Chicago-Style Innovation 2013 [Lightbank Innovation Day]

Lightbank logoChicago-Style Innovation is my notes from Lightbank Innovation Day, which took place on 9 May 2013 at the City Winery (presentations) and Lightbank’s offices (networking). Throughout the day, it was obvious that the Knowledge Economy’s Social Channel was unfolding; entrepreneurs’ startups are stripping off an increasing breadth of enterprise processes and using digital social software to improve them. For example, Needle’s platform creates experts in user (customer) use cases and outcomes that outperform anyone at retail; Fieldglass, HighGround, Fooda, oDesk and TalentBin take aim at various parts of human capital while Aon Hewitt showed how to practice enterprise innovation on the inside; DoubleDutch aims to [at long last] digitize trade shows and conferences through its platform’s geosocial functions. Sprout Social and Contently offered social tools.

Presenters Gian Fulgoni, J Schwan and Ramon De Leon shared valuable advice for entrepreneurs, investors and enterprise executives. Fulgoni provided statistics that showed how mobile was eclipsing ecommerce and analog commerce; Schwan opened the audience’s eyes to Ubiquitous Computing and the Internet of Things, and De Leon showed the power of (pervasively ;^) being yourself.

Notable Presenter Thoughts

Speakers included a mix of serial entrepreneurs, startup entrepreneurs and enterprise/brand innovators. Please note that I was not covering this event, so these are my personal notes, and I only noted remarks that were subjectively interesting.

Gian Fulgoni, Founder, comScore

  • Ecommerce is growing faster than the total economy, and mobile commerce is growing faster than ecommerce; it’s rapidly becoming a mobile, online world, even in mature markets like the U.S.
  • Bricks and mortar retail without major chops in ecommerce and mobile commerce questionably viable.
  • Time spent on mobile is 37% of all online, and mcommerce 11% of all ecommerce (2012).
  • Online advertising has grown steadily, and its portion of all advertising is accelerating; purchase behavior increasingly informs online ads, double results. Ecommerce platforms sell purchase behavior data to ad networks.
  • Big data is changing industries, and it will increasingly affect markets.
  • “Innovation” is universally desired, and competition is stiff; don’t compromise on hiring because weak people hire weaker people, and so on, down the line.
  • You have to make decisions much faster than you think.

Shane Snow, Co-Founder, Contently

  • Ad networks are being disintermediated, brands are going “native.”
  • Advertising needs to tell stories to increase engagement, but it’s hard to tell stories well, consistently.
  • Interruptive advertising is outdated.

J Schwan, Founder, Solstice Mobile

  • We are entering the era of “contextual computing” [we used to use this as a key element of “Web 3.0,” the semantic web], and it’s the next generation of disruption.
  • Devices of all kinds will detect people’s behavior and proactively offer information or functionality based on behavior. This will be extremely relevant to mobile devices. The Internet of Things will explode the number of smart “devices” that can serve people.
  • Of course, all these interactions and behavior data will make big data that much richer and transformative. Example, Nest thermostat, the Pizza Button. Natural user interfaces that use the body with no intermediary as stylus or mouse or keyboard. Minority Report world. Google Glass, Google Now.
  • Peapod puts “lists” and QR codes on el (subway) platforms, so people can place orders on the way home.
  • In the office, smart office QR codes enable workers to place orders spontaneiously with their phones; devices alert workers when they are getting low on supplies.

Lawrence Coburn, Founder, DoubleDutch

  • Physical events are ripe for disruption; they are expensive in terms of cash and time investment, yet the main information/data input is business cards!
  • Marketers are digitally oriented, and events are largely analog; use smart event platforms to gamify the event experience, so you collect actionable data.
  • Otherwise, “trade shows” are in trouble; they need analytics; ad-hoc social networks can create data from interactions that indicate various levels of interest through social actions.
  • DoubleDutch gives points for certain types of interactions at trade shows [like Foursquare].

