is cordoned off a long way since there is some construction activity in progress in that section of the interstate. The other 2 lanes to the left seem congested with all the out flowing traffic. The inner lane is moving slow while the outer lane is somewhat fluid.

If you were John, what would you do?

Since its only 2 miles to your exit, you could stick to the inner lane and drift with the traffic until you reach your exit. Between your exit and where you currently are is an intermediate exit that has incoming traffic flowing onto the interstate which could be reason for further congestion and slow moving traffic. It might take a little longer, not sure how long, but you will get to your exit eventually. Perhaps, the safest option in this congested state.

Another option is to watch for an opportunity and get on the outer lane which has traffic moving a bit more fluidly. You would need to be alert and cautious as you move through this lane and eventually shift to the right lane when you get closer to your exit. You need to be watchful of finding that opportunity and space between the trail of vehicles on your right in time, to not move over too soon to get stuck in the slow moving lane and not too late to miss your exit. At the same time, you need to be careful of not causing an accident in this already congested traffic.

Why am I going through this; about something as simple as driving on an interstate which we tend to do subconsciously everyday.

This simple task translates into something as profound as managing your career or even your entrepreneurial venture! It’s amazing how closely our day to day lives reflect lessons that can be applied to our actions in canvases larger than us.

In everything you do, whether being on the job and seeking to be successful at it or pursuing success in a project taken up or an enterprise you set up, risk in an integral part. What determines the level of your success is the amount of risk you take and come away managing it skillfully.

In the example given above, John has the less risky option of just being in the inner lane and following the traffic to reach his exit while he watches to maintain his distance between the vehicles in the front and back, but the pace of movement is totally dependent on the traffic in that lane. John has no control on that pace. If the traffic sits for an hour before he inches towards his exit, that is what it is.

On the other end, he takes a risk by getting into the outer lane. While he has to watch out for the vehicles in the front and rear as he maintains his position and moves along, he also needs to be watchful of the traffic in his right lane to judge where he is in relation to his oncoming exit. He needs to make the correct judgment about moving into the traffic in the right lane. Entering too soon or too late would defeat his purpose.

Although, there is a little risk and the need for being more alert in the second option, it would be the ideal one for John if his goal is to reach his exit sooner than later. The time saved by not being stuck in the traffic might be well worth it, but needs some quick decisions and deft execution by John to make it possible.

Of course, there are unknown risks, one of which is an accident upfront, which could slow down the outer lane too. In such cases, John would need to look for other options or go with the one that works best in the situation.

Similarly, in our lives and in everything that we do in our careers as employees or as entrepreneurs, there are options. You need to determine what the end goal is and based on that, make assessment of what path to choose to get there. Risk is inevitable in every thing you do. You can take the risk averse option but, be prepared to not be in control and do not expect much to happen or you can decide to take a calculated risk which with some ingenuity and exertion on your part can ensure you great success!

What kind of a person are you? The one who takes the inner lane and lets the traffic determine when you reach your exit or the one who gets on the adventure of the outer lane and makes it happen while pulsating with the excitement of controlling your journey to the exit!

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