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innovation

Innovation Lessons from Building a Playhouse

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Innovation Lessons from Building a Playhouse

Six years ago, my wife and I built a playhouse for the kids. Thinking back on it now, much of our experience mirrored the journey one takes in innovation.

We started by trying to find a design. Scanning the web, our exploration was like the story of Goldilocks, but without the "just right" moment. There was the too small playhouse, sold at Walmart or Target and made of plastic. There was the Costco swing set/fort type of playhouse, which was mostly swing set, with a tiny fort. Then there was the overachiever playhouse, custom built, with glass windows, drywall, electric, sometimes even air conditioning.

Thinking we'd find dozens of good ideas, our search instead left us feeling frustrated. Why couldn't we just find a good design? This frustration revealed our first challenge: In our initial search, we never raised the question "what do we want?" It was easy to reject the designs we didn't want, but we needed to force ourselves to list what we did want. We decided to make a wish list, with the expectation that we wouldn't get all of our wishes: 

  • Room with a door, windows, and a ceiling
  • An upstairs
  • An unfinished interior; something kids could bang on, hammer on, write on, and make their own
  • Enough space for a kitchen set
  • Swing of some sort
  • Nice looking exterior, so the playhouse wouldn't be an eyesore in our yard
  • Zipline

So who wanted all of these things? The kids were definitely consulted, but the "we" in our case was really a combination of kids and parents. You won't find too many 5 and 10 year olds setting criteria like "fits in with the look of our neighborhood", after all.

When our criteria were set, the search suddenly became easier. We quickly figured out that nobody offered the right playhouse design. We had a need for a certain design, and there was nothing on the market that delivered. We'd have to build our own.   

We sketched out a design for a two story structure, built on a foundation of four posts anchored into the ground. We had total freedom to do anything we wanted in the design, so we created windows on each wall, two secret doors, a trapdoor to an upstairs, a tire swing, a pulley system to send things up or down, and a door upstairs that could swing open as a launch platform for a zipline. At this stage, we could plan anything. All we had to do was dream it up.

Next came building. Neither of us work in construction and we must have made every mistake imaginable. I was just a lunatic with a blueprint and a hammer, who couldn't true-up a square if my life depended on it. The posts went into the ground straight-ish. The framing went up in such a way that the floor we'd designed wouldn't fit in, and the foundation could become a permanent home to squirrels, rabbits, mice, and whatever other critters are about.

We planned to use fence boards for the walls. My friend's father, an engineer, took one look and said, "Why don't you use siding instead of fence boards for the walls?  It'll strengthen the entire structure, supporting the posts and framing." Hmm, that was a good question. We had done all kinds of research on the design, but never actually talked to a builder or an engineer about the construction. I knew plenty of people in the construction field. It would have been a lot smarter to research each aspect of the project, instead of just doing research on the design. 

I took his advice. The house went up. We hadn't quite figured out the zipline yet, and decided we'd add that on later. The kids and all their friends spent countless hours in the playhouse that summer. 

We planned the zipline for year two. I described my plans to another engineering friend (getting smarter, now), explaining that I wanted to mount the bolt (for the launch) off of the main roof beam. He looked at the structure for no more than 4 seconds, then turned to me and said, "It'll rip the roof right off the house the first time you zip off of it". He further explained that when you hang weight from a line, the tension applied to the end points of the line is ten times the weight of the hanging object. 

There went my great plan for a zipline, but at least I'd figured it out before destroying the house. Had I learned this earlier, I would have simply moved the playhouse about 5 feet back, so that the upstairs exit would lead to a tree, where we could build a simple platform for the zip launch. It was too late to move the structure, so we improvised, and adjusted our plans. A friend who works as an electrical lineman found us an old, unused electrical pole that could handle the weight. We anchored the pole next to the playhouse and started to work on the zipline. I found an excellent resource for equipment and advice at Ziplinegear.com, where I bought all of the equipment and got properly trained on zipline physics.

