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INNOVATION INSIGHTS: 14 Australian entrepreneurs share what innovation means to them

This post is part of the Innovation Insights series, sponsored by CommBank. At CommBank we believe innovation starts by asking questions. Discover new ways to keep your business moving. Start today at

Afraid of being left behind, companies and countries all over the world are prioritising innovation. Innovation can be a rather nebulous concept. As we’ve pointed out previously, innovation is about more than deploying new technologies. But do hackathons, data and the internet also have a place?

To get a broader idea of what innovation means, we’ve asked 14 well-known Australian entrepreneurs on what their concept of innovation entails.

Alex Louey, cofounder and managing director of Appscore

Innovation is a mindset and attitude that is all encompassing. It’s not a business model, it’s not technology, and it’s not a government grant. That’s why it’s often talked about in the media as an ecosystem.

The great thing about an innovative culture is that it is dynamic and always changing with the goal of making the most efficient use of existing resources to create more value. It will never be old or outdated or superseded. The business’s technology created may over time fall by the way side, but if you have an innovative culture, you’ll just create a new one. Airbnb was innovative because it utilised excess accommodation. Living space that might have been sitting there doing nothing.

Alastair Coleman, founder of Nothing But Web

For Nothing But Web, innovation is a means to achieving our strategic goals. We don’t start every day and say, “we’re going to be more innovative today”, but rather we ask ourselves what goals do we want to achieve and how can they best be solved.

As a creative business, innovation is about improving our processes and refining the way we work. Our industry moves quickly, so we have to operate at the same pace. This means being on call as much as we can for our clients, but also working smarter to make ourselves more efficient.

In my eyes, innovation is also about encouraging my team of designers and developers to push both the boundaries of design and web technology to their limits, while still maintaining good user experience. Good UX will always be needed – it’s just about finding new ways to make this possible. In this way, innovation in web design and development is about conducting in-depth analysis and user testing to identify the changing needs of our clients and their customers.

Taryn Williams, co-founder and CEO of THERIGHTFIT, founder and managing director of WINK Models

Innovation mean means not accepting the status quo. But always looking to find better, more effective and more efficient ways of doing things, and then executing them. This can be through technology, new processes, developing new products, or a combination of these things. Sometimes it’s just adapting an existing product or service – innovation comes from the Latin ‘in’ and ‘novus’, meaning to make new. I started my first business, WINK Models, 9 years ago because I could see inefficiencies in the modelling industry and wanted to create a better way of doing things. I’ve recently launched my second business, because it was time to innovate again. This time embracing technology to create an improved service for talent and clients.

Innovation is not something that can be contrived. Catchcries’ like ‘lets go be innovative’ or ‘today is innovation day’, might be great for bringing attention to a cause and rallying people together. But in isolation they are unlikely to be truly innovative. For Innovation to truly take hold, whether it’s in small or big business, it needs to become part of the culture. A culture that values creativity, supports change and breeds a healthy attitude towards failure (as innovation incorporates an element of risk).

Nick Bell, founder and managing director of WME

To be innovative means to always operate with a sense of urgency. This outlook permeates most aspects of my life. Now is as good a time as ever to try new things, and I am a great believer that good things can be achieved through fast growth.

On that note, innovation can also come in the form of improving existing products and services. Immediately my mind turns to Tesla, and how Elon Musk built on an existing product to make it more efficient. But Musk hasn’t stopped there. He’s now building awe-inspiring gigafactories to make the production of his cars even more efficient. While it was a huge outlay at the beginning, Musk knew that without this significant cost, this level of innovation just wouldn’t be possible.

While I welcome many of these innovative products and services, I do feel like there is a downside at times. Innovation still requires old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Agile teams and agile development wouldn’t be able to produce strong results without human interaction. Ultimately, innovation isn’t static. It requires constant work, and constant failures, in order to bring about the exciting developments that we welcome and question every day.

