It’s never an easy task asking your boss for three weeks off when you’ve only been in the job for three months. After starting as the new Creative Director in our Melbourne studio, I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in a US Government program to learn more about the way they support and foster entrepreneurialism and innovation.
When the official invite for their ‘International Visitors Leadership Programme’ landed on my doormat, I knew I’d be in for an eye-opening three-week adventure across the States. Thankfully, Elmwood agreed. So off I went…
With the very esteemed title of ‘Entrepreneurship as the engine of prosperity: small business development’, the trip involved a jam-packed schedule of tours, talks, meetings and workshops across several states. With 70 people taking part, from over 65 different countries, all nominated by the US Embassy in our home countries, based on our area of expertise as it relates to entrepreneurialism.
From start-up incubators in Chicago, to fellow brand agencies Salt and Method, and Coursera – the world’s largest online learning site – in Silicon Valley, California, we were given access to the leaders of the US innovation ecosystem. In Austin, Texas, home to the second-largest start-up community in the US, we heard directly from government representatives, explaining how local government structures can help rather than hinder entrepreneurialism.
In Washington DC I was inspired by business owners daring to do things differently, including Catherine Novell, who was tapped on the shoulder by Steve Jobs to help get Apple products into China. She made a powerful observation around the ‘app economy’ that stuck with me: since Apple launched the smartphone, the rate of app development grew exponentially, creating about 750,000 new jobs. Just think about it. Brands like UBER wouldn’t exist if the app economy hadn’t been ignited.
Meeting US based entrepreneurs was obviously the focus, but it was the time spent with my fellow visitors that made the biggest impact on me personally. I was inspired by their stories, their dreams and their approaches to solving problems, no matter what barriers they came up against. A staggering group of enterprising individuals from all corners of the world – Nigeria, Palestine, Brazil, Jordan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Moldova, Mexico, and so many more. It was like being in the UN. Each of them had an incredible path that had led to their involvement in the program.
Mohammed, who runs his own production company in Gaza, started the company with just $700, renting out some space and cold-called clients non-stop. He landed his first client before the end of the first week, and now creates documentaries for Unicef, Oxfam, Pepsi amongst many others. Even the bombing of his office building didn’t stop him. He rebuilt it and got back to work.
My path to the program was slightly different. After spending most of my career as an Art Director in advertising, developing campaigns for multi-national brands, I took the plunge with a strategic role in branding. This new perspective gave me the courage to launch my own product: Do Water, the first bottled water brand made from forestry certified renewable paperboard material. During this time, I was invited to speak at a few US Embassy events in Melbourne. I also attended a number of entrepreneurial and design events hosted by the Embassy. They kindly nominated me to participate in this program… and the rest is history.
So, with all these amazing journeys, interactions and conversations – not to mention my fair share of sightseeing – what did I learn?
Firstly, it might seem obvious, but collaboration is the cornerstone of start-up success. It’s something we should always keep ourselves open to. And I mean true collaboration – within our own teams, but also with clients, suppliers, both inside and outside of the industry we’re working in.
Also, believe it or not, there seems to be a trend in the US tech sector to reach out to competitors. Rather than being secretive, they see mutual cooperation as a way of helping grow each other’s capabilities and bottom line. Definitely food for thought, whatever your sector.
As well as answers, I’ve been left with questions too – good questions.
The next billion people are about to come online in the next decade, and most of them are in the region closest to Australia (India, China, South East Asia and the Middle East). How are we preparing for it? What do we need to know so that we’re helping our clients prepare their business for the opportunities that will come up? What meaningful conversations could we be having right now?
We should always be questioning our appetite to disrupt our own thinking, or we might as well prepare to fail. Here’s a quote that a client in Australia shared with us that I think expresses this point well when she spoke about the way Facebook staff are motivated to constantly challenge themselves:
We must invent the ideas that will kill Facebook before someone else does.
Within that interrogation, we should be open to failure. Gone are the days when we can wait until we get it all right before launch. Now we can prototype ideas, get a beta model running, then learn from it and evolve it. The freedom to fail allows us to be more agile, responsive and experimental. An invaluable skill in a world that’s changing so fast.