Curiosity: One Secret to Success

Three Startups Speak to What Curiosity Means to Them

A sobering number of young companies manage to survive. Those that do, however, have stayed nimble and responded quickly as they got to know their markets. One key to this agility is curiosity.

We spoke with three successful startups that offered their perspectives on how to leverage failure and stay curious. Klara Technologies is a young New York company that produces a seamless communication platform for all involved in the health care system, from doctors to patients and everyone in between. NOWDiagnostics, a startup from Arkansas has developed an array of rapid response medical diagnostics tests using a fingerprick of blood. And Hammerhead, also based in New York, has built a product that clips onto a bike and pairs with a mobile app to give simple directions for cyclists, allowing them to follow a route without distraction.

The upshot from these entrepreneurs? If you aren’t willing to be curious, to keep asking the hard questions and listen seriously to the answers, you might get left behind.

Getting Started: Challenging the Status Quo

“Without curiosity we wouldn’t have even started this company. We were curious about how to connect healthcare through technology,” says Simon Lorenz, founder and managing director of Klara. “We were curious to find out what patients need and what doctors need,” he explains.

NOWDiagnostics’ CFO, Ann Bordelon calls curiosity “incredibly important in our field. We can’t be comfortable that what works for one of our products will work for all.” This necessitates a willingness to fail, to challenge operations and implement change.

Hammerhead cofounder and senior vice president of hardware, Laurence Wattrus agrees. He says to accomplish this you must “breed a culture of taking on challenges.” Then, once troubleshooting, it’s important to always be open to the possibility “that there is something better than what you currently believe is the best solution.”

However, it isn’t always easy. Lorenz and his team at Klara pushed and questioned themselves so much that they ultimately made the difficult choice to completely shift business models, cut 90 percent of their staff and move from Europe to the U.S. What comes down to a tolerance for distress, one dimension of curiosity, enabled them to ask tough questions of their consumers, listen to harsh feedback and realize when it was time to change. “As a startup, if you’re building a new product, there’s no other way to do it,” he reflects. The decision has paid off, and ever since he has worked deliberately to maintain that culture of curiosity and flexibility.

   A group meeting taking place    A group meeting taking place

Setting the Example from the Top

One way Lorenz keeps up this culture, he says, is to make sure his leadership team upholds this spirit of questioning. “There’s a saying in German that goes, the fish always starts smelling from the head,” he explains. “What that means is that the people at the top have to set this framework. You have to set the framework, because if you don’t believe in it, nobody will. I try to ask questions. I try to question myself and all the work of my employees on a daily basis to encourage curiosity.”

“It’s the most difficult thing though,” he qualifies. It requires humility and a willingness to let go of something entrenched if it’s not working or put another way: tolerance for distress.

Qinwei Shi, NOWDiagnostics’ executive vice president and director of R&D agrees that a leader sets “an example of innovation.” He asserts that to accomplish this a CEO or founder “should always be open minded and look for new solutions to existing problems. He/she should also question the existing rules and solutions for their limitations and application conditions.”

Curiosity on a Daily Basis

Wattrus explains that Hammerhead maintains a culture of curiosity and openness starting with how it hires people. Firstly, the company does not try to “box” employees into titles. “Instead of hiring someone for their current skills, we hire them for what they wish to become and what they are happiest doing,” he says. “We try to find people that are actively looking for growth and are happy finding their own way. What we promote in our teams is to do what you most enjoy doing and associate yourself with the team you think you can do the best.”

While this might create momentary gaps in operations, Wattrus says,

If you are fluid enough and people can route around an organization, I think that risk is worth it.

Wattrus attributes much of their success to this emphasis on curiosity. “We try to keep things as open as possible, and we try to find a very candid way of talking with each other that allows everyone to step up when their skills are best applied,” he says. “Often some of the most compelling solutions have come from people who aren’t otherwise involved in our hardware products, for example.”

Klara actively encourages curiosity in another way, through a task management social networking tool that creates a shared space for people to submit questions and suggestions about their product. All departments are on it, and every note gets a response. For example, if someone on the sales team has an idea, the product team will see it, evaluate it, respond and maybe even implement it, according to Lorenz.

“If you don’t have a place for people to write ideas, they’re going to get lost. And employees need to feel that somebody is going to look at the ideas. If nothing happens and nobody responds, then nobody will produce any more ideas at your company,” he asserts.

Ultimately, Lorenz says, “I’m sketching a scenario that’s ideal, but I know all this because we’ve done everything in the wrong way. If I could do it again I probably would have saved a lot of money.” Fortunately, despite any losses, their ability to ask hard questions and listen to the answers has enabled them, like NOWDiagnostics and Hammerhead, to succeed.

You can learn more about HammerheadKlara and NOWDiagnostics.

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