Three Innovation Lessons from Boston’s Women-Led Startups

I recently went to an event that brought together a dozen female entrepreneurs. They shared their stories of how they’re building businesses around offerings as diverse as gourmet ice cream and micro-financing platforms. In talking about their experiences running startups, I found that their learnings were applicable to both entrepreneurs and innovation managers alike. Based on their collective experiences, I was able to extract three key lessons that any innovator should consider before launching a new product or business.

Start personal, but remember to think like a business

Some of the best business ideas come from focusing on your own life. CliqBit — a social media app launched in early 2016 — is no exception. Co-founder Hannah Wei entered college with the idea of being a neurosurgeon, but she started losing vision in one of her eyes. While this created a speedbump for pursuing a medical career, it also led to a funny incident that gave her and co-founder Olivia Joslin the idea for their app. Still adapting to her new lack of depth perception, Hannah took an embarrassing tumble in front of one of the few men at her all-women school: the campus police officer. The irony and the visual were perfect, but Hannah and Olivia felt like they had nowhere to share the moment. The social platforms that were out there weren’t quite right. Facebook is old news for millennials, never mind Gen Z. Instagram is for special moments and glamorous photos. Snapchat is more of a messaging app, not a platform for broader sharing. The two soon discovered that others their age felt the same way. Their personal struggle to share these sorts of humorous moments could be indicative of a larger market need.

While their personal lives led to an early idea, the two soon realized that competing in the social media space would be difficult. The field is crowded, and app users can be fickle. In talking to the co-founders, however, I learned that they’ve given plenty of thought to how the app can differentiate itself and stay relevant. On the user side, they talked about building up mobile tools such as meme generators and simple video editing software to help individuals be content creators instead of just content consumers. Behind the scenes, they also discussed the potential of harvesting data around what younger individuals find funny, ultimately helping companies design ads that resonate with different demographics. While a personal need is a great place to find an idea, these strategic decisions about where to play and how to win are essential questions that entrepreneurs need to be ready to answer.

Use new technology to address lasting needs, but find less crowded spaces

In an age where we’re constantly reading about shifting ad budgets to digital, I was a little surprised to come across Polis — a company that’s helping businesses get better at door-to-door sales. As founder Kendall Tucker shared data with me about the declining viewership of online ads, the growing cost for online ads, and the heightened effectiveness of in-person sales pitches, however, it started to click. While technology changes rapidly, the underlying jobs that businesses and individuals need to get done actually don’t change very much. The need to send messages internationally, for example, existed long before we had things like WhatsApp. In the case of Polis, the need of businesses to increase sales while simultaneously decreasing the cost of sales is a constant. And while other companies are focusing on trendier topics like social media ads, Polis is proving its effectiveness in a far less competitive space. It’s using new technology and social data to offer businesses a better way of selling face-to-face. By optimizing where door-to-door sales teams walk, who they talk to, and what they say, Polis is substantially reducing the time and costs that go into planning sales routes, making it viable for companies to use an in-person model that is four times more likely to result in a sale. Solar and cable have proven to be promising early markets.

Don’t be afraid to pivot

Finally, it’s helpful to remember that startups don’t always get it right the first time. Laura Fredericks launched Describli in 2012 as a writing community, providing prompts that writers could use as inspiration for new pieces they wanted to share. In 2016, however, Laura decided to switch direction and focus on an unmet need she recognized. While authors were easily finding tools to help them get their books published, they didn’t have a lot of help marketing and selling their books. The new Describli platform meets that need by helping self-published authors understand what audience they should be targeting and what keywords they should be using to reach that market. It also provides a way to optimize and automate marketing, giving authors more time to focus on creating content — the piece they know best. While the first answer may not always be the right answer, entrepreneurs can move fast. This gives them a unique ability to switch focus to wherever there’s a real customer need.

Startups have the flexibility to move quickly and focus on markets that larger companies can’t afford to target. By thinking strategically about how they can win, targeting less crowded spaces, and pivoting until they find the real opportunities, startups can build the early momentum that will help them change their industries.

Dave Farber is a growth strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He is also the co-author of the new book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.