Startup speciation: a lesson in innovation from the Galapagos Islands

Members of the IPA's Brand Technology Group provide an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies.

Sharp Photography/Charlesjsharp

Imagine you've shored up on a remote desert island somewhere in the Galapagos, notebook in hand, charcoals at the ready, the greatest theory of “how life on earth had evolved” yet to be uncovered and given your name: Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Now imagine you're at Old Street Roundabout, notebook in hand, Sharpies at the ready... and you'll see where I'm going with this. Yes, today's piece from the IPA Brand Tech group draws inspiration from nature to address the speciation of startups.

Charles Darwin's now famous discovery, inspired by a five-week tour of a pristine volcanic peninsula, was that the mockingbirds which appeared from island to island were each fundamentally the same, but with variations in their size, beaks and claws which made them better equipped to find whatever local food source. He arrived at the conclusion that, because the islands were so distant from the mainland, the birds had arrived there in the past and slowly 'adapted' to suit their surroundings over time.

The theory goes that if an individual varies with respect to a particular trait and if these variants have an improved likelihood of surviving to the next generation, then in future, more of those with that variant will likely survive. In business terms, we see this same theory at work in our interactions with companies of all sizes, but let's pick a few examples from the brand tech sector to prove this out.

Facebook is the best adapted social network. Initially finding rapid growth through the network effect of its native features, it quickly established itself as a host environment for many other smaller businesses that now sustain it in symbiosis. To remain pack leader, it is now known to 'clone' the successful traits of competitor species. Google AdWords; Foursquare Check-ins; YouTube Live; Snapchat Stories – a mockingbird, indeed.

Shazam is perhaps the best adapted audio tagger, but its success today required an evolutionary leap from dialling '2-5-8-0' on a landline to retooling as a smartphone app in order to secure a productive future. It has done so by providing excellent non-native features to mobile devices thus consistently appearing in the upper ranks of our global app ecologies. Now at 1bn downloads (wiping out SoundHound and a host of others) its scale is what keeps it ahead of others perhaps even better adapted for tagging, now as a burgeoning AR platform taking on Blippar for brand spend. Who will win survival of the fittest as they move beyond their core competency?

Adaptation is important. It's what creates the space within and between species in order for them to flourish. In tech terms, speciation is the difference between millions of dollars of investment or ad spend, and like in the Galapagos, it is observeable.

We see startups succeed when competition for resources is low, but are highly adapted to their surroundings – expert, even. An example I have been impressed with lately is Opearlo, which got in early on voice interaction design, as brands now clamber to build Alexa skills (itself an ecology that will have winners and losers). It will do well this year.

We see startups fail when they compete too closely with others for the same limited resources, yet are less well adapted for survival. Case in point would be the swathes of location-based services that are now folding, as Google learned to attribute online to offline sales via Maps, and back again.

We see startups that are distinct yet interrelated in FinTech, FoodTech, or AdTech who benefit from the shared resources of a single client base, learning from each other and adapting to the market as if it were a mega-organism, in some instances, an investible one – see: Collider, or any VC-backed tracker fund. Our NextTECHnow programme within Publicis Media another good example, serving as our ‘preferred supplier list’ of media technologies.

We see startups from Israel that are so brilliant, yet so nuanced in their implementation of whatever ex-military tech, that the unique adaptations of their targeting products cannot each be easily expressed or are not significant enough in their differences to convince brands why they should divert funds from that which works well enough already.

We see social startups from the US with SaaS platforms so slick, products so perfectly adapted, which we can't wait to deploy on whatever highly specific, often time-sensitive client use case, only for the closure of some all-too-crucial endpoint in another company's API to wipe out entire branches on the tech tree of life, taking out thousands of user accounts along with it. Instagress, the most recent case in point.

And we see endemic UK startups bounce from incubator to accelerator and back again, refining and redefining who they are in the hope of finding some perfectly saleable form. Perhaps they would not last for quite as long 'in the wild' were it not for the network of early stage investors, mentors, or sponsors that uphold them before they ultimately scale, fold, or are bought.

Some questions to ask, then: is your business best adapted to its current surroundings? Are you competing for the same limited resources, and is there anything you can do about this? Can you afford to wait for the marketplace to deliver you an answer which may not yet exist? Or could your innovation strategy help to identify the changes required for a successful adaptation of your own?

There are countless other examples that extend the metaphor and form a wider base of conversation around 'business genetics’ which I'd love to explore in the comments box.

Tom Saunter is global head of Zenith’s ROI Labs

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