Friday, 25 June 2010

Dave Stewart: how to run an ideas factory

Hear the name Dave Stewart and you’ll probably think of the co-founder of the Eurythmics or the producer/songwriter who has worked alongside such names as Mick Jagger, Joss Stone and Bob Dylan, in a musical career spanning more than 100 million album sales.

But you might not be aware of Dave’s role in business. Last year, Dave was named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine. He is a long-time friend of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen with whom he co-founded The Hospital, a multimedia creative centre and members club in London; he runs a consulting business with Deepak Chopra called DeepStew; he’s the U.S. creative director for the international ad shop the Law Firm; he works with Nokia as an official Change Agent; and recently co-authored a book ‘The Business Playground: Where Creativity & Commerce Collide’.

At the heart of his business portfolio is his very own ideas factory Weapons Of Mass Entertainment, billed as a ‘media company for the new world’ (The LA Times). I met Dave in London last month and talked about his role as a polymath and how he makes ideas happen. Our conversation is in 2 short films. Part 1 is “How To Run An Ideas Factory” and Part 2 is “Putting ideas into action”. Pt 2 will be released in a couple of weeks; in the meantime here’s Pt 1 where he talks about developing ideas, prototyping them, creating ideas out of chaos, dealing with uncertainty and juggling.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sometimes a lean and raw approach works just fine

I’m just back from a weekend in Copenhagen where our apartment faced this unassuming corner shop. Covered in graffiti, with no windows, and handwritten signs on the door, at first glance, it may have looked permanently closed. But it was very much open; inside it was dark, dingy and the wine bottles dusty.

But despite its appearances, there was a constant stream of people all day long. People came and went with their soft drinks, wine, bottles of beer.

And it reminded me how we obsess about our business propositions needing to be polished and elegant with added ‘bells & whistles’: we must have an awesome website; our logo needs to be stunning; our premises must be well-designed; our fixtures and fittings state of the art. Sure, sometimes those things count.

But other times, enterprise is more basic than that - it’s just about fulfilling a need. And like this corner shop, then, a lean and raw approach works just fine. 

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

How To Stay Afloat: Lessons In Business Survival

Over the last two months I’ve been talking to business owners about how they are surviving in a tough marketplace. From a manufacturing business in Essex to a web-based apps business in Chicago, I’ve been hearing stories about staying authentic, about reinvention and busting a few business myths to survive. These stories appear in my column this month for the ‘Owners Only’ pages at 

Here are links to the 4 columns:

1.  “The 37signals Secret to Success: Sell Your By-Products” – lessons from 37signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson in acknowledging your business by-products

2.  “How to Survive a Market Collapse: Reinvent Your Business” – lessons from Splice TV on beating market challenges

3.  “How to Set Your Sights High — and Still Pay the Bills” – how start-up Karrot Entertainment is developing essential revenues whilst building intellectual properties

4.  "Does Your Business Really Have to Grow to Survive?" – how Excalibur Screwbolts is beating the competition by sticking to its core strengths.

I hope you find them useful.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Beauty Of A Tribe

Depending on what side of the Atlantic you call home, ‘Zappos’ may or may not be a household name to you, and the same goes for Tony Hsieh its CEO. This pioneering online retailer may not yet have reached European shores but it’s becoming well known as the business success story that grew to $1billion revenues in under ten years. Last year the company was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.2billion. Tony has a book out - ‘Delivering Happiness: a path to profits, passion, and purpose’ (out in the US now/ out in the UK July) - where he tells the story of his entrepreneurial life, sharing insight into how he made Zappos so unique, and ultimately so successful.

