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3 ways Silicon Valley turns human challenges of innovation into advantages.

3 ways Silicon Valley turns human challenges of innovation into advantages.

On our last night of a recent trip to San Francisco, Will and I found ourselves talking about the common cultural differences between UK and US entrepreneurs and the impact this might have on growing good ideas. Over Bay shrimp and an Anchor Steam, of course.

We run a cleantech and sustainability entrepreneur mission called Clean + Cool – which is next visiting the Bay Area this summer – and we know from the usual mission banter about banning ties, NDAs and British reserve that we’re all aware of the differences.

Yet, I also know that being aware, doesn’t always stop me from coming over all Sir Humphrey Appleby-meets-David Brent. So, in a bid to help others from falling into that trap, here are three things that we believe are worth learning from Valley.

1. Winning hearts as well as minds.

During our trip, we visited GSVLabs. They offer start-ups over 60,000 sq ft of state-of-the-art facilities, an army of mentors and a global network of potential partners. However, none of those were as impressive or valuable to their companies as the 50 pitch rehearsals they had put each one through in a week.

Why so many rehearsals? GSVLabs know that while the business opportunity needs stack up first and foremost, good ideas also don’t get very far without a compelling story behind them.

Because investors are humans too – they instinctively respond to entertainment as much as information, they buy people as well as products and ultimately you need to connect on an emotion level. And that takes effort.

Whether it’s an evening’s networking, speaking to a journalist, launching a website, negotiating a sales meeting, or pitching for investment – you need to tell your story well.

The challenge for some innovators, especially founding teams of engineers, scientists and technologists, is that marketing is often at the fluffier end of the to-do list and easy to put off. But for an idea to spread, you need it to resonate and appeal to people’s gut instinct as much as you need to make logical sense and tick the right boxes.

Get it right, and in the short term you can quickly build your profile and attract people with your vision for the future. And as you start to amplify your story with consistent messages, you are on the road to creating a brand and more value for your company.

The Valley is awash with compelling stories and powerful brands that have helped grow some of the world’s most impressive businesses.

2. Nailing the right needs.

Understanding the needs of customers is an age-old challenge but if you don’t get the need right, you end up wasting time, effort and money.

Both sides of the Atlantic share similar opportunities and barriers.

From digitisation, which has elevated the lean and agile approach and useful concepts and tools like the mvp, the canvas, the sprint that help get customer feedback cheaply and quickly. But for some has also brought the threat that customer needs can change rapidly and repeatedly.

To the unhelpful but seductive (to some) myth of nobility in designing an elegant and brilliant technological solution that only the right person will appreciate, when they see it.

Usually justified with Henry Ford quote about faster horses.

But if an approach to pitching reveals some cultural differences between the UK and US, there’s an even more stark difference in the approach to finding paying customers.  

The quickest and cheapest way to fail fast and often on your quest to define the problem that people will pay for, is to ask questions. In the UK, if feels like we have the humility to listen and learn but sometimes lack the directness to simply ask for feedback or help.

Silicon Valley is open to conversation. Listening to a conversation between a group of very different impact investors in the wings at the Cleantech Group’s Global Forum highlighted how readily “competitors” are willing to share know-how, ideas and contacts to help each other get closer to finding real needs.

3. Developing leadership that scales. 

A criticism that often gets made about UK entrepreneurs is that they exit too early. That we’re not driven to try and create the billion dollar unicorns in the same way that our American peers are. That we are a nation of inventors rather than entrepreneurs.

Putting aside differences, from culture and ideologies to the ease of access to finance and markets, the original intent of any founder is to make a positive impact by fulfilling their company mission.

And if you’re in a field such as sustainability, education or health then the positive impact you can have is very much determined by your ability to deploy at speed and scale.

So, ensuring those businesses have the right leadership know-how is fundamental to their success.

Through all the people we met in the Valley, from leadership teams at Sustainable Brands, Future Partners and Women in Cleantech and Sustainability to the many amazing cleantech companies, there were three striking consistencies in their leadership:

  • Clarity of purpose – aligning and motivating people with a clear vision and WHY
  • Strength of team – bringing in people early who have been there and done it, not just to sitting on advisory board but to be hands on to deliver growth
  • Nakedness of ambition – being forthright about the scale of growth and impact they want to achieve

Clearly there are some entrenched differences in our societies, from perceptions of modesty to how each society celebrates entrepreneurial risk takers.

