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A company from Austin, Texas is building 800-square-foot houses from concrete pumped out of a giant 3-D printer.
Most of us never really stop to think about how the software and services we use on a daily basis are created. We just know it’s there when we want to access it, and it works most of the time. But companies don’t just appear and expand randomly, they need a well defined process and methodology to keep innovating or they won’t be around very long.
Box has been around since 2005 and grown into a company on a run rate of over $500 million. Along the way, it transformed from a consumer focus to one concentrating on enterprise content management and expanded the platform from one that mostly offered online storage and file sharing to one that offers a range of content management services in the cloud.
I recently sat down with Chief Product and Chief Strategy Officer Jeetu Patel . A big part of Patel’s job is to keep the company’s development teams on track and focused on new features that could enhance the Box platform, attract new customers and increase revenue.
Before you solve a problem, you need the right group of people working on it. Patel says building a team has a few primary principles to help guide the product and team development. It starts with rules and rubrics to develop innovative solutions and help them focus on where to invest their resources in terms of money and people.
When it comes to innovating, you have to structure your teams in such a way that you can react to changing requirements in the marketplace, and in today’s tech world, being agile is more important than ever. “You have to configure your innovation engine from a team, motivation and talent recruiting perspective so that you’ve actually got the right structure in place to provide enough speed and autonomy to the team so that they’re unencumbered and able to execute quickly,” Patel explained
Finally, you need to have a good grip on the customer and the market. That involves constantly assessing market requirements and looking at building products and features that respond to a need, yet that aren’t dated when you launch them.
Start with the customer
Patel says that when all is said and done, the company wants to help its customers by filling a hole in the product set. From a central company philosophy perspective, it begins with the customer. That might sound like pandering on its face, but he says if you keep that goal in mind it really acts as an anchor to the entire process.
“From a core philosophy that we keep in mind, you have to actually make sure that you get everyone really oriented in the company to say you always start from a customer problem and work backwards. But picking the right problem to solve is 90 percent of the battle,” he said.
Solve hard problems
Patel strongly believes that the quality of the problem is directly proportional to the outcome of the project. Part of that is solving a real customer pain point, but it’s also about challenging your engineers. You can be successfully solving the low-hanging fruit problems most of the time, but then you don’t necessarily attract the highest quality engineering talent.
“If you think about really hard problems that have a lot of mission and purpose around them, you can actually attract the best team,” he said.
That means looking for a problem where you can add a lot of value. “The problem that you choose to spend your time solving should be one where you are uniquely positioned to create a 10 x value proposition compared to what might exist in the market today,” Patel explained. If it doesn’t reach that threshold, he believes that there’s no motivation for the customer to change, and it’s not really worth going after.
Build small teams
Once you identify that big problem, you need to form a team to start attacking it. Patel recommends keeping the teams manageable, and he believes in the Amazon approach of the two-pizza team, a group of 8-10 people who can operate on..well…two pizzas. If the teams get too large, he says it becomes difficult to coordinate and too much time gets wasted on logistics instead of innovation.
“Having very defined local missions, having [small] teams carrying out those local missions, and making sure that those team sizes don’t get too large so that they can stay very agile, is a pretty important kind of core operating principle of how we build products,” Patel said.
That becomes even more important as the company scales. The trick is to configure the organization in such a way so that as you grow, you end up with many smaller teams instead of a few bigger ones, and in that way you can better pinpoint team missions.
Developing a Box product
Patel sees four key areas when it comes to finally building that new product at Box. First of all, it needs to be enterprise grade and all that entails — secure, reliable, scalable, fault tolerant and so forth.
That’s Job One, but what generally has differentiated Box in the content management market has been its ease of use. He sees that as removing as much friction as you can from a software-driven business process.
Next, you try to make those processes intelligent and that means understanding the purpose of the content. Patel says that could involve having better search, better surfacing of content and automated trigger events that move that content through a workflow inside a company.
Finally, they look at how it fits inside a workflow because content doesn’t live in a vacuum inside an enterprise. It generally has a defined purposed and the content management system should make it easy to integrate that content into the broader context of its purpose.
Once you have those small teams set up with their missions in place, you have to establish rules and metrics that allow them to work quickly, but still have a set of milestones they have to meet to prove they are on a worthwhile project for the company. You don’t want to be throwing good money after a bad project.