Nathan Spataro, co-founder and deputy leader of Flux

Innovation is the process by which problems become the parents of solutions. It lends itself to the notion that nothing is ever perfect, and improvement is as constant as it is exciting.

To me innovation means self-liberation for the human race. It’s liberation from archaic, and disproportionate models of power and control which leave us unsatisfied, to outdated models of business which empower a few at the expense of many. It means looking optimistically into the future, and knowing that if a problem exists, it can surely be solved.

The beauty of innovation today is that it does not ask for permission. It says ‘here is a challenge, an obstacle, a problem, how can we overcome it?’ We see this notion of innovation without permission growing all over the world. The front line of this trend lies with technology and its relationship to society, politics, economics and the environment, as new models replace the old, not by force or coercion, but by purely rendering them obsolete.

Nick Austin, founder and CEO of Divvy Parking

Innovation. It’s a word that is thrown around a lot — in business, politics, science, technology — and it means a lot of different things to different people. A new idea, a new product, or in some cases, just a new way of tackling an old problem. For me, innovation is about being able to look at a problem in a new way and doing something differently in order to achieve a better, smarter outcome, whether that’s for my business, employees, or all Australians.

I started my business, Divvy Parking, because I was inspired by the ‘innovations’ around me in the collaborative consumption space, the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world. I loved the idea of communities coming together to solve a common problem and I wanted to have a similar impact, reducing congestion on our streets and making day-to-day life easier for Aussies.

Dan Nolan, co-founder and engineering lead of Proxima

Innovation is not unlike a platypus, but in no way would I describe a platypus as innovative. A platypus is inexplicable but immediately able to be understood. A platypus is fine, traditionally Australian, and yet completely confounding. Much like a platypus, innovation in Australia is equally odd. The only reason startups exist is to counter some form of knowledge imbalance in a market or situation, whether it’s knowledge of a particular good or service at a particular price, or a mechanism to improve part of a workflow. Startups and businesses exist to fill that knowledge gap and make money doing so.

We spend a lot of time looking at innovation as some kind of process we can apply to something when really it tends towards being a philosophy, not some pat rubric or lens you can view a problem through. A lot of startups and small businesses aim to replicate overseas successes or business models – ‘Uber but for x’ or ‘Tinder but for y’ which, given the lack of that product here, is innovation but only to a degree. To me, innovation is something simple, something like braille or epaulets or travelators, iterative and incremental improvements on existing systems or substantive rethinks of situations that aim to use every tool we have to provide a solution.

Craig Lambert, founder of Slingshot

The real drivers of innovation aren’t the technology itself but the entrepreneurs that are developing it. This is the true meaning of innovation to Slingshot. Fearless entrepreneurs, breaking rules, looking for problems to solve, and thinking global about their ambitions.

At the core of innovation is people, not technology, not data, not higher broadband speeds or more investment. What will accelerate innovation is giving more of these innovators the skills and knowledge needed to express themselves. The entrepreneurial spirit needs to be embedded and encouraged in our schools and developed in a meaningful way in our tertiary institutions for long term benefit.

Richard Kimber, CEO of OFX

Innovation is reinvention. It’s reframing a problem, seeing it from new angles and by conceptualising the issue from new perspectives creating a novel solution. Saying that is easy. Doing it is quite hard. Our society encourages conformity. In many ways that leads to a safer and more predictable community. The challenge with everyone acting and doing the same things is that we forget to challenge the status quo. Life becomes routine. Most businesses also forget how to innovate, or at least how to do it at scale. As time goes by companies become political, resources are keenly fought over and no one wants to take career risk. What if the new idea fails? Will there be some form of retribution, blame or just shame…

For me the journey of innovation starts with small steps, and building confidence through the team around you. My experience has taught me that ideas have always been improved through input from others, and I enjoy this part of the process. As the trust relationship builds the flow of two way feedback gets better and the team can support each other through the journey.

