Last week we launched Spark – a product innovation fund and accelerator to uncover the UK’s next great inventions.  Here Tom Doust - who was selected as a finalist in our recent Knee High Design Challenge, shares his advice on what to expect from an accelerator programme – and how to come out thriving.

Think ‘accelerator programmes’ and we often think Silicon Valley start-ups, winners and losers or that idea that could make you an overnight millionaire. But be prepared for a much more holistic approach to ideas development. An accelerator is more about incubation and support than the hard cash. 

Just over 12 months ago I replied to a call for ideas: a Design Challenge. How could design thinking and creative new approaches re-think the way public services supported early years, particularly on the issue of children’s health and wellbeing. 

The idea was simple, yet underdeveloped. Why pop-up a park when Lambeth and Southwark, the focus areas of the Knee High Design Challenge, have hundreds of parks and green spaces already? Over the course of a year we have become able to answer this question confidently through the development of our product and service. 

Experimentation, involvement of the service user in the design process and research and evaluation were all components of the Design Council’s challenge programme. By employing these approaches we realised there were huge benefits of bringing the park to the people. In doing so we tapped into the arena of public space and the right to recreation and play. 

But how did we survive the accelerator? 

Be prepared to ‘role’ your sleeves up

We believe that entrepreneurship is about getting stuck in and being able to apply your expertise broadly. From administrative tasks like data input to meeting your stakeholders, no job is below you. There’s no better way to understand your product and service than actually performing all the roles that make up that business. In the last 12 months I have been a bookkeeper, a public speaker, a web designer, an evaluator, and I have stood on the street handing out flyers… to name but a few. 

Test, iterate, improve

From early on in the design challenge, we were encouraged to test early and fail fast, but what does this actually involve? Failure is a buzz word at the moment: it’s okay to fail because the learning from it will be invaluable in your next approach. Failure is good but the attitude that you are not afraid to fail is even better. Innovation is not about improving an idea that already exists, it’s about genuine new approaches. In finding those new approaches you will almost certainly flounder along the way, but the learning will inform the innovation. 

Create an environment for risk

Human endeavour has involved huge risks. From reaching the Poles to space travel, incredible things happen when people are willing to extend beyond the boundaries. Our programme was tackling an understandably risk averse issue. But no one would disagree about need to challenge the statistic that 21% of children in the UK play outdoors; for their parents, the figure was 71%. When we developed our programme we decided to build in positive risk by developing products that allowed children to climb street furniture and to play actively on the street as if it were a park. It changed the mindset of parents and carers and helped our service redefine the boundaries of play environments. 

Be disruptive

It’s incredible to think that the Khan Academy, an online video repository of one to one tutorials on maths, science history and more, is now the largest school on the planet. Or that Airbnb has over 300,000 rooms worldwide without a hotel in sight. Both are innovations that are disrupting the way in which services are provided. Being disruptive changes the lens that you look through and the way you look at a challenge. Our programme has uncovered a new and positive way that communities think about land ownership. There were moments when we walked the narrow line of ‘permission’ but if we hadn’t been disruptive we wouldn’t have asked the right questions. 

Find great people 

The term entrepreneur often implies a single person driving an idea, but every great idea has more than just one person behind it. At the outset of entering the design challenge, I made it a priority to work with brilliant people. Often they are people you already know as was the case with Jack Roche, a talented design thinker, and James Sale, an incredible design maker. I made Jack and James feel part of the idea by quickly devolving ownership of it. Of course you need the flag bearer but leadership comes from all angles. When we expanded our team we developed a core set of values that embodied the types of people that would strengthen the organisation. That helped us find Helena Rice and Lisa Price who are brilliant artists able to develop strong relationships with children and families. They say your first few hires are what makes your business. I couldn’t agree more. 

Think sustainably

From day one I knew that this was not just a seasonal idea or a one off. I knew that we would want to it grow beyond seed funding. It’s never too early to start business planning. Your time is a huge asset to the business and in our accelerator I made a conscious decision to give some of that without financial reward. But be realistic: a product needs a customer. We found a visual tool, the business model canvas, a good one to kick-start our model. 

I would recommend to anyone with a spark of an idea and some fire in their belly to consider entering challenges and competitions to turn those ideas into reality. It might be hard graft but it's also hugely rewarding and the journey is more exciting when you're sharing it. 

Spark product innovation fund

Design Council Spark is a new product innovation fund to uncover the UK's next great inventions. Apply now for a chance to win a place on our 20 week bespoke support programme, as well as up to £65,000 investment to help bring your physical product prototype or idea to market.

Apply

Find out more and apply to Design Council Spark: The Home Innovation Challenge.

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