But for Will and I it was a good reminder that these more intangible and often overlooked human elements of innovation do have a bearing on success and should be prioritised within the support given to early stage companies.

Boiling it down, we’re talking about how entrepreneurs can pack more emotional punch by talking about WHY they do what they do and to be more direct in asking questions that reveal needs for support that will help them scale. Of course, it’s not as easy as that but they are skills that can be learnt.

Perhaps the first step is to find the inspiration to change our mindset. And for that, there’s nowhere better than the Bay Area.

 

 

 

 

Why are stories important?

Why are stories important?

Stories shape who we are and what we do. In fact, we’re hardwired to turn our lives into stories because stories are how we make sense of the world.

For thousands of generations, stories were told out loud, from tales of caution or heroics, around the campfire, to today; in the pub with friends, through social media and in the brands we choose.
At the same time, there are many stories that we tell silently to ourselves – that constant little inner voice – about the choices we make or don’t make based on who we perceive ourselves to be – and the stories we save as the most important moments in our lives, as our memories.

It’s easy to see how stories are a cornerstone of how ideas and humans have grown and flourished. Stories are an effective way of sharing important information and ideas – and they make up a big part of our individual and tribal identities.
This is also why, after 100,000’s of years, stories are still a key part of how we sell new ideas in society today and why they are essential tools for marketers and innovators who look to tap into the stories that resonate the strongest.
As humans have evolved to process ideas through stories, stories have also evolved an optimum form.
Joseph Campbell’s study of over 40,000 stories, from aboriginal legends and religious texts to Victorian penny dreadfuls and Hollywood blockbusters, revealed a single most successful story structure, which he called the Mono-Myth or Hero’s Journey.
Long Run Works has created a Story Canvas – a tool that is the love child of The Hero’s Journey and the Lean Canvas – which we use to rapidly uncover the most important elements of the most important stories that any given audience holds. And to help people learn how to tell a stronger story about themselves, their idea or their business, to win support.
Accelerate by John Kotter

Accelerate by John Kotter

Accelerate by John Kotter

“Building strategic agility for a faster-moving world”.

Published 2014,

http://www.kotterinternational.com/book/accelerate/

 

Reason for review

John is a highly regarded writer on leadership – lecturers at Harvard – with this the latest in a

series of books over a number of decades. Focuses on a key challenge faced by all big

businesses, how to innovate and change rapidly and successful – AKA how to think and act

like a start up.

 

Review

Like many business books, there is just one core idea in Accelerate but it’s a big one and it’s

shared with clarity and guidance for thinkers and doers alike. John Kotter argues that big

business should create a ‘dual-operating system’ as it will allow them to innovate at a pace

that keeps up with a faster-moving world. This means aligning management driven

hierachical structures – “one of the most amazing innovations of the twentieth century” –

with a start-up’s solar system of networks. It’s a book that is about and delivered with,

speed and agility. The model to help large organisations find new competive advantage by

making the best of their world and that of a start up is an intuitive one, described in big

print on small pages. Like all good ideas its strength is in its simplicity and it takes root fast

in the mind, though implementation will always prove to be much harder. At least here the

author’s Harvard Business School reputation will make the introduction of a good idea much

easier.

Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull

Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull

Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull

“Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.”

Published 2014

http://www.creativityincbook.com/

 

Reason for review

The story of Pixar is a key source of inspiration – why and how – for Long Run Works. Pixar

has made a lot of our favourite stories about deep but simple emotions like loyalty or loss,

which connect us as humans; from Inside Out and UP to Monsters Inc and of course, Toy

Story. It is recognised as an innovator in storytelling and creativity. It also has legendary

status for its corporate growth and success story that includes Steve Jobs and George Lucas.