The zipline was the first addition, and we continued each year to add something new. The playhouse was never done. Each summer I'd go out to tighten all the bolts and make sure nothing was falling apart. The kids had other ideas for improvements. Some were as simple as interior shelves for their potions and pots & pans. One summer they asked for shudders that could open and close on each window. Chalkboard paint on the inside gave them places to write down menus, special orders, magic formulas, or whatever else they were playing. Later, we added canvas beds that could roll up and clip to the walls (once again, spending hours sketching out different designs).

You might think that with our missteps, the playhouse project would have been a disaster. It could have been had we given up to frustration or scrapped our wish list, but the project wasn't a disaster. It was a great experience and resulted in the right end-product.  If you work in the field of innovation where you need to create new products, here are a few lessons from this experience:

Know what you want

We started without knowing what we wanted.  It's hard to solve a problem when you don't know what you want. When innovating, you need to focus your energy toward a particular problem.  It's harder to come up with brilliant ideas, when you shoot too broadly.

Know your audience

When building our playhouse, we had two audiences to solve for…the kids (end user) and the adults (gatekeeper). Many businesses have a similar dynamic.  In b2b, you may have a user (e.g., sales rep) and decision maker (IT or Finance). Medical categories are similar, with an end user (patient) and influencer (doctor). Even regular household purchases can work this way, with husbands or wives influencing one another or playing a gatekeeper role.

Address a need

We had an unmet need. During our search, we discovered that nobody offered designs that worked for us. Had we found a design, we wouldn't have needed to create something original.  When innovating, it's important to do the same. Develop something that fills a gap.

Dream

Creating new product ideas is one aspect of business that should truly be fun. Come up with wild ideas and things nobody else would try, just because you can. When ideating, push the limits, without fear of what is realistic or reasonable. As George Bernard Shaw said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." 

Do your research from every angle

We'd spent plenty of time thinking about playhouse designs, but neglected to investigate materials or structural integrity. It's easy to get trapped into one way of thinking about a problem.  Marketers look at product and promotion. Engineers grapple with the technical feasibility. Finance looks at money. The best work happens when people from different practices work together. 

Improvise and adjust

We had to overhaul our zipline plans, mostly due to poor planning. Innovation is often messy, even with the best of plans. Setbacks are normal. When things don't go to plan, keep true to the vision, and roll with the punches. If all of your wish list doesn't make the first cut (like our zipline), keep moving forward.

It's never done

A product has a life. We maintained the playhouse so that it wouldn't fall apart, but we also found new ways of making it better each year. Innovation is similar. You don't just put your product out there and hope it lasts a few years. You build. You tinker. You try new stuff to keep it exciting.

You can make mistakes...

And still create the best thing in the world. It wasn't always fun going back to the drawing board to fix our screw ups. Had we penalized ourselves, or stopped with each failure, who knows what kind of monstrosity we would have built? Businesses can place a great deal of pressure on their employees, often penalizing people for mistakes. Cultural perceptions, like "heads are gonna roll if we mess this up,"  practically guarantee that people will play it safe rather than push the boundaries.  

Great things are created by taking chances, and doing things that you may not know how to do right now.  

 


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Thinking about starting your own business?  11 tips from our first year

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Thinking about starting your own business? 11 tips from our first year

Starting your own business is a big risk. After considering it for years, last Spring I finally let go of a steady paycheck, starting F'inn with three partners. F'inn is a consultancy that focuses 100% of its energy by helping companies innovate. We inspire leaders to discover and develop great ideas, give them purpose, and make them real. 

As I shared my plans, everyone made it seem like success was inevitable. Friends, family, colleagues, clients were so encouraging. While I was optimistic about the road ahead, it felt like anything but a guarantee. Starting and running a business is an adrenaline pumping blend of fear and excitement.

As the first year of comes to a close, it's too early to say, "Our friends were right, we did it", but there are some positive signs. We helped bring five new products to market, designed and implemented a new global brand platform for a B-to-B services company, and helped a startup win its biggest sale ever.

