Ask an Innovator – with Josh Barker & Brad Hammond

Josh Barker & Brad Hammond Discuss Innovation

Josh Barker and Brad Hammond launch the first episode of Ask an Innovator, a podcast dedicated to talking with experts about innovation across all industries.


City Innovation Labs




Why did we even start Ask an Innovator? – 00:00
An introduction to Josh Barker – 02:05
Innovation Myths – 05:08
How we learned that building the right product is key – 08:13
Innovation projects and what to do with all that data – 13:49
Look at data in a regimented way & an IoT project – 16:43
Innovation is better together – 22:56


Josh Barker [00:00]: All right, welcome to Ask an innovator. This is a special episode. This is the first one in which we’re going to just kind of describe the goals of why we’re doing Ask an Innovator. So I’m here with Brad Hammond. So he’s my partner at City innovation labs. And so I’m Josh Barker, I’m the host. And today we’re just going to be having an open discussion between the two of us. So Brad, why don’t you just give us a high level of what is Ask an Innovator?

What is Ask an Innovator?

Brad Hammond [00:36]: Yeah, sure. So Ask an Innovator is a podcast that we’re doing. We’re basically talking to a number of senior executives in different industries and really just talking about innovation. So what is innovation to them? What are the innovative things that they see within their industry? And then what are they doing in their company to kind of stay on the cusp of you know, the bleeding edge in innovation? And how are they responding to what their competitors are doing? We’re having a number of conversations, there’s a wide variety of industries. So anywhere, you know, from manufacturing to medical to, transportation and learning from all different industries.

JB [01:23]: It’s interesting what we can learn from when you’re talking about going into different industries. There are so many things that we can learn from each other. You’re talking to someone from manufacturing, who might have some ideas on how to build a culture of innovation, who’s talking to someone in the publishing industry. They’re facing some really rough uphill things with publishing dying and moving towards the digital. So there’s a lot of things that we can learn from each other of how to take old concepts and make them new, and culture. You’re going to hear a wide variety of different things on our podcasts, about topics within innovation.

A little about us

BH [01:59]:
Sure. And I think your backgrounds kind of, you know, working in a few different industries, right?

JB [02:05]: Yeah. Yeah, that’s, that’s a good point. I mean, I’m my background feels a little schizophrenic because it’s all over the place. So I come from really going back to the travel industry. So I was in there for a while as I started my early beginnings as a software engineer, and really, from there moved on to an employee recognition company where we were doing a lot of cool things with digital. And one of the things that, while I was there, that we did is built a social network around employee recognition.

Essentially, a company will have employees that have long-standing tenure at a company so maybe 1,3, 5 to 10 years, and they would get recognized through being able to select an item from a catalog. A pen or a ring, or some way of recognizing the employee and rewarding them for their years of service in addition to doing good things. That was a really fun project to be able to bring a digital spin to it. When I got there, they’re doing so many innovative things even today.

And it’s cool to see the transition really from a manufacturing company where they started. Manufacturing some of these rings, some of these lapels, some of these different things that are tangible. They’re moving more towards the digital space. Where they’re still doing and embracing their old roots, they’re also embracing this younger generation that really engages on platforms like mobile. On platforms like the computer day-to-day in the office. So it’s cool to see that transition where it’s adopting. Things that they see, like Facebook, for example, right? They can see and they can like they can comment they can. Now you know, in the system, there’s instead of a like, it’s applauded, right? So they can do all these different things and engage in the same way that they’re familiar with. So that’s a cool thing.

BH [03:54]: There’s like, I think there’s like hundreds of companies using this. Yeah, hundreds Yeah. Our users, so a lot easier. It’s worked

JB [03:56]: Yeah, hundreds.

BH [03:57]: With tens of thousands of users.

JB [03:59]: A lot of users.

BH [04:00]: It’s worked out really well for them.

