Australian entrepreneurs reveal their secrets for innovation

Innovation is the elusive ingredient every business is chasing. It’s what keeps entrepreneurs up at night and pushes them out of bed each morning.

The secrets behind innovation are typically well hidden, but there are some innovators who are happy to divulge how they keep coming up with golden ideas.

Matt Schneider, managing director of Perth software development company Optika, says innovation is the ability to see how things can be done better and creativity stimulates that vision.

“I believe the future is going to be around creativity and how we can come up with creative solutions to global problems and that’s all about innovation,” he says.

“We do a lot of work around creative thought and being able to look at problems from different perspectives, very much looking at blue-sky approaches.”

Schneider and his team will soon be heading to China to compete in the Asia-Pacific ICT Alliance Awards. The Perth-based company, which has an annual turnover of between $6 and $10 million, won entry to the competition after taking out the national Innovation of the Year award at this year’s iAwards.

Thinking outside the square is a well-worn cliche, but Schneider says taking the path less travelled often leads to brilliant results. Optika took this approach with recruitment and cast a wide net to assemble the 40 people it currently employs.

“We go for diverse people with different skill sets,” he says.

“We actively recruit people from all over the world – the UK, South Africa, Chile, Belgium, Sri Lanka. And we like quite a diverse portfolio of skills – everything from astrophysics to psychologists through to storytellers, to really create a cohesive capability to solutions.”

Schneider says Optika also employs a high ratio of employees with autism or Asperger’s syndrome who, with unconventional thinking and expert problem-solving skills, are natural innovators.

“Most of my guys, or half, sit on the autism spectrum and those guys require a high level of control,” Schneider explains.

“We have break-out rooms for those guys when it gets too stressful for them. We put a lot of work into creating a safe environment for our autistic guys.

“Some are extreme on the autism spectrum, some aren’t. After a while you get pretty good at working where they are and what’s required to create a highly effective team.

“Ultimately it’s about creating that tension, that creative tension. As long as it’s managed appropriately it’s really effective.”

For Justin Webb, innovation came as it does to many others – with a complicated process in desperate need of simplification. The co-founder of AgriWebb, which won the iAwards national Start-Up of the Year, drew on his personal experience to invent software that manages farm data.

“When my father got ill, lots of the farming decisions fell to me and I sort of remember sitting at the table surrounded by consultants who were giving me lots of advice,” he says.

“I kept asking for benchmarked results and predictive results that we could make a decision against. I was astonished that these were done with almost finger in the air anecdotal feelings, rather than concrete evidence.

“It struck me as being this obvious problem, why isn’t technology helping farmers recording the information better?”

AgriWebb, which has an annual turnover of $1.2 million, launched in February this year. It is among a wave of competitive start-ups in the agtech sector, which some predict will be Australia’s next $100 billion industry.

Staying ahead of the competition means tackling innovation with tenacity and talent, Webb says.

“The most important element of innovation is it must be grounded in solving a real problem because if you are truly innovating you are effectively bringing a new tool or method or technology to solve an existing problem,” he says.

“To me, that holds an extremely robust interest in continuing to evolve the solutions to that problem, maintaining a commitment to doing it when times get tough and they do get tough in any start-up, in any business.

“The second tenement to maintaining innovation is surrounding the problem or throwing at the problem talent that has the capacity to believe in a vision and execute brilliance when designing a solution.

“Those two together – by having a real problem and having extraordinary talent – that’s a recipe for success.”

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