Category Archives: Enabling Innovations

Blockchain and Financial Transactions | SMH

How will decentralised blockchain technology (as first used by bitcoin) help banks and other financial operations? This technology has everyone from Richard Branson to Glenn Stevens talking (in this case, on Branson’s private island Necker – pictured above).

The linked article provides a pretty decent explanation of what it’s about, also for the less technical among us. I personally don’t like bitcoin (for a number of reasons that are specifically related to bitcoin itself), the ideas in the underlying architecture are very nifty indeed.

Low Volume and Custom Made – Opportunities

I’ve mentioned 3D printing before as an example of enabling technology. Tools that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars are now in reach of anyone with sufficient interest and from prices of less than a thousand dollars.

That’s a huge change. What fewer people pick up on is that such a change shifts what’s possible in the market, and essentially changes the rules. Things that were essentially impossible before are suddenly doable. Big companies won’t pick that up as their cost structure demands big clients. But for a correctly structured startup, it’s exactly the kind of thing you want!

A Dutch/American company called Shapeways appears to “get it” and has stepped into this market. The BBC has done an item on it (see video below) featuring a custom made shoe with an iPhone holder. The exact product is perhaps a bit tacky to some, but it makes the underlying point quite well and the guy who explains it notes exactly what it’s about. There isn’t a huge market for many of these things, but that’s fine. People often think only in terms of scaling up, and they’re missing the opportunities of essentially scaling things down. At high volumes, you can’t serve the individual.

So, it’s an enabler. When you have an idea, you can now get one or two items made – even when done commercially, with this technology that can be economical. It’s printed (additive) or cut (subtractive), rather than moulded – configuring a production line for a moulded product is expensive and the moulds themselves are actually also very costly (so it’s uneconomical for small production runs). But none of that matters with 3D printing.

3D printing is a disruptive technology in both commonly known senses:

  1. it provides a “good enough” cheaper manufacturing solution for people and companies who are already producing. Existing production methods have essentially overshot the needs of that part of the market, so their pricing is relatively high in that market segment.
  2. Things that were previously not viable now are, and that opens whole new markets. Typically clients find products, not the other way round – so it’s very important to observe and match the need, rather than come up with some static idea of what you think the market needs and go out and try to sell that. Even if you get the product right, you don’t know what the market is yet. Market research really won’t help you.

It’s good to see that Shapeways and companies like Makerbot Industries (there are many more) are exploring these new opportunities. And if you’re interested, check it out – there is plenty of space for more on the local level. These companies do things quite big, but it can also be done on a very small scale. I’m still waiting for a local “copyshop” offering a 3D printing service. That’s where it’s going – but if the local copyshops and printers don’t get it, someone else can pick it up. It could be you.

This stuff can be done with minimal investment, part online, low volume, low cost per item, quick local delivery, opportunities for assistance with design, and so on. The software tools and online resources are available, just check out OpenSCAD and Thingiverse.

If you start something like this and specifically aim local and small, the big existing companies cannot compete with you: they would not be able to do what you do at a sane price. They might not even notice you at first. If they do, they’ll laugh and dismiss – your “small fry” activity is just not of interest to them. That’s a good thing. But you can do good business and also grow.

Think about it… take the initiative. And if you do need some help developing your strategy, we’re here.

Finding a new Accountant

Most accountants “get” small business, but what is commonly regarded as small business is probably rather larger than what you have in mind. Most likely you’re a micro-business, but that terminology is not generally well known outside our tech sphere. Anyway, asking an accountant whether they’re familiar with small business is likely to get you an answer in the affirmative, but you’re not actually talking about the same thing. I don’t have a magic solution for this, I think it’s important you speak to a prospective accountant in person and essentially interview them as if they were applying for a job (in essense they are).

For our bookkeeping/accounting, my company actually moved to which -apart from many other advantages- enables admin people to work from home (I might do a separate post on Xero some time). It also enables a Xero-aware accountant to have better access to your books for tax reporting but also practical questions.

Which brings me to the accountant him/herself. I recommend looking for someone really local, as in within your suburb or the next one over. Grabbing the phone is one thing, or enabling easy access to your books, but seeing them face-to-face every once in a while can be a great benefit. It also tends to keep people better tuned in “out of sight, out of mind”. I’ve worked with an accountant in other town, and although they’re good with email and such, it’s really not optimal.

So, I’d suggest to make a little checklist of specific things you’d like your accountant to be, do or know about (be way more specific than “understand small business” – for instance, if you are fully self-funded, that might be a relevant topic). Pick a couple of accountants in your local area and go and interview them. Even if you meet one you really like, meet at least one other so you have something to compare with.

Enabling Innovations: human-machine interfacing

Recently, a few really interesting products have seen the light of day and they appear to indicate a pattern in a particular space, in this case medical sensor/measuring/visualisation equipment in the medical space. But the market disruption caused by these products is much broader than that.

Late 2010 David Albert introduced a cheap ECG system using simple sensors built in to a shell around an iPhone. He originally presented the system via a video which got an awful lot of attention really fast. One article I spotted about it was Your Heartbeat on an iPhone but as it wasn’t an actually available product yet (for either development or general use) I thought I’d better wait and see whether this stuff actually got to market. A year and a half later the system is not yet available for use with humans (no FDA approval so far), but there is a $199 model for use in veterinary environments (AliveCor Vet). I presume that apart from the FDA approval it’s actually identical 😉

This morning, I received a Neurosky MineWave (EEG sensor) headset in the post. See the Brain Interfacing – Finally post on my personal blog for some initial fun with it. For $150 you now get the basis capabilities of EEG at home. And not only that, you can build new applications and uses using the input stream, including controlling devices and games.

Both of these products are examples of enabling innovations. We all know that the price of things comes down over time, but what we often don’t realise is that at certain points, because of key components also becoming much cheaper, smaller, lighter, etc, things that were previously restricted to hospitals, laboratories and other expensive and specialised environments suddenly become available to “the masses”. I’m not saying that everybody will be using these things, nor that specialised expertise in the area is now obsolete – but for many simple tasks these tools are absolutely sufficient and thus a real enabler. It fundamentally changes the market (that previously only contained expensive equipment for a very limited audience). If companies in this realm don’t realise this (or reckon that because it used to be medical and sophisticated specialised equipment their market won’t change at all), they’re going to be sadly sorry really quickly.

In addition to people with simple needs no longer needing a referral to a facility with the expensive gear (low end disruption: in this case, the issue can be handled directly by a doctor without referral), new things become possible (new market disruption: in this case, at home with self-monitoring – and completely new uses of the technology). As always, I see the latter as a much more interesting space as that’s where the true innovation tends to happen. Low-end disruption is still relevant, however, as it directly affects the existing players in the market and it’s just interesting to watch whether and how companies handle this. Generally they don’t handle it, or much too late and then very badly, but I’m always willing to be surprised!

If you have more information on the adoption of these particular products, or other enabling innovations you’ve spotted, please do write in.