Steve Shelley, co-founder of Deputy

Growing up, there was a TV program called The Inventors. I was fascinated to see the ideas people had dreamed up, bought to life and proudly showed them off; I never missed an episode. The program generally focused on simple but new ideas, they were often brilliant and very useful.

To me an inventor conceptualizes, designs and creates something. Sadly, the word inventor seems to have been replaced by the word innovator. I consider innovation to be the improvement of something, not the creation of it. Perhaps we think we’ve invented everything so we now focus on improving everything. I don’t think so.

We may or may not like it, but technology has intimately and immediately connected all the world’s minds. We now seem to work as one, constantly innovating; instantly improving something, often before, or during its creation; probably something that once would have been considered an invention. This often happens even if it were not ours to innovate.

Matt Bullock, founder and CEO of eWAY

Innovation to me is a combination of equal parts service, technology and agility. It’s been 18 years since I started eWAY with the aim of helping Australian businesses accept credit cards online with the same ease, flexibility and security they had access to in their brick-and-mortar stores.

When I first started, all of eWAY ran through a single box. It was dial-up and it wasn’t going to make any financial sense while it was linked to that hardware. Fast forward to today and we’re in a position to call ourselves Australia’s most awarded and trusted payments provider.

Steven Marks, managing director and founder of Guzman y Gomez

For Guzman y Gomez, innovation is why we’re here today. It’s the reason Robert Hazan and I founded GYG in 2006. My friends took me to a Mexican restaurant in Sydney and the food was absolutely horrible. I grew up in the States with fantastic, authentic Mexican food at an affordable price and that wasn’t available in Australia. All we had were the big name fast food giants serving really crap food quickly or restaurants serving good food, cooked slowly – nothing in between. It was clear there was a gap in the market and an opportunity to introduce Australians to quality Mexican food, served quickly at reasonable prices.

Now that we have over 70 Taquerias, I still believe innovation lies in finding a way to disrupt traditional fast food and raise the bar for the entire industry. It saddens me to see what’s on offer in drive-thrus, our model has proven we can be just as fast as any player in the market – except we are offering real food. We’ve built innovative processes, technology and a culture to match that shows it’s possible to prepare fresh nutritious food served at a fast food pace, without compromising on quality. We’re always thinking about how we can make our food better.

Chris Strode, founder of Invoice2go

A lot of people get mixed up with thinking innovation is all about a big creative, groundbreaking idea. You don’t innovate until you match great ideas with great execution, and what you’re building is something that helps a lot of people. It’s also not something you can solve in one cycle. Being innovative is a continuous mentality that requires taking a good idea, creating a prototype, experimenting with it, testing it, and adapting quickly based on the feedback you get. I always say that one in three things you experiment with will work, but that one thing that works will make up for ten of your mistakes. Knowing this cycle, listening closely to it, and acting accordingly, will allow you to move forward.

No matter what type of business you are, or what phase of growth you are in, innovation is a mindset you want every single person in your organisation to share. At Invoice2go, we’ve been dedicated to this cycle from the very beginning, and it remains central to our culture and values. We’re constantly encouraging it by challenging each other to rethink things from the ground up. That’s because for us to know we’re truly making an important difference for our customers, we’re not looking to build products or make improvements that are only incrementally better. Innovation for us is inspired by having unrealistic expectations about how far we can go, and what we can do.

Nick Molnar, CEO of Afterpay

For me, a big part of thinking about innovation is looking at things differently and challenging the ordinary. I think sometimes we become so accustomed to routine that we fall into an established and repetitive thinking pattern. Innovation demands that we remove these obstacles, change up our thinking and strive for something better.

Innovation isn’t a new concept, but coupled with the leaps and bounds we’re seeing in technology, the barriers that might have previously held someone back from starting a business are increasingly being removed. We’re seeing a generation of entrepreneurs deciding to chase their dreams. I love seeing new ideas hit the market, showing how different people approach the same problem and come up with a tailored and unique solution.

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