Striking a balance between regulation and innovation is remarkably similar in both the armed forces and in business.
That’s been Mark Woodland’s experience as an ex-soldier and founder of childcare software provider Xplor, which straddles the fine line between pushing technological boundaries and old school regulation.
“Both the defence force and the childcare industries are regulated for the right reasons,” says Woodland.
“There are a lot of rules you need to follow in the defence force, just like in business, but despite the discipline, there’s a lot of freedom and trust in the soldiers to make quick decisions, and I don’t think that’s much different to the team I work with now.”
Xplor provides an online platform for parents to interact with their children in real-time during the day, and where childcare centres and schools can manage their operations.
Using iBeacon technology, Xplor enables parents to automatically sign their children in and out of a childcare centre or school through bluetooth-enabled smartphones, and tracks children at school when they head to extra-curricular activities like sport or music lessons.
Pick your battles
Some might expect childcare to be worlds away from fighting in war zones, but Woodland says startups dealing with legacy government protocols and regulators require similar level of patience and focus.
“Don’t try and fight the regulation process,” he says. “If you can influence it, then great, but once you’re in an industry, you need to meet those requirements and you need to think deeply about what you’re about to tackle.”
You might have the world’s best technology, he says, but if you can’t even meet those requirements then no one’s ever going to see it and you won’t positively disrupt the industry.
Xplor’s software manages a broad spectrum of childcare operations, but one product interacting closely with the government is one that matches the childcare subsidies scheme.
As parents sign-in and out each day through their devices, attendance is logged with the childcare centre and the government, who then match up fees with entitlements.
While the software undoubtedly makes it easier for the trifecta of parents, childcare centres and the government to interact with accuracy, Woodland explains it took some time for his team to fully describe how the system works to their government case manager.
“The Department of Human Services were in our offices, and the conversation changed from just talking about Xplor to discussing how they could do more automation and tracking using other new software,” he says.
“Relationships and partnerships are key, if you’re looking to improve an industry, be prepared to share your knowledge and not hoard information.”
Those working in Government and regulatory organisations are often dealing with extremely archaic systems, with entirely manual processes.
And while nimble startups are often raring to disrupt and break industries, Woodland says helping these departments transition towards technology-based solutions will pay dividends down the track and is worth the patience now.
“I personally struggle with this and have quickly learned that being transparent in a respectful way is key,” he says.
“There’s no point saying one thing and leaving a meeting thinking another.”
Being upfront, explaining your frustrations and acknowledging you will never have all the answers also endears you to those who monitor regulations, he says.
“Honestly, you want to make sure the best ideas are winning, so if you can see a better way of doing something, figure out how to present that idea and make it work for everyone. That will help your business in the long run.”
Woodland suggests beginning conversations with stakeholders within government as soon as you can, even when you’re in ideation stage as that helps move the process along.
“Just reach out to them and get all the arguments out in the open,” he says.
“We’re having conversations now for products that won’t be in the market until the end of next year.
“Have the conversations with the case managers and get all the grisly ones on board, make sure you have a commitment from everyone, including the government, then go hell for leather.”
Building the culture
‘Think deeply, work quickly’ is an Xplor company value that blends the bureaucratic process of educating and convincing regulators and the acceleration of a fast-moving startup.
“If you try and do right by your customers all the time, you’ll be surprised by what you can put up with,” says Woodland.
“Once you’ve got that learned, you’ll know where the edge is and you can push up against it.”
Xplor is currently expanding their operations into the United States and the United Kingdom, a mammoth task that sees the team dealing with vastly different attitudes, processes and a whole host of new regulations.
“Every state in the US is like dealing with a mini-country,” says Woodland of the expansion plans.
“But thankfully, being humble is embedded in our company culture and that means we can go in and quickly learn the new processes. We’re not there to piss people off, we’re there to make things better.”
Certainly, the tricky process of negotiating with regulators is in the best interests of parents, children, childcare centres and the overall industry. But that doesn’t mean Xplor waits for permission for all of its other activities.
Known for making a splash at conferences, Xplor pushes the envelope when it comes to marketing and advertising, allowing it to retain its edgy startup ethos in the market.
“We had fireworks and smoke machines and loud speakers blaring at a recent conference,” recalls Woodland.
“Did we get permission from the organisers? Probably not. But we’re all friends at the end of it and we’re happy to push things to the edge in that way. It just comes down to picking your battles."
Tips for bumping up against bureaucracy
- Relationships are key. Dedicate people in your team to patiently educate outside stakeholders and keep the lines of communication open.
- Overreach with your visions. Speak with regulators about products and ideas you have far into the future as well as what you’re bringing out now. That way the close at hand ideas seem more manageable.
- Learn about regulatory processes and offer to help streamline them using technology. What’s good for the regulators will be good for your industry which will be good for your business.
Tips for embedding a compliance culture
- Stress to your team they don’t know everything. Valuing external knowledge and insight allows people to approach difficult interactions with a helpful attitude and fosters cooperation.
- Ensure each team is aware and understands their own compliance responsibilities and they build checks into their workflows, rather than forcing a compliance team to be the backstop and bottleneck.
- Build customer personas that remind teams why they’re engaging in difficult or slow-moving discussions. A customer-first mindset helps people have patience and long-term thinking.