For Patel and Box that involves a set of metrics that tell you at all times, whether the team is succeeding or failing. Seems simple enough, but it takes a lot of work from a management perspective to define missions and goals and then track them on a regular basis.
He says that involves three elements: “There are three things that we think about including what’s the plan for what you’re going to build, what’s the strategy around what you’re going to build, and then what’s the level of coordination that each one of us have on whether or not what we’re building is, in fact, going to be successful.”
In the end, this is an iterative process, one that keeps evolving as the company grows and develops and as they learn from each project and each team. “We’re constantly looking at the processes and saying, what are the things that need to be adjusted,” Patel said.
Xara is on a mission to help businesses create better looking content, and in turn save us all from having to consume visually unappealing marketing and comms material. The German startup has developed Xara Cloud, a design tool that resides in the cloud and attempts to bridge the gap between professional design and business content created by non-design professionals.
Specifically, Xara Cloud consists of a drag and drop browser-based editor that lets you create designs using text, shapes, icons, charts and imported images, but with a few extra tricks up its sleeve. These include the ability to use off-the-shelf professionally created colour schemes or have the software create a new colour scheme based on an image, such as your company logo, that you’ve uploaded.
As you’d expect, you can also choose from a library of pre-made templates ranging from social media graphics to flyer and brochures to presentations. These can be designed on top of or tweaked ad nauseam, and in addition you can create your own templates to function as reusable assets.
The editor adheres to a smart grid system, too, which helps non-designers create more disciplined and visually appealing layouts. There are also collaboration features so you can easily create content as part of a team.
“The problem being solved is that there is a massive software gap between basic document editors like Word, PowerPoint, etc. and professional design software like Adobe,” Xara co-founder and CEO Matt Bolton tells me. “Xara Cloud is a robust suite of rich design and editing tools packaged in a drag and drop editing platform that allows anyone to create designer-quality documents… It is 100 percent browser-based with a consistent UI across all desktop and touch devices”.
Bolton says the business case for using Xara Cloud is that brand inconsistency impacts business revenue. “The estimated average revenue attributed to always presenting the brand consistently is 23 percent,” he says, citing a report by Zimmer Communication.
“Repetition and consistency are critical pillars of any branding effort. By a business presenting a brand consistently, over time, consumers will internalize the brand values and be more likely to purchase”.
To mitigate brand inconsistency, Xara Cloud lets you add your logo, fonts, and brand colours, which are then automatically applied to any of Xara Cloud’s templates. “This ensures that any document, no matter the type, will have the current and consistent brand when it reaches the customer,” adds the Xara co-founder.
Meanwhile, the Berlin-based startup is disclosing that it has raised €3 million in funding. Backing the young company is investment group Bellevue Investments & Co.
Aurora Labs, a company that has created predictive tools that will automatically fix problems with software in cars, has raised $8.4 million in a Series A round of financing led by Fraser McCombs Capital.
Previous investor MizMaa Ventures also joined the round. The Tel Aviv-based company just came out of stealth a few months ago.
Aurora Labs plans to use the additional funds to expand its presence beyond its new offices in Munich, Germany and Tel Aviv headquarters. The company has 17 employees and plans to add a handful more by the end of the year, as well as open sales offices in Detroit and San Francisco, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Labs Zohar Fox told TechCrunch.
Vehicles today have millions of lines of code. As the automotive industry becomes increasingly reliant on software, the risk of glitches impacting the operation of vehicles grows. And it’s already proving to be a costly problem for automakers. Some 15 million vehicles globally were recalled in 2017 for software flaws, according to Aurora Labs.
Aurora Labs developed a platform designed to detect (and even predict) problems and then fix any issues on the fly. It also can provide over-the-air software updates to allow automakers the ability to make swift changes to electronic control unit software.
The company already has a few takers of its tech; Aurora Labs has locked in three unnamed automakers as customers and pilots are underway.
The company’s tech might be useful for today’s connected cars. But Aurora’s co-founders Fox and Ori Lederman see an opportunity with the wave of autonomous vehicles that will be deployed in the future.
“The number of lines of code in vehicles is already roughly 150 million and is only expected to climb,” Fox said, adding that quality assurance misses about 15 percent of the average 15 to 50 errors for every thousand lines of code. This stat highlights the need for solutions that can predict downtime events before they cause safety issues, he added.
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