Blog: innovation

By Avery Faller

Speaker: Marc Klein
Company: Clean Energy Fuels 

Speaker: Bill Scalzi
Company: Metro Taxi 

Clean Energy Logo

Last Thursday, YEI had the great pleasure to host not one, but two entrepreneurs.  Marc Klein spoke about his roles in several companies, primarily as co-founder of The Vehicle Production Group, which designs and manufactures the first factory-direct wheelchair accessible vehicle.  Bill Scalzi of New Haven’s Metro Taxi explained to the Fellows how he has built a thriving taxi company fit for the 21st Century by implementing technology like that from Marc’s current company, Clean Energy Fuels, to increase efficiency and be “green”.

Bring on the Innovation

Marc Klein HeadshotFor Marc’s first car, he travelled across the country asking what features different consumers and cab owners wanted.  Las Vegas taxi drivers wanted enough room in their trunks to store four golf bags, so Marc added that to the feature set.  T. Boone Pickens, who is the author of the Pickens Plan, and Clean Energy Fuels, each invested $10 million in the car company so that it could manufacture a compressed natural gas (CNG) model.  Additionally, Marc found an underserved market in the disability community and decided that his car would be the “first factory-direct vehicle that meets or exceeds the vehicle guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”  Their first car, called the Standard Taxi, was updated to the current production vehicle called the MV-1, which is specifically designed to allow wheelchair and scooter users to roll into the car and be secured next to the driver, a space the passenger’s seat traditionally occupies.  In this manner, Marc spearheaded the design of a robust vehicle that would introduce several new features to the marketplace.

Metro Taxi LogoBack in 2007, it was the original Standard Taxi that sparked the collaboration between Marc and Bill.  But Bill’s story as the founder of Metro Taxi goes back even further.  In 1987, Bill purchased a bundle of taxi permits from a failing taxi company.  Although he had 109 permits, he initially only had 15 cars on the road.  Over the years, he grew the business by adding cars to the fleet and in 1993 he made a critical decision to introduce computer-aided dispatch to supplement his call center to meet a growing demand.  In 1998, he took a large risk and made the investment in a full computer dispatch system.  Even though the system was designed for companies Bill Scalziwith over 150 vehicles and he had fewer than 100 at the time, Bill had a hunch that improving his technological infrastructure would help his business grow even faster.  This turned out to be a prescient decision; his taxi fleet quickly grew to reach the technology’s unfilled capacity.

Having seen the results of making strategic investments in new technology, it’s no surprise that Bill was one of the first taxi companies to purchase the new environmentally friendly CNG MV-1s — and to install a Clean Energy compressed natural gas fueling station on his property. 

The Takeaway

Innovation is good, and often, more is not only better, but necessary.  The automobile and taxi industries are both crowded fields.  In order to succeed against established Goliaths like General Motors and Toyota, Marc’s car company needed to innovate on multiple fronts to create a vehicle that was significantly differentiated from the rest of the marketplace to standout.  Therefore, not only did he design an accessible vehicle that accommodates all of the riding public, he also included a “green” CNG solution with a CNG capable engine (provided by Ford), a large trunk space, and durability for the fleet industries.  Similarly, to stay ahead of the curve, Bill had to take some big risks and bring his company into the digital age and now, the environmentally conscious age and the accessible age.  Learning from both of these innovators, it is clear that it is not enough to stay just one step ahead of the competition to remain unique.  Constant innovation to push your business into the future is key.

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By Avery Faller

Speaker: Chris Michaud
Company: Continuum 

Continuum LogoWhen you are Chief Operating Officer at Continuum, your job includes managing some of the best and brightest innovators in the world.  How do you go about creating a positive work space for those innovators, while insuring that deadlines are met and clients are happy?  Chris Michaud, who came to speak to the YEI Fellows earlier this week, is in just such a position.  As he likes to point out, his job requires him to balance left and right brain thinking in order to effectively manage a “global innovation design consultancy.”  During his talk Chris described how Continuum’s innovative environment allows it to repeatedly create billion dollar products. 

Experience Ignorance

Chris Michaud Headshot

Why do companies spend money to hire Continuum even when they have an internal Research and Development unit?  According to Chris, these R&D teams can often be too knowledgeable and specialized.  He termed this phenomenon Experience Ignorance.  Because of its ever-shifting structure and the diverse backgrounds of its employees, “Continuum can see things with fresh eyes,” Chris said.  Unlike consulting firms in other industries, employees are not segmented by industry at Continuum; instead they are broken down into diverse teams where their ideas can blend.  

In order to avoid the same Experience Ignorance that it helps its clients to avoid, the corporate structure of Continuum shifts every few years.  Chris never forgets—or lets his clients forget—the example of Kodak, a dominant player in the photographic film industry that has become obsolete in recent years since they were unable to “kill their own business model.”  Having produced the same product (film) for over 100 years, Kodak was so stuck in the path of producing film even after buying the rights to the first digital camera. 

At  more basic level, Continuum works to breed creativity in its office environment.  The Boston office is located in a loft-like space with high ceilings and no desk dividers.  Most of the employees’ time is spent with their teams in project rooms.  However, this does not isolate the employees as Continuum has an open door policy, meaning that any employee can walk into a project room to help a team at any time, unless a client is there.  

The Takeaway

Continuum practices innovation on a company-wide level to enable its employees to generate effective products and solutions.  Even though not all companies’ main product is innovation consultancy, all companies can employ some of Continuum’s corporate strategies to help keep their employees thinking creatively.

So how is this applicable to your startup you ask?  Well, for one thing, hiring a diverse team, can help you think outside of the box and use unfamiliar approaches to solve problems.  Another skill that Chris emphasized was listening.  “Hire people who ask how you see the problem, rather than try to convince you how they see it,” Chris said.  Employing tips such as these will help ensure that you build a well-functioning team of smart and talented individuals who feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions.

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