Innovation at Dimagi, Part 3: Evaluating the Mission
In this series, Dimagi’s Co-Founder & CEO Jonathan Jackson (@jonathanleej) and Senior Director of New Business Shabnam Aggarwal (@shabnamaggarwal) discuss how we continue to look for ways to innovate with the help of a dedicated entrepreneur within the company.
In this piece, Shabnam discusses the role of new business initiatives and how to weigh their objectives against the mission of the organization overall.
How do we determine if new innovations should maintain the same mission statement as the larger company’s?
At Dimagi, this question really means, “Do we stick with ‘Impact, Team, and Profit, in that order’ in our New Business work?”
When Jon and I set out to create the New Business team three years ago, one of the first orders of business was to triangulate what the approach of the team would be, and if it would veer away at all from that of Dimagi. Coming from the social enterprise industry, my comfort zone was to retain and promote the same approach as the larger organization. In our case: “Impact, Team, and Profit, in that order.”
I was reminded of a moment when I was fundraising for my last startup, prior to joining Dimagi. As I sat down across from a well known venture capitalist who had shown interest in my startup, he said, “I know you are a do gooder, but when push comes to shove, you’ll need to choose one priority between making children smile and making profits. If you were to choose making children smile, I would applaud that, but I would not invest. If you were to choose profits, I would be interested in helping you scale your business.”
At the time, I felt torn and unsure about that tradeoff, but having recently joined a company like Dimagi, I knew that the impact side of the work was highly likely to continue getting done on a day-to-day basis regardless of what New Business did. In fact, that was an explicit requirement.
What Jon and I had envisioned for the New Business team was to create new revenue streams that would diversify Dimagi’s portfolio of offerings and enable less dependence on CommCare, our flagship product.
What this meant was that impact did not necessarily need to come before profit in the New Business team. It also meant that the New Business team’s priorities and resources could never compete with nor depend upon those of CommCare, or what we often call “core Dimagi business”.
Given the existing depth of competency, extensive network, and sheer size of Dimagi at the time, about 150 employees, compared with that of New Business, being just myself and a fraction of Jon’s time, this felt like a tall order and a potentially rapid way to fail. I had come from the education industry, so I brought with me almost no competency in the digital health market, I had no network whatsoever, and our budget was not large enough nor our risk appetite high enough for me to rapidly hire super competent and well-networked individuals.
We would have to start small, build fast, make smart failures, and learn rapidly.
What was great about this slight shift in the New Business team’s mission statement was that Dimagi finally had a place for everyone’s innovative ideas to go. These ideas typically fell into the bucket of: this would be a super useful and productive tool for our clients to have, and I think this might have a business model, but I’m just not sure it would be labeled as innovative enough to attract donor funding.
As I explore ideas, I try to find ones that have a clear path to a viable business model and remain impactful. Because there are lots of impactful ideas out there, I find the viable business model to be the harder part of my job right now in our sector. Prioritizing the business model of products in New Business gave us a clear mandate of what we should say “no” to, which any product owner will tell you is one of the most vital ways to ensure focus and prevent scope creep.
The real challenge would be finding ideas that we should say “yes” to. How would we prove out, in a short amount of time, with limited resources, whether an idea was good enough to pursue, and whether it would realistically lead to a substantial enough profit margin that Dimagi’s bottom line could depend upon it?
In my next piece, I’ll talk about how I built a rapid innovation methodology that gave us a template upon which to determine if new ideas would pass the “yes” test.
In the last post in this series, Dimagi CEO Jonathan Jackson explained how we reformed our approach to innovation and exploration at Dimagi and how it gives us greater confidence in the results of our tests.
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