If you have ever considered starting your own company, you might find some of these insights helpful. These are my biggest learnings as I thinking back on the first year of F’inn.

1. You have to take a chance

Most small businesses are self-funded - they don't have venture capital funding. For me, losing the steady paycheck and health insurance, made all sorts of questions run through my mind. Can I still provide for my family? How will we fund college accounts? If my car breaks down, can I afford to fix it? 

Like many of life’s big decisions, there is never a "right time". If you want to start a business, you have to accept this risk. I imagine the fear keeps many people from ever taking the chance.

2. Sock away some money first

Long before you actually go for it, think about the lifestyle you'll need to live in your early startup days. Do you need a fancy car? Do you dine out all the time?  Do you want to have all of the latest tech gadgets, or the nicest wardrobe?

A new business owner needs to build up a large enough bank account to cover business and personal costs in the early, lean days, while earning little or no pay. Instead of setting aside enough to bankroll your first year, these higher costs work against you by depleting your savings. Before starting F'inn, my wife and I went through every line item in our monthly expenses, and made big cuts to force ourselves to live with less. My partners love to make fun of me for drinking Pabst, but that PBR is a great reminder to keep the costs down until our business really takes off.

3. Treat people with respect

Here is another area where you can prepare years before you start a business. Throughout our careers, my partners and I always tried to be fair and honest with employees, clients, and vendors. When we started our business, the payback was immediate. Suppliers continuously go the extra mile for us. Friends and former employees are eager to bring business our way. Countless people have offered to come work for us.

We’ve all heard stories of business titans who walked all over people as they climbed their way to the top. I'm sure that works for some people, but being decent human beings works better for us.

4. Value good suppliers

This is an extension of the prior point, but is worth calling out separately. Businesses will often go out of the way to help their clients, only to turn around and beat suppliers into submission. When you find a good partner, appreciate them and treat them well.

  • Look for opportunities to bring them more business and ask them to do the same for you.
  • Give them genuine feedback - share the things that they are doing well.
  • When things don't go well, take a long term perspective and try to solve the problem together.

By surrounding ourselves with great partners, we've been able to establish a competitive advantage by offering higher quality work in less time.

5. Know your industry

There's a steep learning curve in virtually every aspect of running a business. It helps to begin in an area where you are already knowledgeable. In the case of F'inn, all four of us previously worked in innovation: research, branding, strategy or marketing. We understand who buys, how projects are priced, the competition, and how to establish a point of difference. Looking back, it would have been really tough to figure out an industry where we were rookies, while also trying to get our new business off the ground.

6. Know your numbers

  • Draft a variety of budgets. If you think you'll reach $1MM in sales, then run conservative budgets that are much lower. Do the same thing for your costs and margins. If you think you'll earn 30% gross margin, then run more conservative budgets at 20% and 25%. Drafting different budgets doesn't take a lot of time but can give you a great deal of perspective. 
  • Regularly analyze your sales, tracking your performance vs. the budgets. Startup business finances are stressful. When you remove the guesswork, and look at financial performance on a regular basis, that stress level is reduced, and you make better decisions. For F'inn, we were able to estimate how much we could pay in salary, what and when we could spend on marketing efforts, when we could reimburse one another for business expenses, and when we could finally add health care insurance. 
  • If you do not know how to run a budget, then either take a course in finance, or find a friend with accounting or business management experience to teach you.  You have to figure this out before you start a company.

7. Test your (communication) ideas

You have to be able to confidently and clearly articulate who you are, what you do, and most importantly, why you are different or better than others.

  • Learn how to introduce yourself covering these points in 30 seconds or less.
  • Practice sharing your story with people you know (in your industry) and insist on honest feedback, even if it is negative.
  • Observe if they get excited when you share your idea. Ask them what caught their attention most. Find out what’s confusing, what they didn't like, or didn't believe. 

