This post is based on an interview with one of the UK’s leading digital innovation agencies. It also appears at www.workingwithjoe.co.uk.
Digital apps and services are slowly changing the way we tackle society’s problems.
They’re usually created by social startups and small, motivated charities and organisations who want to find a better way to do what they do.
But creating products that actually change people’s lives and become sustainable is tough work.
Getting the right mix of design thinking, tech skills and business brains in your partnership or business is really difficult. Getting funded and launching your venture can be pretty exciting but then you’ve got to guide your startup ship through new and uncharted territories where if you don’t learn quick then you’re sunk.
Sidekick Studios have been navigating the tech for social good sea for the last three years. They’ve survived longer than most and have learnt plenty about what it’s like to float a startup. Projects like Buddy, The Amazings and Sidekick School are showing the rest of us how to combine the three disciplines of design, tech and business to solve social problems. Though they’ve not been involved in the Innovation Labs project they’re working with one of it’s funders, the Nominet Trust on the exciting Sidekick School initiative.
They’re also really good at sharing what they’ve learnt. When I asked if I could pop round and talk to them about the magic X factor behind their success, they were really up for it.
Here’s what works for them.
1. Keep an unrelenting focus on things that matter
Making things that solve social problems is simple. You just need to focus on what people want and what they find useful. The things that matter are the things that change their lives.
It’s really easy.
Only it’s not.
To sustain that level of focus it’s got to really matter to you too. Enough that you’re ready to show up every day and constantly ask the questions that matter.
- Is this going in the right direction?
- Is it producing results that matter?
- Are we listening to everything that people are telling us?
Then, if it’s not producing the rights results or people aren’t happy with what you’re building, you’ve got to be fearless about throwing it out and be willing to start again from scratch.
“If it’s something you really believe in then it gives you the passion and drive to do it really well” Ian, Lead Creative Technician
2. Mashup your designers, developers and business strategists
In the traditional model of product development a project gets handed down a line of different disciplines. This tends to lead to lost insights and ideas, and an end product that falls short of its potential.
At Sidekick designers, developers and business strategists work together at every stage of a project. Everyone gets to do a bit of everything. For example, Nikki is Sidekick’s user interface designer but she also gets involved in research, strategic design, all the way through to helping out technicians with end development work. This approach means that every problem gets tackled by a blend of disciplines and diverse skillsets. Doing it this way may push against your comfort zones but it will open your eyes to different ways of thinking and ultimately more effective ways of tackling your project.
3. Ship, ship, ship
It’s really easy to spend a long time and a lot of money on well meaning hunches about what you think will solve people’s problems.
But it’s better to focus on the following process:
- Get your research right
- Identify your knowledge gaps
- Rapidly build something simple based on what you do know
- Ship it out into the world
- Watch closely to see what happens
- Rinse and repeat.
In web development this is known as an iterative approach, focussed on maximising learning rather than product size. Doing it this way will tell you far more about what’s going to work than any amount of ideas, opinions and abstract consultations will. You can repeat the process, shipping and testing further iterations as many times as needed.
“We talk about the lean startup philosophy and agile development techniques but we don’t really follow anything too rigidly” Ian
4. Find people who are smarter than you, more experienced than you
These are the words of Sidekick’s owner, Adil. He’s a smart leader because he understands the importance of finding the right people to make up your team. People who can offer more than you can, people who’ve already learnt what you need to learn.
I create the space for people to solve problems”
Adil, Sidekick’s Founder
It’s a smart approach because it generates a culture of intrinsic motivation and personal leadership. You end up with a team united in purpose where everyone feels able to step forward and offer a solution to any problem.
5. Find what you love. Do what you love. With people you love.
Sidekick’s mantra. Full of passion and belief.
Find out what you love, what you’d love to change in the world.
Do what you love, what you really enjoy doing, what really calls to you on every level.
With people you love, because they care about the same things as you and because you’ve come to love them for how they support you to do what you love while you’re changing the world together.
Simple, and powerful.
6. Have fun and share your popcorn
At Sidekick people seriously believe in what they’re doing. They’re deadly about solving difficult social problems through digital tech. There’s no confusion or misdirected sense of purpose.
This level of belief and seriousness can make you very good at what you do. But it can also lead to taking yourself too seriously and quickly spiral into fear of getting it wrong or making big scary decisions. The antidote to this is being able to not take yourself too seriously and sometimes taking a light hearted approach to what you’re doing.
Sidekick’s found this antidote in a few forms. For a new bmx related project they brought two old bmxes, gave them names and now take them for spins (with accident pics to prove it). Their Cockup Cocktails events bring people from other organisations together to listen to Sidekickers talking about their mistakes and what they learn from them.
Summing it all up…
Whether you’re a seasoned startup or small organisation just starting out these six tips can improve your digital end product. By doing what you love, finding the right people, maintaining your focus, mixing up your team, shipping regularly and remembering to have fun you’ll keep yourself on the path to creating successful products that make a difference in the world.
Comments welcome below.