Challenging times are also the best moments for innovators … from textile start-ups in Bursa to next-tech Fark Labs in Istanbul

October 22, 2019

I’m in Turkey this week.

The Turkish economy is struggling badly. Geopolitical uncertainty, trade wars and sanctions, exchange rates, lost confidence and courage. It’s time for Turkish businesses to reawaken their passion and ingenuity. Having worked with the local businesses like Eczacibasi, Koc and Sabanci, Pinar and Yildiz, Garanti and Akbank, I understand the Turkish love of ideas and innovation.

Sometimes the ideas get lost at the commercialisation stage, lacking the most appropriate business model. Sometimes it’s an obsession with technologies, but little real insight into consumers. Sometimes it’s not being able to adapt and embrace the latest technologies fast enough. Sometimes it’s a love to be a leader within the local market, but less interest in international growth. But at the same time there is an immense desire to do better, to make things happen, to drive progress.

First stop today is Bursa, the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey’s 4th largest city is also home to its largest industry, textile manufacturing. Whilst traditional players have struggled due to relatively high costs that don’t match consumer’s demand for low price fast fashion, others have realised they need to think differently. Take ISKO, the premium denim ingredient brand from Sanko Group, or Aster Textile which I have been working with to help reimagine itself as a design house focused on premium, sustainable fashion.

The TechXtile Start-Up Challenge seeks to catalyse a new generation of Turkish textile innovators, not to produce average fabrics at low prices, but rethinking how to compete in a changing world. This might be in terms of new fabrics – from organic pineapple or mushroom-derived materials, through to smart and digitally-embedded garments. It might equally about building your own brands and selling directly online, rather than using the old distribution paths through high street retailers.

Around the world, from London to Shenzhen, Singapore to Istanbul, start-up ecosystems are thriving, a $3 trillion economy.

Later I was in Istanbul, in the business metropolis of Maslak.

FarkLabs is a creative ventures business of a long-established automotive parts business, Farplus. Whilst the auto market is about to undergo a radical reinvention (electric, autonomous, multi-modal, subscription-based, mobility), FarkLabs brings together the best talent, ideas, investment and innovations for the future. Led by Ahu Serter, they are searching the edge for the best and next business concepts, with a passion to bring together business models and new tech to make the world a better place.

It was a real privilege therefore to be able to deliver a fantastic evening masterclass “Leading Change in a Disruptive World” hosted by Fark Labs, packed out with over 200 of Istanbul’s most digital movers and entrepreneurial shakers. We explored how challenge becomes opportunity in a changing world, fusing digital and physical, tech and humanity, profit and purpose. We explored what the world’s most radical innovators, right now, actually do. We focused on getting started from the future back, the outside in, and with a growth mindset. And we defined “7 leadership codes” to lead the future better.

Ahu Serter was a recent participant in IE Business School’s Global Advanced Management Program, which is the school’s flagship exec development program. As its academic director my vision is to help business leaders to step up to a new world of radical change and incredible opportunity, and to transform their futures, personal and organisational,in ways that had not even imagined. Ahu is clearly well on the way to transforming her world, and hopefully we can help many others to do so too.

Here is a summary of some of my Q&A with Turkish media:

  • What are your assessments and predictions for the future of the Turkish economy?

Overall growth in Turkish economy will continue to be slow, and I would expect it to be around 1 to 1.5% in 2020, compared to average global economic growth of around 3%. Economic and political tensions will continue to bring uncertainty, whilst exchange rates and trading confidence will continue to be challenges.  However we should always remember that these are averages. There will be some sectors, and in particular individual companies, who will do far better than this, and others worse.

Whilst we live in a volatile and uncertain world, it is also a world of rapid and relentless change, unlocking new markets and opportunities. If we look at the macro nature of economic cycles, what are known as Kondratieff waves, we see that there is a recurring cycle of growth and stagnation.

What is interesting is that innovation follows in an opposing cycle, in that times of stagnation or decline, are the times of greatest innovation. Crisis, downturns and slowdowns, are when markets are shaken up, and when creativity comes to the fore. Now is the time to rethink your business, rethink how your business works, and to rebuild for the future.

  • Would you share your observations about Turkish companies, in what topic are they making more mistakes, and what advice would you like to give them?