JB [04:02]: Absolutely. They’ve really taken that concept from when I was there and ran with it. And they’re doing some cool things now with mobile. Doing some cool things with performance, like helping measure sales performance, metrics, and things like that. And rewarding their employees and milestones. It’s really cool to see the progression and we’ve stuck around, We’ve stuck with them along the journey. And they’ve just been a skyrocketing company. And it’s really cool to see.

So and then from there, moved on to KPMG. And that’s just a fantastic company. In that, you know, I really learned a lot from working there. So I was an Associate Director of Innovative Solutions. I mean, first and foremost, what I would say is the culture there is something that I really learned a lot about building a culture that supports innovation. And it’s pretty cool because I think that a lot of companies struggle with this. This is almost pivotal and core to building any type of innovative product or thing.

BH [05:07]: There’s a lot of myths surrounding innovation.

Getting involved in startup life

JB [05:08]: Absolutely. You’re exactly right. I mean, people think that you’ve got to be the smartest person in the room like a Steve Jobs-esque, right? You’ve got to hire one person to do all the innovation or innovation can’t be systematized. Right. So I mean, that’s such a fallacy, right? of innovation can be systematized and everyone can innovate. And it’s just a matter of putting the right process in place to help support that.

But furthermore, like, as you know, talking about at KPMG is really the right culture. Having a culture that is, you know, I really like someone gave this great definition of failure. It’s a successful way of finding out the wrong way to do something. Which, I really like that a lot because that really shows a culture of being willing to take risks and not afraid of failure, but adopting that failure is part of the process. So to me, I mean, I really like that definition. I think that’s key to a part of a culture. Here at City innovation labs, we actually have a core value that says throwing bad things at the wall.

We try and make that as low barrier because we do believe that, you know, while some people think there are bad ideas, the problem with saying there are bad ideas is then you clam up other people of willing to share what might be a partial good idea or partial bad idea. And so that might drive further good ideas. So being able to have a culture that’s willing to not be afraid to take risks and not be afraid to even share ideas that might not be popular or might not be good ideas in their minds, but might have a hint of a good idea.

So that’s something that KPMG really did well. One of the things that we did there is we built a system internally. And we were building a system to allow developers to build their code more quickly because when you’re building code and you’re building products, a lot of times there are these building blocks that you have to start with on every single project. So things you have to do over and over and over again. So for, for technical folks, they know what I’m talking about setting up servers, setting up continuous integration, etc. I don’t want to get too deep in the lingo.

But effectively, there’s a couple of weeks worth of work sometimes that would have to be set up. And then additionally, there are these different teams, you’d have to engage like security and networking. And what we were looking to do is really automate and scaffold that process to bring in what was a couple of weeks to a months-long process, down to really minutes. Where you could, you know, almost wizard through and select here are the requirements for the project in kind of web interface. You’d be able to auto-scaffold and it would auto-deploy every environment that’s been pre-vetted by security and pre-vetted by the network team. Kind of blessed all the way around.

So that was definitely something that we were looking into and had been bringing to market at KPMG. Then I left KPMG as soon as so my friend called me up. He’s a lifelong friend. His name’s Todd. So he said, “Hey, Josh, I’ve got an opportunity.” He moved to Silicon Valley probably five years before. He said he sat down at breakfast and pitched an idea to one of his friends who he didn’t know was an accredited investor and said, “Hey, this is the idea I’ve got, would you come and consider quitting your job at KPMG and building the startup with me over in Silicon Valley?” KPMG was such a good company that it was a very hard decision for me to make.

JB [08:13]: At first I told him no, actually. I said, “No, I can’t do that.” He’s told me the amount of money and I’m like, well, that’s not very much runway. We’re going to need some more money. So if you really wanted to do this, you’re going to have to basically triple the amount of investment.

Todd, of course, the guy he is, he kicks down doors. And Brad, you know Todd too, you worked with him as well. And he kicked down doors and made it happen and called me back, I think almost a week or two later. He said, “I’ve got the money. Let’s go.” And you know, and so I was sitting there thinking to myself, “Oh, crap, I didn’t think I’d ever actually have to make a decision.” And so brought it back to the wife and thought and prayed about It was like, “Oh, man, I think this is the move we need to make.”