 

Review

As the description on the cover goes – ‘there’s been lots of writing about what makes Pixar

so successful but for the first time here’s the founder’. This is Ed Catmull’s story, a computer

scientist with a dream of making the world’s first feature film animation and the journey

over 20 years it took to do so. What Ed is really interested in though is sharing his reflections

on how to make creativity flourish, a topic that has driven him in the 20 years after Toy

Story was released. His conclusions over that 40-year period feel like fundamental truths;

quality is the only business plan, good people are always more important than good ideas,

prepare for the unknown. Yet the reason why they resonated so strongly with me was

because of the unwritten truth and quality of Ed’s character. While the highs and lows of

working with legends like George Lucas, Steve Jobs and Disney Co are deeply fascinating, it

is Ed’s commitment, resilience and perseverance that stand out. His story is simply

inspirational. His afterword is also the best piece of writing about Steve Jobs I’ve come

across, written by a man who worked with him longer than anyone else. This book isn’t

about quick creative fixes or top tips, it is about a creative philosophy and how to create a

corporate culture and structure to bring it to life. If you’re intrigued by Pixar’s corporate

story to go deeper, then journalist David Price’s book, The Pixar Touch, makes a highly

complementary read as it shines a brighter light on the personal politics, law suits and

technological struggles along the way. Instead, Creativity Inc reveals the life’s work and

dedication of a true craftsman.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Published 2011

http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

 

Reason for review

Feminism and gender equality is a long run isssue (100,000s of years) that feels it is close to

its tipping point. It isn’t a business book but it’s a book people in business should read to get

some perspective on what gender equality really means. It is fucking hilarious, proving the

power of good story telling and entertainment to educate and mobilise people around an

issue.

 

Review

Somewhere in the middle of the first chapter I found myself transported back in time. To a

mixed feeling of excited discovery and a cautious nervousness at crossing a threshold, as my

twelve year old self started The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4. Caitlin Moran’s

‘part memoir, part rant’ is hilariously serious. Like a Tim Minchin song or a Bill Hick’s routine,

it wins because it proves laughter really is the best medicine and she wins because she uses

the most powerful laughter of all by directing her sharpest remarks and observations at her

life. She is very good at taking the piss out of herself. Yet, from the very personal milestones

to calling out society’s views on pornography, role models and abortion, she also deals with

the big issues in a no nonense style. For all the laugh out loud moments that come and go, it

is the simplicity of her rules of feminism that will endure for me; 1) Women are equal to

men 2) Don’t be a dick. As Caitlin says, as there are 7.5bn of us on the planet, so let there

be 7.5bn versions of feminism and just be polite to each other. A philosophy that would be

well observed in all topics of debate. This is the book I will be buying the men in my life.

How I discovered the real value of digital education within communities.

Like most of the opportunities digital innovation opens up, it’s not the tech that is the most

important catalyst, but the people that use it.

 

That’s why we teamed up with MakerClub to create SPARK! that has just run for the second

year in Brighton as part of the city’s Digital Festival.

 

We designed it to bring new combinations of people and technology together in a Festival of

Ideas. Local teachers, entrepreneurs, employers, funders, parents and young people got to

experience and explore this new frontier of edtech while solving real local problems.

 

Insert film.

 

Over 120 young people got a taster in 16 workshops run by the likes of Young Rewired

State, Technology Will Save Us and Arcola Energy.

 

Over 80 creative thinkers worked together using Brighton’s unique assets and our Long Run

framework to generate ideas to solve very real problems, from diversity in coding to helping

SMEs understand ‘hidden’ digital skills.

 

Highlights from our first year included a crowd-funded maker space that can be rented by

teachers and techies to run out-of-school workshops and an employer-educator partnership

to help underemployed 17-18 year olds. Already this year, ideas for new local opportunities

in digital rewilding and selling science are up and running, with more to come.

 

It works because we’ve designed a format that removes barriers for the people who care

enough to do something.

 

For brilliant but under-resourced teachers, it is time, budget and know-how barriers.

For entrepreneurs and funders looking to solve problems in education, it’s the human

challenges of how it’s going to be used and the stories that bring it to life.

For young people and employers, it’s the expectation gaps that needs to be bridged.

 

(It also worked because of the vision and support given to us by City & Guilds, The Arts

Council and Brighton Digital Festival. Thank you).

 

I see SPARK! not as an antidote but as a small and potent partner to the slow moving and

hierarchical education system. There are some very good reasons why it takes years to

move an idea on to the curriculum and then into the classroom, but with the fast pace of

digital education you need even faster ways to test and learn what the opportunities really

mean to people and communities.

