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"Innovation is making
a change for the better."
01 February, 2021

As we enter 2021, we speak to an individual who has been leading the pack in the innovation, technology and entrepreneur spheres. Currently the Innovation Director at Southern Cross Austereo, Matt Saraceni’s passion for innovation stems from enabling the innovation ecosystem that connects startups, universities, top corporates and VC’s together in Australia. In this blog post he reflects on the biggest digital learnings for businesses in 2020 and how businesses can reenergise for 2021 by incorporating a focus on an innovative culture.

Matt is currently the Innovation Director at Southern Cross Austereo. Previously he worked at Telstra Labs – managing new products aligned to Telstra’s growth opportunities as well as connecting Telstra to the broader community of Startups, Universities and other innovation leaders. Matt was also part of the founding team of Omny Studio – a startup based in Melbourne that sold to radio stations and Podcast networks around the world that was eventually acquired in 2019. His passions in innovation are enabling the innovation ecosystem that connects startups, universities, top corporates and VC’s together in Australia. He also enjoys supporting the founder journey, corporate innovation (both idea to MVP and finding product/market fit) and corporate venture capital.

Q. What does the term innovation mean to you?

A. To keep it simple, I’ve always liked saying “innovation is making a change for the better”. As obvious as that may sound - the complexity comes from deciding what should you change? – and what does better mean? A change can be something as incremental as saving time on a repetitive, time-consuming process (remember – computers never get bored, but humans certainly do). It can be something as exciting as a new product that you’re sure your customers will love (and pay for). Or it can be something as big and disruptive as changing the entire business model of your company.

Innovation is about leaning into uncertainty – it’s often about asking “why don’t I know exactly what to do next?” By breaking down these big unanswered questions into smaller experiments, you can find the answers quickly and cheaply and hopefully what was big and uncertain last week, is a little more of a no-brainer this week. Innovation is about running that process time and time again – making small iterative changes until you’ve found a big profitable change. At the end of the day, if you made a change and the result is “better” – that’s innovation.

Q. What should your number one goal be when tackling an innovation project?

A. How do you turn assumptions and opinions into experiments and evidence? There’s the concept of “avoid the HiPPO” – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Most organisations run like this – and a good innovation project has a respectful way to say to its top level executives “it’s great that you have that opinion, but that’s based on a massive assumption of X – how can we quickly and cheaply test that assumption before we spend too much money on that idea?”

Essentially with any idea you are trying to prove three things: Desirability (do people want this?), Feasibility (is it technically possible?), Viability (will it make me money?). The number one aim is to take the perfectly normal assumptions that people have with regards to these three things – “customers will love this!”, “my nephew knows computers, he could build us a website”, “I reckon people would pay heaps for this if we built it” – and try and test them out. Often people think of innovators as eccentric entrepreneurs sitting on bean bags dreaming up big ideas – but I think good innovators are more like scientists who are rarely surprised if their ideas were successful or not because they’ve done the work up front.

Q. How can big business better support and utilise the start-up ecosystem?

A. First and foremost – consider them as valid an asset class to put your money into as a new boardroom table. Most of the challenge in growing our local startup ecosystem is convincing Australia’s companies to consider corporate venturing as a good use of capital, especially given the competing time horizons that corporates vs startups operate within. That’s probably a longer conversation than a pithy Q&A, but if you’re already there and want to get started I would participate in the many, many meetups, panels, pitch nights and startup organisations available in your city. Begin by attending events, meeting some people, hearing the problems they are spending every waking moment trying to profitably solve and look for opportunities to add value.

The most important thing to remember is you have to treat a startup’s time like Oxygen. Every second you spend with a startup you are exhausting their money/lifeblood. The number one killer of startups: is running out of time to get a product out the door that solves a big problem that people happily pay for. So please, please, please don’t drag a startup through your organisation’s IT processes, or take them to 27 meetings, or ask them to participate for free in your next ideation workshop. The best way you can support and utilise startups is doing all the corporate approval stuff for them, so it’s a timeboxed and profitable engagement with a clear desired outcome on both sides.

Q. What do you think were some of the biggest digital learnings for businesses in 2020?

A. People’s habits got a chance to completely reform in 2020. Digital trends of the last 5 years compressed and some consumers have discovered new valuable digital products that they previously didn’t have the time or inclination to try out. We all really questioned what it meant to be “connected” in a digital world as we were told to stay safely apart. When you rule out commutes, school drop offs and weekend activities your “jobs to be done” as a consumer completely change. This alters what problems you need solved and also transforms what digital products you use. Even in during an incredible black swan event there were still products and services that people found valuable and would pay for. The nature of work and the purpose of gathering at a workplace was questioned for the first time since the Industrial revolution.

Q. How do you think business reenergise for 2021 and incorporate a focus on an innovative culture?

A. 2020 showed us that the impossible, the inconceivable, the untouchable facts that many businesses held to be “always true” were actually able to be completely turned on their heads. It was a lesson in resilience, being adaptable to change and a focus on people. Everybody who in April/March who was saying they knew what would happen next - was lying. Every organisation in the world probably had to make some change in 2020 to stay alive – so there is now a proof point that “making a change for the better” is possible. My hope is businesses will take forward this refreshed organisational ability to question assumptions, pivot quickly and most importantly, put customers at the heart of everything they do.