An Interview with esolva: How Small Scale Innovation Can Generate Large Scale Impact
Idea and innovation management is sometimes seen as the domain of large organizations with dedicated innovation departments and tens of thousands of employees…However what people don’t realize is that these company-wide projects will often start off as a small-scale innovation initiative involving just a single department. Then once results have been generated and a proof of concept is established, it becomes easy to justify further expansion.
On the other hand some small companies – with less than 250 employees – are flipping the script and using innovation management to help fuel company growth and expansion. As a company with only 120 employees, esolva ag are a Swiss energy services company that are doing just that.
We sat down with Tobias Mohrhauer, Innovation and Product Manager at esolva, to find out how they are developing new service prototypes, and discover why their ideation process – rather than number of users – has been instrumental to their innovation success.
Qmarkets: Hi Tobias. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us today. Please could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and esolva?
Tobias Mohrhauer: Sure, I am the innovation and product manager at esolva, having started my innovation career at SWiBi where I was the innovation and product specialist. I joined esolva when the company was formed during a merger with two other similar companies.
At esolva we provide our services to over 200 of the 650 energy suppliers in Switzerland. The way we look at it, we don’t just cover the one service but the one ‘topic’ of the meter to cash process. This includes everything from meter rollout, meter installation, gathering meter data and delivering the data to our market partners. Before, these processes used to be manual, but nowadays everything is digital, so many of our services have slipped into the IT solutions territory.
“esolva have lots of different people, from different places, who all have various areas of expertise, and this creates a perfect fertile ground for innovation.”
Outside this, we also have an engineering department who help the energy providers plan where to build transformers, and again they are involved in energy metering. We also have a security department to ensure health and safety, which initially was just for the energy industry, but we have just expanded this to other industries as well.
So, with esolva we have lots of different people, from different places, who all have various areas of expertise, and this creates a perfect fertile ground for innovation – where you need a diverse range of opinions to create something new.
Q: Can you tell us about the environment that your organization operates in?
TM: The energy landscape here in Switzerland is mostly dominated by a few large energy suppliers that cover whole cantons (provinces of Switzerland), like Zurich and Bern. They don’t need to outsource any of their services as they do this all internally. So esolva are more active in the rural parts of Switzerland and in small to mid-sized towns, where every town has its own supplier. These suppliers are our main customer base, as they are so small, they need to outsource their IT and meter-to-cash services.
Q: You said earlier that esolva is in fertile ground to innovate, what was it that led you to seek out innovation management?
TM: As I mentioned earlier, esolva was founded in 2019 as a merger between 3 companies – SWiBi, EcoWatt, and Sacin, who prior to the merger were either competitors or partners. Our workforce is spread-out over 4 different locations, so we wanted to establish a new innovation platform that could help generate a feeling of ‘wholeness’ and cohesion. SWiBi –the company I worked for – actually already had a platform, but we decided that implementing a new one for esolva was important for this.
Q: What was it that made you choose Qmarkets?
TM: With our old platform our main issue is that we only had one login per department to lower license fees, which inevitably created a barrier for entry and was stopping users going on to the platform. So, first of all it was important for us to have Single Sign On.
Now, all of our employees and anyone who joins esolva, automatically gets their own login to the Qmarkets’ platform which crucially keeps them signed in, removing that barrier for entry completely.
Whilst the old platform was good enough for the early stages of innovation and for companies that can still communicate directly with each other, we needed a platform that would help bridge the geographical gap between us.
We also evaluated a competitor of yours, but a colleague had previously looked at the Qmarkets platform and mentioned it to me. We found that Qmarkets’ had the same features for a better price. On the whole, the platform has a modern look and excellent features, but the main benefit for us was the SSO.
Q: What does the ideation process look like at esolva?
TM: Before we implemented the Qmarkets’ platform, we had a 3-stage gate process. We started with an idea campaign where employees submitted their ideas on a particular topic, from here we would then work on the winning idea offline, working with the relevant department to develop the idea further. After this stage, the idea would then go to management and decision makers to decide whether the idea would be turned into a project.
“I’ve found that if too many people are involved in the decision process, it tends to fall apart.”
On seeing how the Qmarkets’ platform worked, I actually decided that our process was too slow and moved the first evaluation phase on to the platform. I’ve found that if too many people are involved in the decision process, it tends to fall apart.
We also have a time limit on our campaigns – the idea submission phase lasts for 3 weeks and the review committee phase for 2 weeks to allow enough time for everyone to collaborate fully and evaluate the ideas effectively.
Q: OK let’s talk about evaluating ideas, can you tell us a little more about the process and features you’re employing there?
TM: As we are only innovating on a small scale, receiving perhaps 6-10 ideas per campaign, I decide manually whether an idea proceeds to the review committee for evaluation. This decision is dependent on how many people comment on an idea, the number of likes or votes it receives, and the quality of the idea itself.
Our review committee is then prompted to answer specific questions relating to the value of each idea. The Qmarkets’ platform allows us to implement two unique evaluation methodologies into this process. If the idea progresses, we then make a full-scale business case which will go on to be assessed by senior decision makers who then decide if it becomes a project.
The business case is far more in depth and includes details like budget, which comes out of the development budget we have assigned for this initiative.
Q: What other features of the Qmarkets platform have you also utilized during the process?