So, left KPMG went to do the Silicon Valley startup. And, man, I learned a lot in building a startup, let me tell you. So startup in Silicon Valley. I mean, I think I was living in a fantasy world before then when I even was at KPMG and even when I was at the employee recognition company, and prior. I was really, really trying to get my bearings on how do you build products the right way? Brad, you’ve said this about products, you’ve said, “It’s easy to build a product, it’s hard to build the right one. “

That’s where I learned that lesson really hard when I was doing this Silicon Valley startup, and really learning a lot about Lean Startup, learning about MVP. So how to do minimum viable product. How to find product-market fit. That actually a lot harder, right? Huge fallacy that you’re going to go out and build a product and tons of users are gonna flock to it like ‘Field of Dreams’ moment, right? So it’s very different than that. And the approach That Lean Startup takes is very, “Hey, let’s test it and run experiments.” And let’s test value propositions.

So rather than going out and building something immediately, like we all want to do, right? I’m a builder at heart. And I know Brad, you’re a builder, too. We like to build things together. And so it’s hard not to get ahead of ourselves and say, let’s build something. So what we ended up doing was, we built something at first. We failed really fast and really hard. We ended up building this live-streaming platform and thought it was going to be a big hit. And it tanked. We ran the numbers on it, looked at the data, and the data showed that no one really wanted to do it. We had 10,000 signups for a single class to watch remotely and to participate. But really, when we looked at the number

BH [10:29]: This is in the fitness space, right?

JB [10:31]: Fitness space, that’s right. I should explain that. Yeah, it was in the fitness space. Then the concept was, 66% of gym memberships go unused. So how do we make people and encourage their health to get better and increase the number of people that actually follow through on their commitment to workout to get healthy? And that’s a very hard problem to solve.

We first tried doing that by doing a live-streaming product that effectively allows paired up people and instructors that wanted to do a yoga class like in California, for example, with someone in Michigan or all over the world. And again, as I said, that failed pretty bad. So 10,000 signups one class, we thought that was awesome. We’re like, “Oh, we’re onto something big.”

And then we actually looked at the data and there was only 15 to 20 people that actually attended and we thought, “That’s a terrible conversion rate.” . So we’re sitting here baffled, scratching our heads. And we tried a lot of different little things, but we ended up pivoting probably six or seven different times. I won’t go through all the different pivots. Being a software developer, it’s almost, I don’t want to say a guarantee, but a lot of times they’re gamers too. So my background is gaming, right? So when I was younger, particularly, I was a very avid gamer. Talking about video gamer.

So I ended up saying, “What if we gamified the fitness space? What if we made it into a game?” Right? The end result was I ran a test in which we took five people and put them up against another five people. First, we tested it over text, right? And we said, “Let’s do this.” I’ll join both groups as kind of a silent observer. I’ll release 60-second challenges throughout the day. They have to do those challenges and they have to post social credibility that they did it by taking a picture. And then furthermore, they’d actually have to do exercises. There was some trust involved that they’d have to validate it. But they would also post that and get points.

We ended up doing this and it was wildly successful. I didn’t know it at the time until after we ran the data. And wouldn’t you know it out of the 10 participants, nine our of the 10 were avid participators. Where they would actually post 30 to 40 times a day, which is this insane number, right? So I’m saying going maybe this is an anomaly. Let’s, let’s try rerunning this again, with more users. So I told this to the group, we’re all running our own experiments.

And when I told the group, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, let’s each run one of these groups.” So I had two groups of 10. And then everyone else had two groups of 10. We had a small team of about five people. We were running, what, 20 times 5, 100 people through this thing. So we did it, and same results. We said, “Oh, my gosh, we have something truly special here.” And I truly believe to this day that we found product-market fit.

