Innoboard: There is no consistent definition of innovation. Every industry and every department perceive it differently. How would you define innovation as co-founder and CMO at Hackerbay?
Tobias Jost: Innovation for me = hacking. Hacking is the process of overcoming limitations by creating unique and abstract solutions (through a series of rapid, short-term successes). The number of experiments in the field of digital innovation is crucial to its successful outcome in the long term. It’s all about trial and error. To be innovative, you certainly do not have to build everything from scratch– this is a common misconception. Chances are, what you’re trying to achieve has already been done, or at least parts of it. As a result, using existing best practices and assembling them in a new and unique way is actually the most innovative process you can undergo.
For example, due to Moore’s Law (one of the three laws of Hacker Culture), innovation in technology such as the performance capacity of processors increases steadily and certainly over time, simply due to the advancement in software and the proportional decrease in cost of function. Being open and looking out for new inventions, technologies or methods drives innovation within a company in a more general sense. Unfortunately, more and more companies seem to be convincing themselves that they are innovative when they are not: having an ‘innovation department’ is enough for many organizations to convince themselves that they are up to date with cutting-edge technologies. This is part of what we call the Corporate Wasteland. To try and combat this, we at Hackerbay have an Enterprise division where we on-board clients rigorously via thorough technological consultancy methods before we even touch execution.
In 2016 you founded Hackerbay as one of the co-founders. What has been the biggest challenge so far? How did you solve it?
At the start, one of the biggest challenges was trying to be unemotional towards the product we were developing, as well as iterating constantly without losing sight of the bigger picture. As a founder your company is your baby, so if you’re too emotionally attached, anyone who criticizes it or who doesn’t understand the value you are trying to deliver comes across as an enemy. But that’s the wrong way to think. You have to iterate on your product constantly to match your customers expectations and fulfil their needs. If you want to avoid getting crazy, it is very important to make decisions on data and logic. It would be stupid to think a preliminary theoretical concept could match practical value, no matter how great you think the idea is. Test the language of your product, A/B test UX/UI of your product, test different approaches when reaching out to prospects, just test everything. But make sure to collect data. The more data you have, the easier it gets to take informed decisions in your journey towards being successful.
During the time in the NFX accelerator program in Silicon Valley, you pivoted your business model and changed your processes several times. What are your lessons learned?
The most difficult challenge for us as a founding team was to adapt the American way of thinking, and evolving our ideas so that we could communicate them efficiently– not only linguistically, but theoretically. Americans have a natural talent of using language when it comes to selling any product. There was a cultural disconnect for us, so it took some time adapting to this attitude. When we came back to Europe, it was rewarding to see that our new outlook on language enabled us to talk and work with Fortune 500 companies, discuss innovation, and ultimately unlock the hidden, digital potential in companies who weren’t as familiar with the American mindset.
In your opinion, what can big companies learn from the way startups work? What can startups learn from big companies?
The easy answer is that companies should have infrastructures and processes as streamlined as startups, in order to be faster, clearer and more flexible. I have spoken to over 300 Chief Digital Officers from Fortune 1000 companies over the last 5 months, and a lot are aware of this– that their attitude isn’t flexible or fast enough to keep up with technological innovation. It is unbelievably challenging to change a company with 100k employees from a traditional, offline company to a high-tech organisation whilst keeping ahead with the day to day business at the same time. My personal opinion is that the vision, mission and overall mindset evangelized within a company is a deciding factor for how flexible and agile structures will be. It is not about changing structures in the first place, but changing the mindset of employees. The rest will come by itself.
Startups on the other hand are definitely benefiting from the structure corporates have– or elements of it. Most startups, Hackerbay included, can get lost in the overwhelming day to day routine that comes with starting a company from scratch. It is crucial to not lose sight of the overall company goals and strategy when all you want to do is react to the task at hand. Certain corporate processes can help you with that, such as rigorous project management methods.
What is your goal regarding innovation for the next 12 months?
My personal goal for innovation is to show corporates what it actually means, like I was saying earlier. It probably will happen faster than expected: companies we work with are usually quick to understand that they inherently need to change organisational structures, methods, values and communication in order to keep up with the pace of tech-adapted competitors from the US– the proof is in the successes of Silicon Valley companies and how quickly they’re monopolizing the market. A specific example of this that we have come across recently is in the automotive industry. Older and more traditional companies have started to act because of Tesla’s monumental successes. In the race for the best autonomous car, Tesla will probably always be ahead of said traditional competitors, such as BMW, Audi or Daimler– at least until they understand what the real challenge is, where innovation truly comes into play and how urgently they need to execute.
About the interviewee: Tobias Jost
Tobias Jost is a serial entrepreneur. He founded his first company (a local fruit & vegetable delivery service) when he was 23 years old. He grew the company to 500k annual revenue with an annual margin of 60% – without any external capital – and sold it to a wholesaler after 2.5 years.
Around the same time in 2013, he has started Hackevents, which appealed to his newfound passion for programming and has grown to become the world´s leading search engine for Hackathons.
Shortly after founding Hackerbay in early 2016, his third company, he moved to Palo Alto, CA after having received funding from Silicon Valley investors.