Ramon DeLeon, Social Media, Domino’s

  • Ads are the cost of being boring.
  • Be yourself and excited about what you’re doing; that’s how you inspire others.
  • Be 500% committed to what’s important to you and your business.

Justyn Howard, Founder, Sprout Social

  • Social media was never designed as a customer response system, so it’s very difficult to “keep records” of contacts; brands need business logic and processes. Brands lack tools.
  • People own the [social] channel, and they want a fair value exchange for the time they spend online; brands need to respond to people.
  • 70% of digital social interactions that mention brands or products by name are not responded to by brands. They are ignored. 4.3 billion consumer messages about brands per month, and it is growing fast.
  • IBM 2012 CEO Study found that digital social interactions are second only to face to face in terms of influencing behavior.

Vip Sandhir, Founder, HighGround

  • Innovation requires highly motivated employees, but employees across the U.S. economy are increasingly unhappy and unmotivated.
  • Many managers are not good “people people”; they don’t know how to encourage workers and “recognize” them and their contributions [not said but I detected major generational issues; this is a textbook Boomer/Millennial disconnect].
  • Millennials require 6-10 times more recognition than Generation X; performance reviews are typically one-way, annual communications between managers and employees, so out of date. 80% of employees are dissatisfied with them. Quarterly two-way coaching is far more effective.
  • One third of employees are looking to change jobs; 40% of those that leave say they weren’t recognized or appreciated.

Beatrice Grech-Cumbo, Talent Practice Leader, Aon Hewitt

  • Enterprise innovation needs to get much more efficient and faster; hackathons can be extremely effective.
  • Example, four-hour hackathon assembled customers, designers, support and executives; the group defined 52 ideas and inputted into a private social platform, where a larger group voted on them and determined the top three the next day.
  • You need the user-customer involved in the innovation process itself. You need online tools.
  • Innovation itself increases employee engagement; it’s collaborative, risky, decisive, proactive, long-term [investment]-oriented and growth-focused.
  • Engaged employees are 78% more productive and 40% more profitable.

Jason Stulberg, COO, Fooda

  • Firms can increase employee engagement and improve morale by bringing new lunch options to the office. Most offices don’t have many lunch options that are practical for employees, and many lunch places serve the same old sandwiches.
  • You can use technology to organize participating restaurants and deliver lunches to the office, which saves employees time and hassle going out and increases their lunch choices.
  • The average trip to get lunch is 30 minutes for sub-par food—per employee, and it’s not usually something employees like; it’s routine, there are lines, etc. When lunch is delivered and served, it’s communal improves morale for the employees who choose to participate.
  • So this is an employee-paid perk that costs the same as a standard boring lunch.
  • Options include catering, pop-up restaurants and others.

Jai Shekhawat, Founder, Fieldglass

  • The “talent ecosystem” is very inefficient and involves firms, intermediaries and talent (people). There are many players that try to make it more efficient through technology platforms and services.
  • Create competitive advantage by [implied, a core competency analysis] understanding strengths and weaknesses of various players in the ecosystem and how they interact. Then, create your space and focus on interacting with clients and talent to move competitors into discussions in which they are uncomfortable (“discomfort”).
  • Innovation; organize major clients to innovate ways to apply your technology to their business problems, but don’t customize software. Offer configuration options.
  • Clients love interacting and collaborating online, in private online platforms; it increases your relevance and retention. Clients innovate with your product; you help and support them, but they run the program. Everybody wins.
  • Own the problem, not the product. [implied, the problem is where the value is]
  • Try to partner before you compete; many times you can structure your offer so that even other players in the ecosystem with whom your offer overlaps may use it if it makes their lives easier.
  • Be open to innovating everywhere, don’t restrict your focus to the product.
  • The ecosystem loves honest engagement; ask for feedback and honor it even when it’s difficult.
  • All models contain the seeds of their own destruction; you get eaten from the bottom; software has the tendency to become bloated with features, so new entrants that field a solution at a fraction of the cost and most of the features will destroy incumbents.