But after that, it was really difficult because we got into the mire of, “Okay, well, now how do we automate that, right?” We found something, how do we automate it? We went down that road of trying to automate it and we just couldn’t pivot fast enough. But really, through this experience, it gave a lot of insight into how to build products and how to build the right products. Not necessarily you know how to build them, because I knew before, but how to find the right products. So that was such an interesting journey.

Even today where you and I kind of partnered up and then created City Innovation Labs and we’ve applied a lot of these concepts to our business. Maybe you can explain a little bit to the audience about City Innovation Labs.

Why we started City Innovation Labs

BH [13:49]: Yeah, for sure. So my background is in a number of startups as well. Really, it’s been awesome to kind of use a lot of these principles we’ve learned in kind of startup land. Even things like Google Design Sprints, for instance, design thinking activities in the practice of user experience, or UX and really apply them to enterprises.

So a lot of enterprises today are kind of rethinking their business model. There are terms thrown out there like digital transformation and innovation. How do we embrace digital and how do we innovate? They’re looking at what our competition is doing? Well, they’re like, launching cool new products. So how do we do that too?

We’ve really had the opportunity to go into a lot of these well-established organizations that have been around for a while. They might be in manufacturing or health care or agriculture or transportation or whatever. We can really just think about, well, how do we utilize digital technology and concepts that we’ve learned in startup land to build innovative products within your company? So kind of a startup or a product within a larger company enterprise.

We’ve worked with chemical distribution companies. So any sort of chemicals you can think of like soap at the car wash or the paint on your house or epoxy on your floors. They have this large distribution that works to sell those chemicals to essentially manufacturing companies that might produce like paints. We’re undertaking a really interesting project with them where it’s like, well, how do we increase sales. They have tons and tons of customers and have many opportunities within their data. Someone might order a product and then they might not order it. They might request a sample and they never buy the product.

It’s so hard for a salesperson or a sales team to look at that data and see the key opportunities. What we’re undertaking is actually developing an artificial intelligence system that looks at all that data. It breaks it down into actionable tasks for their sales team. Like, “Hey, there’s an opportunity here, act on it.”

That allows us to take all that data and actually make it useful because organizations today one of the greatest challenges they’re facing is actually having too much data. It’s no longer a question of collecting data. It’s actually making it actionable and making it useful. So you know, we’ve undertaken a number of innovation projects and have to do with data and they’re just really interesting projects.

JB [16:38]: I think one of the things that we’ve said, is [these companies] they’re data-heavy and information poor.

BH [16:43]: Exactly. So most organizations today, someone will sell them on the idea of implementing some sort of analytics system, but it just isn’t set up correctly. It isn’t tracking stuff that’s useful. We even learned if you can create a culture and create a process of experimentation and look at your data in a very regimented way, you’ll develop great products. We’ve set up a number of these systems with startups and in companies. So many of these innovation projects have been was really interesting.

Another example of one we did was an IoT project. So, if you’re not familiar with the term IoT, it’s the Internet of Things. It’s taking a lot of traditional things and connecting them to the internet. So some things that you guys might know about are things like the Nest thermostat or the Alexa. Hopefully, I didn’t just trigger your Alexa here at your house.

We had a company approach us that they build these apple storage facilities. It’s kind of a cool concept. They have these facilities that create perfect atmospheric conditions for the storage of apples. So you can store apples for I think up to years, they said, you know, testing the outer limits of it. They’re just like a fresh apple pick from the tree sort in these warehouses that they’ve built.

One of the problems they’re facing is they collect a lot of data, on perfect storage conditions and they do monitoring, but it was all localized. They’d have to have somebody drive around to each of those cities and look at the day’s data and tweaks. So what we’re able to do is bring all that data kind of into the cloud and create a system in which someone can log on anywhere in the world and look at all their facilities and tweak settings and look at how the apples were doing. So this is another example of an innovation project we did.

JB [18:48]: One of the things that’s cool about that one if you’re just playing off your data. Even take that example alone. Well, now that they’re aggregating all this data in the cloud, from all these geographically dispersed locations and customers. Now they can actually mask their data so you don’t know where it’s coming from, but you can aggregate it and look at trends across your customers. Which is really kind of cool, right?

