Start-up of the week: PlayTank

9 May 2016

From left: PlayTank's Andy Byrne, Daniel Conlon, Toby Farren and Jason Hassett

Our start-up of the week is PlayTank, a social collaboration platform that enables staff at organisations of all sizes to be a part of the innovation journey. Think of it as Slack for idea creation.

PlayTank is a social collaboration platform, aimed at facilitating large-scale innovation fostering activities both inside large organisations and through on-platform partnerships between multiple organisations,” explained its founder and CEO Toby Farren.

“Our platform takes advantage of the collective wisdom of the crowd, allowing large groups of stakeholders to come together and design potential new innovations, including new products; processes and business models, bypassing the political and bureaucratic barriers inherent in larger enterprises.

“The platform maximizes knowledge and value capture, connects and contextualises related ideas and content, and provides an environment where the full value map surrounding a potential innovation can be explored, from the perspective of all relevant stakeholders, including employees, partners and customers.”

The market

Farren points out that, due to the nature of large organisations (multiple tiers of hierarchy, siloed teams and departments, and centralised decision making), it can be extremely difficult to involve all relevant stakeholders in the ideation and decision-making process when attempting to build and design innovative new practices, products, models and other multidisciplinary systems for the organisation.

‘Our platform takes advantage of the collective wisdom of the crowd, allowing large groups of stakeholders to come together and design potential new innovations’

“Larger enterprises in recent years have recognised the need to innovate extremely quickly, due to the speed at which disruptive technologies and business models are emerging from fast and agile start-ups and competitors. We feel that these larger organisations are best suited to do so by focusing on empowering their existing employee and partner base, and focusing their collective efforts and knowledge towards practical and continuous innovations.

“Our software solves this problem by implementing social innovation management practices and democratised input. The market size for social enterprise software was recorded at 4.77bn in 2014.

“Social collaboration tools such as PlayTank make up one of the three primary types of tools of which social enterprise software is comprised, the others being social content tools and social marketing tools. Slack, a leading business in the social enterprise software market, is a great example of a high-growth business operating in this space.”

PlayTank’s initial target market for year one, which will start with pilot programmes in Q3 2016, is comprised of larger enterprises primarily in the media, professional services and financial services industries, including multinationals with a presence in Ireland or the UK, as well as national enterprises.

“We have identified 420 Irish companies with more than 500 employees across Ireland who match the criteria listed in customer identification, and several times that number in the UK,” said Farren.

The founders

CEO Farren previously worked in IBM researching a gamified customer support training tool, at Wayra-funded start-up VBot, and as lead organiser at Wearable World, running the Irish Wearable Wednesday event series, which has partnered with enterprises and start-ups such as Intel, IDA, Qualtrics, Science Gallery, iTagged and DCU Insight Centre.

He has also published a whitepaper on innovation fostering strategies inside larger organisations and provided guest lectures on gamification at Irish universities.

COO Andy Byrne has more 10 years’ sales experience in the IT and communications sectors, including training sales representatives at Vodafone for four years. He also previously ran the Upstarts radio show, a weekly show on CityFM that focused on emerging businesses and ventures in Dublin.

CTO Daniel Conlon has more than 10 years’ experience in software development and engineering, having worked on several software products for various companies, both nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, chief marketing officer (CMO) Jason Hassett has more than six years’ sales, marketing and software development experience, having worked as a software engineer with Enterprise Ireland. He also led several software projects from concept through development during his time as managing director at the software development house, WeDevelop.

The technology

“Coming up with ideas is easy,” said Farren. “The hard part is unlocking their value and understanding where they fit into an organisation’s innovation efforts. That’s where we come in.

“After setting up an enterprise account on our platform, each company is allotted a central ‘idea bank’ where individual idea cards are stored. These ideas could include anything from a passing thought, a strategic insight, a fresh perspective, or research into a novel technology. We plan to integrate our system with many of the communication and management tools currently used by enterprise organisations, to increase the likelihood of capturing valuable ideas.

“Idea cards are fed to employees via an enterprise-wide social feed, can be stored on individual profiles, and are used to seed initial solution pitches as well as solve innovation ‘micro-challenges’.