Morgan Lynch, Founder, Needle

  • The Needle (as in finding a needle in a haystack) platform organizes experts [extreme fans that are constantly talking and supporting people in digital social venues due to their passion for the activity around that product or service] and matches them with customers, real-time, to advise on purchases.
  • Platform uses chat because it’s digital and you can add other functionality to it.
  • Validate experts’ “expertise.” Provide “social Q&A.”
  • Experts rapidly grow their reputation based on interactions and results.

Matt Cooper, VP Enterprise, oDesk

  • The future of work is far more granular than the present, which is a holdover from the industrial age. Expensive, real estate, inflexible. “Hiring full-time employees is like pouring cement.”
  • Online matches people to specific, granular situations. Online dating, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Docs. Distributed teams, online payments, Paypal.
  • Platforms can streamline taxe details, payment and contracts to enable global sourcing of employees and project workers of all kinds. [implied was the platform invokes others functionality and services from the cloud].
  • Workers of all kinds on demand, so firms can have very sophisticated portfolios of talent: project-based, staff supplementation, BPO replacement, virtual company. Remove intermediaries, “direct-to-freelancer.” It’s a strategic advantage; startups see the value right away, but established brands are slower adopters.
  • The U.S. government is huge into telecommuting; employees like the flexibility, firms like the lower costs.

Pete Kazanjy, Founder, TalentBin

  • Chicago has such a rich community of enterprises, and the startup scene is ramping strongly.
  • Enterprises need “chief startup officers,” who serve as the interface between startups and the enterprise. Entrepreneurs aim to disrupt industries and companies, but there’s no easy interface for them to explore collaborating with or serving enterprises.


  • No one mentioned it explicitly, but domain knowledge is king in Chicago. The technology is a utility now; startups innovate in terms of business process, and they configure cloud-based resources to make it happen. Yes, they often invoke resources in emerging ways that require technology knowledge, but domain knowledge, how to change business processes, is more rare, and very rich in Chicago.
  • Needle is a great example of focused, validated, in-workstream crowdsourcing. Its experts, who are validated by their assistance of others, are far better than any expert than most retailers can offer for defined use cases. For example, making cheese soufflés at above 10,000 feet (what kind of equipment and technique), sled dog trekking in certain geographies, underwater photography of coral reefs using iPhone. Needle uses the Web to make it extremely efficient to connect people around products and use cases/user outcomes. It’s the quintessential Knowledge Economy enabler.
  • If anyone still doubts that the Knowledge Economy is a free-agent economy, study the points under Fieldglass, HighGround, Fooda, oDesk and TalentBin again. The “employment” model will continue to wane, but variety will explode for innumerable models for “work,” and that will be a good thing, once people learn to manage themselves better. To underline this point, I invite you to review Gallup’s State of the American Workplace; it isn’t pretty, but will improve when employers and employees learn to adopt better models than employment.
  • Chicago has a unique variety and scale of businesses and industries, so connecting enterprise and entrepreneur will unlock significant value as I’ve been writing for years. I sense that the tide is turning; before the 2010s, few government and enterprise executives understood the importance of fast-growth ventures; now I think we have reached a critical mass of realization that the “old model” is not coming back.


2 comments to Chicago-Style Innovation 2013

  • Bob Cohen

    This is a fantastic review with lots of helpful insights. I value the coverage of start-ups that are not well known outside of Chicago.

    • Thanks, Bob, it was a fun and useful event, too. Lightbank is doing some interesting things. I am still very bullish on Chicago due to its unique combination of deep domain knowledge in pharma, telecoms, supply chain, financial services (esp synthetics), CPG, transport, manufacturing, etc. Chicago will apply tech knowledge to digitize all these, plus permutations. Should be exciting!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.