Here's the most important part:  listen to what they say and make refinements. Your goal is not to convince everyone you have a great idea. It is to learn if your offer is relevant, and if people understand it. If your business is hard to communicate, you're not ready. When I started sharing the F'inn story, I learned that I was trying to say too many things. It took weeks of sound-boarding with friends and clients to simplify the message to the points that mattered most.

8. Take care of your customer

This seems obvious enough, but as customers, we're accustom to getting burned, because many businesses do not take care of their customers.  It takes a lot of effort to win a new customer. It doesn't do you much good if they go away.  Even if your business doesn't require repeat purchases from the same customer, you'll want advocates who will recommend your business. So when you win a customer, care for them.  Be selective and take on only the type of work where you can do an excellent job. 

As F'inn wraps up its first year in business, nearly every client has come back for repeat work.  We believe this is because we continually prioritize taking care of our client to ensure they have a great experience.

9. Find the best tools

It is possible to start a business with very low costs. There is an abundance of tools that make it easy to be a small business owner. We pay for affordable monthly software for our financial management (Quickbooks), payroll (Gusto), contractor management and benefits (Zenefits). Squarespace is a low cost tool that gives you a high quality web page. Cloud based storage through DropBox makes it easy for us to store and share files, ensuring that all of our documents are backed up securely. And Slack keeps our team truly connected. 

It takes time and commitment to learn these tools, but they save thousands of dollars (compared to hiring people to run marketing, IT, HR, Finance, etc.).

10. Don't stress the little stuff

I'm trying to take my own advice as I write this, because our benefits payments for the month didn't go through as planned. As a result, I've had to spend hours tracking down online and phone support with our software provider, and talking to tax advisors to make sure I'm following the law.

There are hundreds of things to do when you run a business. You're not going to be expert in all of them, nor is it likely you'll be able to pay for an expert every time you have a problem. Learning or building a new system often feels like you're taking one step forward and two steps back. You want things to work the first time, but they don’t. Then, just when you think you've got it all figured out, you figure out that you figured it out wrong and have to do it again.

I find I have to step back and remind myself that, 'Everyone else who ever started a business has figured this out. We'll figure it out, too.' If you're the type of person who expects everything to work just right, then think twice before starting a company. Otherwise, go for it, but remember not to blow a fuse every time things don't go your way.

11. Have the hard conversations with your partners

It's normal for people who start businesses together to be excited about all that is possible; yet, there are countless stories of partnerships imploding over disagreements. Much of the time, fights are about the money. Think through areas where conflicts could arise in the business, and how you will handle them. Our lawyer provided a framework for considering the biggest issues, like firing or buying out a partner. We also spoke to other people who run businesses with similar dynamics (industry, numbers of owners, etc.) to learn about issues they'd encountered over the years. For any issue related to pay, we keep the numbers transparent, and document decisions. Finally, and most importantly, we intentionally created an environment where conflicts are acceptable, where team members can air disagreements, and we set rules as to how issues would be resolved.

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Open Thinking vs. Closed Judgement

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Open Thinking vs. Closed Judgement

Innovation happens when there is openness, true listening and applied learning, and the possibility to change course based upon insight without fear.  Movement forward stems from an acceptance of the risk of not having all the answers and continually learning throughout the creative process.

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Innovation Happens Everywhere

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Innovation Happens Everywhere

The need for the rebuilding of its core and injection of fresh, healthy energy within NYC built enthusiasm for this vision…now becoming closer to a plan. Crowd sourcing (years before anyone knew what crowd souring actually meant) kicked off, providing opportunities for community residents to collectively share ideas and thinking openly about the possibilities for ‘Designing the High Line’

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What the hell are Irregulars?

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What the hell are Irregulars?

At F’inn, we have a large crew of Irregulars who work along with us to help cover all the areas you need to bring a new idea to market. These are geniuses who focus on their specialty and come in as needed to move innovation forward. 

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