“This process is constantly taking place, even outside of innovation campaigns, so a company’s idea bank is always growing. The more an organisation engages with our platform, the larger the bank will become, providing more and more combinations and permutations of ideas, increasing the chance of discovering and mapping out high-impact innovations.”

‘Our pilot programmes are scheduled to run until Q1 2017, when we aim to raise a seed round of €600,000 to begin expanding our team’

“We’ve put a huge amount of focus on ensuring our platform and, in particular, innovation campaign settings, are as customisable as possible, to ensure every one of our clients is getting the most value they can from our system, whether they’re focused on short-term or long-term prospects, incremental or radical shifts, culture building or employee empowerment.

“Campaigns can be customised on a case-by-case basis, with the ability for successful solution templates to be saved and reused, so organisations have the flexibility to adapt to any innovation challenge or opportunity.

“Unlike existing ‘idea capture/challenge’ innovation tools currently on the market, which can lead to isolated and unrefined proposals, due to their linear and non-collaborative nature, our system encourages the rapid experimentation and iteration of solutions, thanks to idea recycling, collaborative problem solving and decentralised decision-making.”

The idea-collection engine

Farren’s long-term vision for the company is to provide an end-to-end innovation fostering platform, where ideas can be collected and brought together to form usable concepts, which feed through a validation, iteration and production pipeline, leading to market-ready solutions.

“We envision this process taking place inside organisations, collaboratively between multiple organisations, or via the crowd (utilising crowd funding and team bids on developed concepts), as well as combinations of all three scenarios.

“In our first year of operation, we will focus on the front end of innovation fostering (internally) with expansion into back-end functionality (execution and development), as well as our public/crowd platform in 2017. In year two, we aim to roll out the mobile version of our application. In our third year of operation, we aim to roll out internet of things and wearable ‘idea capture points’, linking into to the primary platform, as well as tablet versions of the primary application.”

Scalable business model

Farren said that the company spent 2014 in a pre-formation phase where much of the time was spent on validating assumptions and refining the idea.

“In late 2015, we finished development of our prototype, which we trialled in various idea hackathons, leading to further validation of our product offering. In 2015, we completed development of the platform’s front-end and secured launch partnerships with Bank of Ireland and RTÉ.

“We have also been in talks with several other organisations, including Accenture, AIB, Bord Gais and the IDA, as well as building partnerships with companies in further out or more regulated industries, including entry into the British rail industry through the organisation ‘Rail Alliance’ and the continental financial services market through the organisation ‘FinnoLux’.

“Our pilot programmes are scheduled to run until Q1 2017, when we aim to raise a seed round of €600,000 to begin expanding our team and the scope of our sales reach.”

‘The most important thing I could say to any potential tech entrepreneur is get yourself a mentor’

Farren said the biggest challenge for the start-up has been time, something most start-ups rarely mention.

“Everything takes longer than you think. From building a minimum viable product and refining your business model, to figuring out the best story you can tell to efficiently communicate the value of your solution, you can easily take your initial assumptions on how long it will take, and then double it.”

Farren sees Ireland and Dublin, in particular, as the best place to do a start-up.

“One of the main advantages of operating your business in Ireland is the level of collaboration in the Irish tech start-up community. Particularly in co-working spaces, such as Dogpatch Labs and Bank of Ireland’s start-up Workbench, I’ve seen start-ups at various levels of progression sharing their experience and lessons learnt with people who are slightly newer to the entrepreneurial game.

“The ease of access to high-level decision makers in organisations is unparalleled when compared to other countries. It seems that almost everyone is willing to give their time to assist start-ups, even in larger corporate entities.

“Due to the size of the country, you can break into the Irish start-up scene within a few months, which really helps with getting feedback on your product and model as quick as possible, something that is extremely valuable for those following lean methodology.”

While some entrepreneurs eschew the idea of mentoring, Farren embraces it.

“The most important thing I could say to any potential tech entrepreneur is get yourself a mentor, or better yet, several mentors. Having someone who has been through the journey themselves who can advise you as you establish your company is invaluable.

“Another piece of advice would be to talk to potential customers from your target market as soon as possible, well before you start building your product. Insights into their pain points and processes allows you to build an MVP that is ‘need to have’ rather than ‘nice to have’.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years