Innovation and the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is often associated with huge companies with vast R&D budgets. Here's how a small business with a passion for innovation uses connected device technology to stay ahead.

I have been in the market for a new grill, and was considering purchasing both a standard gas grill and a smoker, the latter as I've become more interested in barbecue. I was intrigued to discover "pellet grills," a niche I was not previously aware of. Rather than burning gas or charcoal, a pellet grill uses an electronically controlled auger to feed compressed wood "pellets" into a flame. This provides the benefits of cooking over natural wood combined with the control of a gas grill, since the electronic controls can increase or decrease the pellet feed rate, in turn controlling the temperature.

As I checked out some of the manufacturers and models, I came across a company called MAK Grills, which released MAK Grills Mobile, an option allowing the electronic control to connect to a cloud-based service, using IoT-type technology that would allow someone to turn on their grill, set and monitor its temperature, and even monitor the temperature of the meat they were cooking from a computer or smartphone anywhere in the world. Not only was the technology interesting, but I was surprised to find this level of innovation from a relatively small company. I spoke with Bruce Bjorkman, MAK's director of sales and marketing, to find out more about how a small company has used a technology typically associated with the "big guys" to stay ahead of the competition.

Size doesn't matter (at least when talking about innovation)

One theme that quickly emerged from our conversation was that MAK is constantly pushing to innovate, even without a massive, formal R&D budget and process. MAK was an early entrant to pellet grill business in 2009, and it's now a crowded field of 27 companies. MAK has been looking for ways to stay ahead of the competition since its inception, and despite not being familiar with terms like "IoT" and "cloud," they had a concept of a remote control grill from the company's inception. Mr. Bjorkman noted that MAK had no problem pulling in local companies to help on the technology side of product development. MAK would essentially share their product vision and then ask "Is this possible?" and pulling in expertise it lacked. If current technology didn't quite meet their product vision, MAK would either take an interim step toward the ultimate goal or shelve an idea for a future release.

An obvious theme from our conversation was that innovation and risk-taking were not only tolerated at MAK, but encouraged. MAK's owners were not industry veterans, and therefore open to even unconventional ideas. Mr. Bjorkman noted that the response to most product ideas is "Hey, let's try it" rather than a litany of risks or potential reasons the effort could fail.

Mr. Bjorkman also noted that most employees of the company were not only users of the product, but also routinely interacted with customers in a formal and informal manner, and that several product ideas came directly from customers asking for a feature or accessory. These customers would then be offered an opportunity to test the product they had requested, essentially co-opting a willing and passionate audience to help with product development and testing.

The right mix of product planning

I was also interested to hear Mr. Bjorkman's outline of how MAK did product planning. Like most companies, MAK has a multi-year product roadmap, but the company is also willing to make major modifications to a product shortly after it is released. Unlike large companies that let a product languish on a defined timeline with little more than a cosmetic update or two, MAK has added major features and tweaks to a product as soon as they're commercially viable. This has allowed MAK to stay well ahead of its competitors, despite a relatively simple product line of four grills. Too often, product planning becomes an inflexible and unchangeable "master plan" that must be followed at all costs. This is a recipe for a competitor "eating your lunch" when the industry changes. While "seat of the pants" product planning is generally not a good idea, MAK seems to have found a good balance between planning and ad-hoc innovation that's instructive for other product companies.

Concepts like innovation and leveraging new technology are certainly not the sole province of the Fortune 500, and perhaps can even be competitive advantages born of being a smaller company, where long-term risk taking and flexible, rapidly iterating products are encouraged. The benefits of commoditization and consumerization have made even complex technologies readily accessible to companies of all sizes. Rather than worrying about IoT, Cloud computing, and the rest of the techno babble, follow MAK Grill's lead and ask "What's possible?" An open mind, willingness to take calculated risks, and a capable partner or two just might allow you to out-innovate the world's largest companies, and gain a sterling reputation with a fervent band of loyal customers.