I first saw Tony close-up at SXSW Interactive 2009 where he gave a keynote. I was impressed by how understated this successful entrepreneur was, standing on stage in jeans and t-shirt. Twelve months later it was great to be a – tenuous – guest (via my friend Espree Devora) on board Tony’s ‘Delivering Happiness’ bus one night travelling around Austin, Texas at SXSW 2010. What was clear from that evening was that Tony is a generous guy. We hadn’t properly met, yet here was the CEO of a $1B company personally fetching me BBQ food and letting me down a few vodkas at his on board bar. Reading his book you get a real sense of that spirit of generosity in hosting parties and bringing people together. He describes the loft apartment in San Francisco where he lived surrounded by friends, and his decision to buy the penthouse apartment so he could host huge parties. He wanted to create an environment where people could come together and hang out. Without realising it, he says, with his friends he had created and developed their very own tribe which was bringing stability and excitement to the group’s future. And that feeling is powerful as he explains in this excerpt from the book:

“The connectedness we felt was making all of us happier, and we realized that it was something that we had missed from our college days. I made a note to myself to make sure I never lost sight of the value of a tribe where people truly felt connected and cared about the well-being of one another”.

Of course, that spirit of togetherness is at the heart of Zappos; where he has created a strong and unique organisational culture that has become the brand’s USP and made it famous in entrepreneurial circles around the world.

I may not have labelled it as ‘culture’ at the time, but that same spirit has been evident in every successful business I have worked in, or with. That culture where you hang out with you co-workers out of the office, where you’d rather sit in the board room after hours drinking wine and playing ‘beat the intro’ than going home, where your work and non-work identies blur.

Delivering Happiness’ is a great story of Tony’s journey in creating and building Zappos, and of all the inevitable highs and lows along the way. Zappos’ success story may have different contributing factors but #1 is about that focus on organisational culture that resulted in great loyalty, productivity and customer service. And whether it’s about building a billion dollar business or transforming a school bus into a party bus for his friends, of course (of course!), it’s all about the people.  

Friday, 11 June 2010

Business Stories #3: Make Believe, the storytelling agency

My last company profile this week is Make Believe, the agency that's evangelising the power of stories to help businesses find their way through difficult times.

Storytelling might be the oldest and most effective form of communication, but even so it might seem an unexpected prescription for organisations suffering tough times in 2010. Make Believe, a London-based agency with a global client base is evangelising that the principles of storytelling can be used to help organisations manage change and to get leaders back on track.

Today so much more is expected of leaders. Whether you’re CEO of BP or the Prime Minister, leaders know that success is about being a good communicator, and for that you need to be a good storyteller. Make Believe work with multinational corporations like Microsoft, Coors and Unilever helping bring their story alive.

I met with Make Believe senior partner Sally Osman who recalled a story of how the beam from a lighthouse helps a ship steer its course through a violent storm. She believes having a powerful story at the heart of a business can become your guiding light ‘in good times, rough times and changing times’.

Sally explained that most clients approach Make Believe because they’re ‘stuck’ - they acknowledge they need a different approach to solve a business challenge. The agency applies a seven-step process to get under the skin of a client’s business to challenge and redefine a company’s narrative. “So many companies are going at 90 miles per hour, they forget where they’ve come from or where they’re going” says Sally.

Great stories can make difficult things easier to grasp; they can make an idea or strategy visually strong, leaving it clear and memorable. Apply these questions to help your business use storytelling to regain focus and direction:

  1. Have your staff forgotten what it is the company stands for? Retelling your story with their input can help redefine your organisational culture and get everyone united with a common purpose.
  2. Do your clients, and the marketplace at large, ‘get’ what you do or are you telling a story that’s out of date? Many businesses tell the story of what they used to be, rather what they really are, and that disconnect can dent their market potential.
  3. Are you struggling with defining and communicating your strategy and business plan? Try visualising it with a story: people may not remember a business plan, but great stories are unforgettable.

So if your business has lost its way, try retelling your story, whether internally to get the organisation back on-track, or externally to get clients to understand how you’ve changed. In a competitive and ever-changing marketplace, it might be a case of he who has the best story, wins.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Business Stories #2: Alex, the user-designed computer

In the second of this week's profiles of companies behind new ideas, this is the story of  The Broadband Computer Company who have developed a new computer focused very much on the user.

