Taking a lean start-up approach to improving your practice

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A few weeks before new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dreamed of “A nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, Business Review Weekly was busy awarding MYOB with the title of “Most Innovative Large Company in 2015”.

And while I can’t be sure that Mr Turnbull was thinking specifically of MYOB when he said those words at his first press conference after successfully challenging Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership, I’d like to think we’re a pretty good example of a company doing innovation right.

So what does innovation mean for MYOB? It’s more about what effect innovation has on our clients that is important to us. The two examples we used in the awards submission – smart bills and MYOB Portal – were both born out of our customers saying, “There’s something missing here – can you help?”

The innovation came from creating solutions out of those customer needs. And the proof of that innovation is the successful uptake, positive feedback and, dare I say it, innovative uses our customers are getting from these solutions.

The innovation behind MYOB Portal

Let me use the example of MYOB Portal.

MYOB Portal is a new online collaboration portal that allows you to work more closely with your clients direct from your MYOB practice software. Its main benefits are its data security and the speed with which accountants are able to get documents shared and digitally signed by their clients.

OK, there’s another big benefit – from a client’s point-of-view, the magic happens on their smartphone, not their desktop computer. And the feedback has been huge – and rightly so; the smartphone is where many business people are doing, well, their business!

These features didn’t come from the development team, though. They came from discussions with accountants and their clients. But that’s just standard market research, right? Yes, that’s true. However it’s the way this research has been applied to development that makes the difference. In this case, we adapted a lean start-up approach to make MYOB Portal what it is today.

A 1,200-strong company acting like it’s a start-up? How does that work? Let me explain.

The lean start-up methodology

To reduce the market risk involved with the development of an innovative new feature, like MYOB Portal, we developed lightweight prototypes that we could take to clients for them to play with and provide feedback.

These were initially just hand drawn designs on paper. The idea was to build the cheapest and simplest prototype, test it with customers, measure the outcome and learn from it to create an updated prototype.

Using these simple and cheap prototypes, we were able to quickly experiment and test a variety of options to solve the collaboration problem that our customers had described to us.  We ran a range of experiments with the prototypes and each was tested against a specific hypothesis. For example, to help us decide whether to include the option for the client to add a signature digitally, we set a rule that we would only include it if more than 30% of pilot users opted to include a signature in the prototype.

With this feedback we were able to develop a minimal viable product which included just the bare bones features to solve the problem.

This iterative approach to building products ensures that we are meeting the needs of our customers and reducing the risk of building the wrong thing.

Applying the lean start-up methodology in your practice

How can this process work to your advantage in your practice? One example might be as you look to expand your firm’s advisory business.

Let’s say you want to roll out a virtual CFO service. Normally you might develop the business plan, train your staff, update your branding, market to your clients, and then sit back and wait to see how the service performs.

Or …

You could take the lean approach of creating a minimum viable product and taking it to a small group of willing participants. Test and learn from those early experiences and re-build it, continue to measure it, and learn from what your clients are saying.

Taking this lean approach unburdens you from the investment – both time and fiscal – that’s required from a traditional approach. It might be managed by just a single partner and senior accountant, for example.

Just like MYOB’s experience with its popular portal, you too can introduce new products and services to your practice that needn’t be as a big a risk as they have been in the past. And who knows, perhaps next year it will be your practice at the top of the BRW Most Innovative companies list! Er, just behind MYOB.