Put customer innovation at the heart of your startup business model

Currently there’s an army of startups working on high impact and daring ideas. These ground-breaking ventures, with sweeping visions and big hairy audacious goals, operate under the influence of outsize creative thinking, and employ audacious strategies.

For a startup to survive, innovation is an imperative, developing a value proposition and business model to provide unique value to customers is the key. But choosing which innovative idea to pursue is often serendipity or a ‘light-bulb’ moment like Archimedes had relaxing in a bath before discovering his famous principle.

Let’s face it, business models are less durable than they used to be, they are subject to rapid displacement, disruption, and in extreme cases outright destruction.

Every industry is built around long-standing beliefs about how to connect with customers, value creation and to make profit. These governing, dominant beliefs reflect widely shared notions about customer preferences, the role of technology, regulation, cost drivers, and the basis of competition and differentiation.

They are often considered unshakeable, until someone comes along to rip them up them – for example, Philips Lighting: what if LED technology puts an end to the lighting industry as a replacement business?

In today’s digital world, companies don’t have to own the hard assets to provide that service – Uber up-ended the taxicab franchise model – yet owned no taxis or employed taxi drivers. Amazon Web Services shows you don’t need to own infrastructure yourself. Open Table is the world’s largest dining service and doesn’t own a single restaurant. Airbnb has the most ‘rooms’ for rent, but doesn’t own a hotel. Alibaba is the biggest retailer with no stock at all.

The examples are numerous and familiar, but what’s less familiar is how, new entrants achieve their disruptive power. What enables them to exploit unseen possibilities?

For market incumbents, this kind of innovation is notoriously hard, faced with current challenges and balance sheets they struggle to recognise possibilities or shrink from cannibalising existing profit streams. Some tinker and tweak, but the reality is innovation requires you to reframe your mindset, put aside the prevailing reality and underlying ‘rules of the game’ which requires bold, brave thinking.

Startups innovate by examining each core element of their business model, which typically comprises customer relationships, key activities, strategic resources, the cost structure and revenue streams. Within each of these elements, various business-model innovations are possible. Here are some examples.

Innovating in customer relationships: from loyalty to empowerment

Customer loyalty is seen as key business goal, but the pursuit of loyalty has become more complicated in the digital market. The cost of acquiring new customers has fallen, Customers, enabled by digital tools and extensive peer-reviewed knowledge now often self-select their buying options.

Innovative startups embrace the paradox that goes with this – the best way to retain customers is to set them free – pay-as-you-go and the Freemium model are attractive pricing strategies to gain early customer traction.

Innovating in activities: from efficient to intelligent

Here the focus is to spend less time on optimising processes and instead build flexibility and embedded intelligence directly into them to help improve the customer experience. In essence, digitisation is empowering businesses to go beyond efficiency, to create learning systems that work harder and smarter.

For example, consider a web-based hotel-booking platform. They are used to reframe the focus of the hotel business model from efficiency to user choice, marketing, self-selection and satisfaction, and opening new revenue opportunities.

We look for more than convenience, simplicity and speed, from the platform, and focus on content – the tone for the site’s text, photographs, additional information about the area, testimonials from happy customers etc. All seek to raise the click-through rate. There is also the AI learning aspect here too, tracking individual customers preferences and behaviours.

Innovating in resources: from ownership to access

Businesses use to compete by owning the assets that matter most to their strategy, and at scale, to be the best way to ensure reach and access for customers. Banks and Retail are the best examples of this. Now, as referred to above, digital technology increases transparency and reduces transaction costs, enabling new and better value-creating models of collaborative consumption.

As a result, ownership may become an inferior way to access key assets, increasingly replaced by flexible win-win commercial arrangements with partners, best shown by AirBnB. As with all the business model innovation highlighted here, putting the customer at the heart of the business model is the fundamental paradigm shift.

Innovating in costs: from low cost to no cost

What’s driving prices in digital models is the reframe that multiple customers can simultaneously use digital goods, which can be scaled and replicated at zero marginal cost.

Consider the implications for telecommunications, where the dominant belief has been that value is best captured through economies of scale – the more telephone minutes sold, the lower the unit cost.

Now the move is from texting and voice plans by focusing the economic model on making money from data usage and investment in data networks and storage capacity. We’ve seen tariffs split between handset and service supply, and a plethora of pricing menu options to suit the individual consumer.