Like many executives of his generation, Andy Hudson was a late adopter of computers, finally getting to grips with a laptop about ten years ago. His frustration struggling with an over--complex operating system led him to develop a computing package - ‘alex’ -  targeted at late adopters and the previously ‘digitally excluded’. Andy is now co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at the UK's Broadband Computer Company a tech start--up that raised £2.5 million to develop and launch ‘alex’.

Andy told me how he’d actually designed the front-end interface in PowerPoint before assembling a team of developers to take his idea to reality.‘alex' has been designed very much with the end user in mind, providing an easy to use bundled package of computer and operating system. The intuitive user interface was a direct response to Andy’s own experience and his frustrations. His eureka moment seemed so simple: “Why is it so hard? Users don’t want drop-down menus to make choices. If I want to do something, why can’t I just press one button?”

Andy told me the product had been designed from the ‘customer back’ unlike most tech products that are devised and pushed at the market. Before a nationwide launch, The Broadband Computer Company soft-launched the service to a group of 150 paying users in the North East Of England, close to the company’s base. Andy explained how critical this soft launch was in the development of the product. “We learnt a lot of lessons playing with that group of paying customers in the trial. They identified problems with the system that we just hadn’t spotted during development”Instead of  a Mac or Windows operating system, ‘alex' has its own suite of programs each with a bright colored on-screen button. To the technologically literate it might look over simple but then it hasn't been designed for the early adopter iPad user. 

Identifying a clear market niche for the product by placing the user at the heart of the business idea, based on Andy’s own frustrations seems to have resonated with customers in the trial. The business is now seeking more funding to invest in marketing and a major nationwide launch. There’s a long way to go before ‘alex’ becomes a well known brand, in the meantime Andy says he continues to be motivated by customer feedback, "When you receive emails from users saying that you have changed their lives - it inspires you to carry on".

Monday, 7 June 2010

Business Stories : #1, the knowledge trading website

This week I'm profiling three companies who have developed ideas and products to solve age-old business problems. The first is start-up, who've come up with an idea to help small businesses fill their knowledge gaps.

When pharmaceutical data company CEO Charles Joynson was struggling to find out information about doing business in the Netherlands, his dilemma gave him an idea. What if businesses who had questions could connect with others who had the answers? The result is, a ‘knowledge trading' website where experts can trade their know-how online in the same way people buy and sell on EBay.

The idea was born from Charles’ own struggle to find detailed information to launch a new product, “critically we failed to uncover the key facts that in the end were crucial”, he explained. That was the catalyst for the website which connects businesses with experts. Gibli only launched in April 2010 and the site now has around 150 signed up members with 100 site visits a day.

Talking to potential users prior to launch revealed that many felt there was a gap between sourcing free advice on the internet and paying for a consultant, giving Charles the confidence that there was a niche that Gibli could fill. “They suggested that the free advice on the internet was questionable, and you couldn’t always tell who the writer was. But if you paid a consultant to help you it could cost thousands. So we decided to let experts charge what they liked for slices of their knowledge”.

Charles quickly learnt the importance of assembling a talented team to fill his own knowledge vacuums. Gibli was one of those projects which needed the input of other talented individuals to create something useful, rather than a single flash of inspiration on my part. In that way I was able to pull resources into the team to compensate for my own weaknesses.Charles acknowledges the irony in the discovery that if he couldn't solve it on his own, he needed to get help “If only had existed then, I could have solved my own problem!"

The initial idea evolved as he sought contributions from others, experiencing what he describes as a ‘series of little eureka moments’ along the way. His business mentor played a really valuable role; one of her early recommendations was the importance of design to deliver the optimum user-experience. Charles had always been cynical about the value of design in a project but his mentor introduced him to designers who helped visualize the concept, adding a lot of value to the offering.

The expertise he’s brought in has strengthened Gibli's offering, making it stronger than his initial idea. He's now a firm advocate of the need to seek advice from experts. "I now know that if your trust the talented people around you, you will end up with something considerably better than you could have done on your own. And that’s what Gibli is all about".