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Daniel Debow: It’s as much about the pitch as the product

Entrepreneur Daniel Debow knows of which he speaks: A couple of the companies he helped found sold for close to $300-million combined.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Innovation can change the world. It can also be a well-worded pitch at a coffee shop.

In an upscale café in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, Daniel Debow sat hunched over, eating a sandwich with a young entrepreneur, who was listening and nodding in agreement with everything Mr. Debow was quietly saying.

His reputation precedes him. Mr. Debow was on the founding team of the work force management company Workbrain, which was sold for $227-million in 2007, and then one of three founders of the performance-review social media site Rypple, which was sold to for $65-million in 2011. Any tech entrepreneur would be eager to hear his secrets, and Mr. Debow obliges.

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The secrets largely come down to, it seems, partnerships and relationship building – and, ultimately, good communication.

"Innovation isn't just about the idea or technology, it's about how you apply and then get something done with it. The art of it is how you get human beings, who are inherently social beings, to take action based on this new idea," he said.

By this time, Mr. Debow had said goodbye to the startup entrepreneur and had transferred to a new table in the café for an interview. He was clearly in his comfort zone. "So much of that comes down to the ability to communicate. Can you clearly and concisely encapsulate something?"

Mr. Debow is one of five judges for The Globe and Mail's Innovators at Work, a contest to identify creative business people who may not have been recognized. Yet Mr. Debow noted that innovative people don't have to be gung-ho, extrovert personalities. Successful innovation is more about matching the right people with compatible strengths.

"It's necessary to have interpersonal skills. It's necessary to have technical skills. But they are not sufficient in and of themselves. And I think, frankly, that's part of the magic, trying to figure out what team of people – and it is typically a team – can pull all those components in the right way so that you think that magic can happen."

The mistaken view, he said, is that inventive business people have a eureka moment and that everything then falls into place. Mr. Debow noted one group of would-be entrepreneurs, for instance, who have been trying to start a company selling a clear technological breakthrough. Yet even when talking to sympathetic investors, they find that people don't seem to get it. Mr. Debow said the problem isn't the invention, it's their ability to communicate the innovation easily.

"Try to put a presentation together. Try to concisely write things. And usually what you have to do is try to edit yourself. … The fewer words the better," he said. "Often very technical people start off with a whole story, because they think you need to understand everything."

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Instead, try building the company backward. Some startups begin merely as a press release in order to gauge the response from the marketplace. Mr. Debow's Rypple began as a PowerPoint presentation, he said, and instead of buying software and servers, he and his partners simply connected to the Internet cloud and began from there.

"A startup isn't a company in the typical way we think about it. A startup is a learning machine. They're trying to discover what is the customer paying point, what is the real value that can be delivered, what is the way to communicate it and pitch it, what is the way to deliver it. And along the way, you do these successive things called minimum viable product. You're trying to get just enough people to give you feedback."

Accelerating this process is the exponential growth in computing power and its ever falling price, Mr. Debow said, noting Moore's Law that computing power doubles every 18 months.

"I think in the next five to 10 years, we're getting to a place where a doubling and then a doubling again, and then a doubling again, means massive changes in the way that we can expect computers to behave and support us in our lives," Mr. Debow said.

In this fast pace of change, "human capital matters even more, because you're less constrained by capital. You're less constrained by access to physical materials. And in many cases, you can get there really fast."

This puts the onus on innovators to try and try again, and to make their message ever more concise. Innovation isn't a light bulb suddenly going off in someone's head, it's an acquired skill that takes practice. "It's not a function of anything other than repeatedly going out and doing it," he said.

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