We have the Freemium model backed up by bundling of products and services, where ‘free’ is an option and consumers pay for additional, premium services. This has been hugely disruptive.

Innovation is inherently risky and getting the most from innovation initiatives is more about managing risk than eliminating it. Since no one knows exactly where valuable innovations will emerge, and searching everywhere is impractical, startups must create some boundary conditions for the opportunity spaces they want to explore.

The process of identifying and bounding these spaces can run the gamut from intuitive visions of the future to carefully scrutinised strategic analyses. Thoughtfully prioritising these spaces also allows startups to assess whether they have enough investment behind their opportunities. Within this, one of the hardest things to figure out is when to kill something.

So let’s look at where you could introduce innovation in your startup business model.

Innovation in the Profit Model: How you make money Innovative profit models find a fresh way to reflect an understanding of what customers value and where new revenue or pricing opportunities might lie. Innovative profit models often challenge an industry’s established assumptions about what to charge or how to collect revenues. Apple’s iTunes is a great example of profit model innovation.

Innovation in Networks: How you connect with others to create value in the connected economy. Collaborative networks enable startups to leverage other companies’ brands, processes, offerings and channels through strategic partnering. This network innovation means firms can capitalise on their own strengths and share risk, while harnessing the capabilities and assets of others, develop new offers and ventures. Amazon is the best example of network innovation, which ensures its growth is driven by customer insight and intelligence gathered by network effects.

Innovation in Process: How you use processes to do your work differently Process innovations involve the activities and operations that produce a startup’s core offerings. This requires a fresh think around ‘business as usual’ that enables the company to provide a different customer engagement and cost model.

Process innovations often form the core competency of an enterprise, are sustainable and scale, and become the ‘special sauce’ that competitors simply can’t replicate. Amazon Prime shows the power of process innovation.

Innovation in Product Performance: How you develop distinguishing features and functionality Product Performance innovations address the value proposition – the features, benefits, impact, experience and evidence of a startup’s offering. This type of innovation involves both entirely new products and updates to existing products that add customer value. Too often, we mistake product performance for the sum of innovation.

It’s often the core of the competitive arena, but it devolves into an expensive arms race and mad dash to parity from competing firms in the market. The smartphone market is an example of this. Product performance innovation that delivers long-term sustainable competitive advantage are the exception rather than the rule – the Dyson, Tesla and Apple are great example of this, but they are the exception as product innovation in isolation is hard to sustain.

Innovation in Service: How you support and amplify the value of your offerings Service innovations ensure and enhance the utility, performance and value of an offering. They make a product easier to use and highlight features and functionality customers might otherwise overlook.

They also fix problems and smooth rough patches in the customer journey and bad customer experience in the current product. Done well, they elevate products into compelling experiences that customers come back for again and again. Uber’s application of technology is a great example of this, which fundamentally changed the taxi-passenger experience, yet still provided the identical core transportation offering.

Innovation in Channel: How you deliver your offerings to customers and users Channel innovations encompass all the ways you connect with your customers and users. While e-commerce has emerged as a dominant force, traditional channels such as physical stores are still important in creating immersive experiences.

Skilled innovators find multiple, complementary ways to bring their products and services to customers. Their goal is to ensure that users can buy what they want, when and how they want it, with minimal friction and maximum delight. Apple’s Genius Bar is a great Channel Innovation. After Dell had educated the PC buying market to buy online and direct, Apple reinvented the in-store experience and took it to another level, reinforcing the brand values and consumer experience.

Innovation in Customer Engagement: How you foster compelling interactions Customer Engagement innovations are all about understanding the deep-seated aspirations of customers and using those insights to develop meaningful connections between them and your company.

Great customer engagement innovations provide opportunities to foster customer loyalty and help people find ways to make parts of their lives more memorable. Airbnb executes this brilliantly, leveraging personalisation, automation, simplicity and intimacy.

For innovation, you need the mindset, determination and curiosity of an entrepreneur, and to be bold and brave. When we all think alike, nobody is thinking. Capital isn’t so important in business, neither is experience, you can get both these things, what is important is new ideas.

You need to see what everybody has seen and think what nobody has thought, and don’t live your life in the rear view mirror – it tells you where you’ve been, not where you can go looking forward. So work hard on reimagining and reengineering your startup business model, put customers at the centre of your thinking, and give your startup an unfair advantage.

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