TM: As I am the only one that evaluates the ideas and decides whether they will reach the next phase, I try to automate everything to make my life easier. I can automate whether an idea travels to the next stage of a campaign by defining the criteria we want it to meet, pre-select the review committee, schedule comms, standardize questions and emails, and get an expert review going easily, which saves me a lot time and manual effort. It really has been very beneficial. Ideally, I’d like to have a campaign manager at every location, but due to the pandemic this hasn’t worked out yet.
Q: I see – so how much time are you spending on the platform?
TM: Well, it depends on whether a campaign is live or not. When we have a campaign going, I’d say I spend on average a few hours a week on the platform. Over the last 10 months we’ve ran 6 campaigns, but users can also submit ad-hoc ideas at any point. We currently have about a 50/50 split of ideas originating from campaigns and ad hoc submissions, so there is always something to do.
Q: Ok, great. So as a result of this hard work what kind of engagement levels are you seeing?
TM: When a campaign is live we have about 80-100 users login to the system and we have about 40-50 engaged users who comment and get ideas going. So we have an engagement rate of around 40-50 % which originally, I wasn’t too happy with. However, after speaking to our Customer Success Manager from Qmarkets I understand from your benchmarking that this is actually much higher than average.
Q: That’s amazing to hear! So what kind of promotion techniques have you used to deliver these engagement levels? How are you communicating the launch of your new campaigns?
TM: Sure, so we do a range of things and it starts with our CEO who acts as our key sponsor and always makes a point of promoting the system. But the real measurable help comes from my direct boss, the head of marketing and sales who has been a real driver of the initiative.
In terms of promotion, we use mailers the least as we found they are actually the easiest to ignore, so we communicate news on the company intranet, which is shown on everyone’s starting page. We also promote the platform on screens in our breaks rooms and have branded flasks with the platform’s name, ‘enova’.
We like to share success stories as much as possible, even with our customers so we include these in our customer newsletter too, and on our social media channels.
Q: Wonderful – can you share with us some of these success stories?
TM: Of course, we currently have 2 products that we can share the success of, which were both generated through our ideation process, and are currently in the early stages of development.
The first product is in pre-launch phase and is for energy customers who can’t pay their bills. Currently, customers who have had their energy supply switched off must go to their utility company to pay in cash. But we have now generated a system where they can use a QR code to pay via an online tool which will re-activate their supply immediately. This will have a significant impact on how utility companies operate, and we estimate that tens of thousands of customers get into this situation, so it should transform the customer experience for a lot of people. Right now, it is being piloted at one company, but we plan on making it a fully-fledged product.
“This will have a significant impact on how our customers operate and transform the customer experience ”
Our second success story has been the creation of a customer portal which allows our clients to log in and engage with our services. It’s sold as a service for our clients but makes our lives so much easier and saves the client’s time. Previously if a client needs to send us some data or needs a service from us, we would receive this information in various formats making it difficult to consolidate. The portal allows us to consolidate the data and standardize how we receive it – making our internal processes far more efficient. Currently, we only have one service on the portal so we actually created a second idea campaign asking our employees which of our services should be added, so we now have a long list of future developments!
Q: Currently ideas are just sourced from your employees – do you plan to extend your ideation process to include any external stakeholders?
TM: We involved some of our customers in the testing of our new portal, but in terms of new product ideas we have found that the energy services industry is incredibly complex, so it is not so easy to include them in the innovation process unless they have a good understanding of esolva and what we do.
Q: How else are you evaluating the success of the initiative?
TM: Well, as the two products are currently only in the prototype phase, they’re not yet measurable in terms of ROI. But on a personal level, currently I’m aiming for us to generate at least one successful new product a year, as well as sustaining a user engagement level of 40%.
Q: What are your innovation plans for the future?
TM: From an overview perspective we want to generate growth through new products, not only by expanding our existing product catalogue. One of our action items this year is to focus on more small scale innovation by launching department specific idea campaigns, especially with the departments that haven’t been involved much yet. For example, within the next two months we will have a customer tailored campaign for the engineering department.
Q: Finally, how has the pandemic effected your innovation initiative?
TM: Well, as we were founded in November 2019, we’ve only really been innovating since the pandemic hit so it’s hard to say what innovation would look otherwise. But like I said earlier, the automation functionality has been a real benefit, as well as the Single Sign On feature – these both really help the ideation process.
Also, obviously collaboration and brainstorming together on a whiteboard can’t happen, but the need to innovate has remained the same. Even though it is still difficult, the platform facilitates our ability to collaborate and evaluate our idea campaigns, so we keep on developing and moving forward.
Q: Great, thank you for your time Tobias. We look forward to catching up in a year or so to hear what else you guys manage to achieve!
TM: Of course, I look forward to it!
This interview shows that Innovation management is not only successful when used by large teams with a huge number of users, and esolva are a perfect example of this. Innovation management can be very powerful when starting on a small scale with a well thought out ideation process that is tailored to your organization. Starting an initiative with one department or one campaign focusing on a particular challenge, could well be the tactic that large organizations need to get the ball rolling with innovation management. Once launched, the business can then deploy their ideation process across the company as a whole, or with different departments.
Taking note from esolva – rather than placing a single moderator in charge of a campaign with 1000 users, sometimes it might be better to put 10 campaign managers in charge of 10 campaigns, each with 100 users. As esolva proves – innovation doesn’t always have to be big, to generate big ideas!