 

Our goal now is to work with new cities, adapting to their specific strengths and needs and

helping their communities unlock more local potential through digital education.

How do you grow good ideas with stories?

Whether you are campaigning for a sugar tax, selling solar panels or inspiring people to give

coding a go, it is a question worth answering.

 

Richard Branson, said “Whatever you are trying to sell, storytelling is the most powerful

thing you can do”.

 

I agree – to a point. Today, storytelling is easier thanks to social media and smart phones.

But not all stories are equal because the perceived ease of telling them is lulling a lot of

organisations into a false sense of security about what it takes to make a good story.

 

The hard part is making a story that sticks. Especially when you are solving complex

problems and challenging norms.

 

As a species we have the ability to reason but we make most of our decisions

spontaneously, irrationally and emotionally.

 

A good story sticks because it resonates with us emotionally. Through evolution and

100,000s of years of telling stories to share ideas, we’re hardwired to instinctively respond

to those that resonate the strongest.

 

Our business works at the intersect of innovation and creative communications, so while

we’re well aware of the value of a novel business model and the importance of access to

money and markets, we’re most interested in how stories can be used as the missing x-

factor to grow good ideas.

 

So this summer we’ve been experimenting with different storymaking techniques.

 

Working with the entrepreneurial founders of GoodMoney, We Are Women, Our Mobile

Health, Blockbuilders and BASIS, we set out to answer two simple but tough questions:

 

Do you know what story you want to tell?

Do you know how it will resonate with the people whose support you want to win?

 

We ran sessions in pubs, homes and world famous sporting venues, explored formats like

Lean Canvas, Pecha Kucha and the Heroes Journey, created and experimented with our own

MVPs, Pitch BlackTM and Enterprise Strikes Back – and, from Caitlin Moran to John Lasseter,

found inspiration from today’s greatest story makers.

 

In doing so, we’ve updated the classic ‘brand wheel’ used by marketers to be a more useful

storymaking tool in the age of storytelling. (You can download it here).

 

It’s not revolutionary but it’s practical and tactical, based on three principles:

  1. Start with your purpose – this will keep your story authentic, focused and personal. Describing a long run view of what success looks like can help you find clarity.
  2. Understand the master story – your target audience has bias shaped by the media and society. Tracked over a generation, you’ll find fresh insights.
  3. Build from the inside-out – find what makes you different, better and special by starting with your people and culture. Empower them to create and own your story.

 

The next decade is brimming with possibility and opportunity thanks to the pace of change

of innovation. Let’s hope we’re all up to the job of creating the stories that will inspire us to

embrace the good ideas coming our way.

Why do we waste time and talent by not giving Millennials the opportunity to tackle climate change?

Isn’t it odd that while most of our biggest challenges are intergenerational

designing future cities, adapting to climate change, managing an ageing population,

etc. – young people are marginalized from the decisions and the debates.

 

Stranger still? We know they are creative problem solvers and inventively embrace

the potential of accessible technology, yet we trundle on fully aware that we can’t

inject the originality, urgency or momentum into the changes needed.

 

The Millennial Generation values openness, equality and creativity – attitudes at the

heart of positive 21st Century transformation – that big business and politicians, our

current agents of change, love to talk about but all too rarely put into practice.

 

Millennials are full of opinions about the cities they want to live in, how they want to

spend their time and money, and the companies they do (and don’t) want to work for.

Even if it’s the only reason for doing so, it’s not hard to find good commercial ideas

and future markets at the heart of most of these opinions, so why aren’t we doing

more to harness them?

 

What’s missing? Where has it gone wrong? Do the opinions of this generation only

qualify after they’ve reached corporate middle management? Or own a house? Or

have ‘matured’ into a more valuable vote?

 

If so, we’re even more unthinking (actually a better description is unfair and reckless)

because this generation of young adults is being rightly royally screwed by “someone

else’s” recession and its knock on austerity politics. Let alone the trouble they are

due to inherit from our baby boomer consumerism and Generation X’s middle class

apathy.

 

To be honest, I’m glass half full so I’m a believer that the abundance of talent and

imagination will uncover new opportunities that create better value in tackling these

issues. Even so, it seems incredibly short sighted not to start more long run

conversations now.