BH [19:10]: Yeah, exactly. So like a big thing for us and any project that we do is we always think about what is the ROI? So a lot of times we’ve seen organizations just go into projects because I think it’s a good idea or I feel like we should do this. But we always go into it thinking and putting our little business hats on and thinking, what kind of return are we going to get for this?

And it’s absolutely critical to have good data and to do tracking and analytics to then see it like, “Okay, did this project meet ROI expectations?” It’s very important. A lot of technology people just think about like, “Oh, what would be cool to build or what would be fun?” We kind of think of ourselves as technologists and business people. So we want to speak to the stakeholders of the company. What is the ROI here and what would we do if we’re in their shoes?

Another example of an interesting project: we worked with a company and they manufacturer cleaning and inspection equipment for municipalities’ sewer systems. Cities have been facing this problem for a while now is they have so many sewer lines. They have just thousands of miles of them. Especially in big cities like New York, Chicago, and LA. Typically the cities will have one crew that kind of does an inspection of the systems. If they’re to take that crew and just do all the lines of the whole system, it would take an average of like 30 to 40 years to inspect all the systems. It’s crazy.

A lot of times what will happen is these problems will crop up before they’ve inspected it and we’ve all heard the term an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So it’s much more beneficial to the city if they see a problem like a tree root growing through the line while it’s small before it’s huge and there’s a big huge crater in the middle of the road or something.

This company we’ve kind of worked on with them, which is a really innovative concept is they have built kind of a preliminary inspection camera that goes on the end of the cleaning equipment. So cities will have 10,15, 20 times as many cleaning crews as inspection crews. So now they’ve enabled the cleaning crews to do a preliminary inspection. As you can imagine, you have 10,15, 20 times the amount of people will you took that 30 or 40 year inspection time down to like one or two. So you can inspect it so much more often.

We’re kind of working on a platform with them, that allows them to kind of pull in all these videos from the preliminary inspection. Because remember, these are cleaning people are not necessarily inspection people. This pulls them into a system that allows people to then review and flag an area. If they flag an area then the actual inspection crew will go out there and take a look at it.

This system has saved the city so much money because instead of waiting until there’s a big crater in the road or something, they’ll catch it early on and get the maintenance crew out here to kind of fix it once and for all. So this is a really interesting project in which we’ve combined traditional manufacturing and equipment with digital in order to realize a lot of ROI for everyone involved.

Why Ask an Innovator podcast?

JB [ 22:56]: Yeah. We could probably go on and on and on right about all these cool projects. And it’s pretty neat to see how cross-industry they are too. Because it’s not just one industry, we’re seeing it in manufacturing, or we’re seeing it in the employee recognition space.

Bringing it back home to Ask an Innovator, honestly, that’s a huge part of the reason why we’re doing this podcast. We’re trying to learn something from every single industry and we think it’s so important that we learn from each other. We build relationships with each other so that we can learn all these concepts about their culture. Whether they’re using cool new technology as you talked about, like IoT. We’ve talked to many customers, about their use of AR/VR, and that’s a cool thing. So, being able to learn from each other and apply these concepts is really at the root of Ask an Innovator.

BH [23:48]: Exactly. So every company in every industry can be innovative. It’s very systematizable. There’s a number of exercises you can go through and then a number of areas you can look at. You can look at it from a business standpoint or an ROI standpoint. No matter who you are, you can be innovative

JB [24:11]: That’s right. Cool. Well, Brad, I mean, this is a great first episode, we just wanted to introduce ourselves again and talk a little bit about innovation. And I hope you’re looking forward to the next podcasts that we’re about to do. They’re going to be really cool. They’re going to from all different industries. So watch for those and look forward to them. So, thank you all for listening. And this is the first episode of Ask an Innovator.

BH [24:31]: Thanks, everyone!

Keep Reading

Share on social