The challenge as always is to think big and small – to explore the global opportunities beyond Turkey, whilst also being able to look to the best opportunities in local markets. I have worked with many Turkish companies over the last 15 years or so – from multinationals like Koc and Sabanci to Eczacibasi and Turkcell, Akbank and Garanti, Pinar and Ulker.

What I see is great creativity, but also a sense of myopia. A great company like Koc is struggling to reinvent itself in the digital age, as it knows it must. Whilst Ulker has made ambitious strides to become a global player through acquisitions and diversification.

Companies need to think beyond their home market, beyond their core products, beyond their existing business models, beyond their old capabilities, beyond seeking to survive for today.

  • What kind of strategies should be followed by companies that want to be innovative?

Strategy used to an evolutionary process, seeking to stretch and sustain the success of the past. Today it is a revolutionary process. Start from the future back, rather than trying to tweak today. See how your industry, your customers, your competitors are changing – both at home and around the world. Learn from other sectors, rather than just imitating the competition. Most importantly, see the future, and shape it, in your own vision rather than others.

Companies like Aster Textile have done this incredibly well. As a textile company they looked beyond fabrics, to see a rapidly changing fashion marketplace, with millennial behaviour and social influencers, the rapid decline of traditional high street retailer and slow business models. They said how can we be part of this new world, and were open to change anything and everything.

  • What are your suggestions for advertising, promotion and marketing?

The most important thing is to start with the real customer – not an intermediary brand or distributor – but the consumer. We should be obsessed with how people are behaving, dreaming and changing. What are the trends in the market? How are fashions changing, and what is driving that? What are the ideas in other geographies, other sectors, other segments, that are catching on? What’s happening in the margins not the mainstream. Then work with partners, such as designers or retailers, in order to respond to this changing audience.

However we know that every aspect of marketing has changing.

Advertising no longer works, it is interrupted and average. Instead people turn to their friends, and other influencers, including the social superstars. They want newness and difference, they want to be individual. The mobile phone is the starting point to any transaction, and indeed the old idea of high street buying is disrupted by subscription models, freemium models, community models, and much more. Birchbox to Boohoo. Stitchfix to Threadless are great examples.

  • What should companies do in the times of economic crisis, what to do and what to stay away from?

Economic crisis is the time to survive – and thrive. It’s the time to ensure you have sufficient cashflows to keep going, by staying lean and focused. But it’s also the time to experiment and innovate. If its bad for you, its usually also bad for your customers, so they are looking for alternatives, and ways to keep living but in new ways.

Most great innovators were born out of economic crisis. The current crop of creative “hero” brands like Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, and many more, were born out of the economic downturns of 2000-2 or 2008-10. They offered an alternative to the old ways. Sharing models, platform models, personalisation models, subscription models, emerged out of the need to do things differently, and for consumers desire to live better, but in new ways.

  • What will be the benefits of TechXtile Challange to the Turkish textile sector in the long run?

Challengers need to look beyond the product. They need to think differently about how textile businesses will succeed in the future.

To me, too many textile business are still product centric. The danger is that you end up competing in price driven markets, trying to sell innovative products to existing brands and retail channels who themselves are in decline. Regardless of your innovation, will most likely be forced to reduce prices, as if you were a price-driven commodity, as the brand or retailer’s own business struggles.

The value added of your creativity is lost. Instead you need to look beyond today, beyond the conventional industry models to see the future.

In a world of fast fashion but also environmental concerns, mobile channels and influencer trends, you need to think different about your whole business. Look to Bolt Threads. Look to Eileen Fisher. Look to Depop. Look to Rapha. Look to Zozo in Japan. See what they do. Take the best bits, combine them, and do them better.

The most innovative businesses see the world differently.

They don’t just seek to imitate the success of others, to compete in the markets of today, to frame themselves by their relative differences to competitors. Instead they play their own game.

I call them “gamechangers”, and here in Dubai, I will be previewing the World Expo 2020, and taking inspirations from companies all around the world who are shaking up markets, embracing radical new ideas, and changing the game.

So what’s the “game”? Well, in simple terms, it’s the market.

These companies go beyond innovating their products and services, their customer experienes and business models. They seek to innovate how their markets work.

Think of it like a sports game. How could you change the game? It could be anything from the pitch dimensions to rules of play, the team composition to the measures of success, the role of the referee to the participation of fans. Even the name of the game.

Now look at today’s most disruptive innovators – 23andMe to Alibaba, Zespri to Zidisha – they reframe, reimagine and redefine the market on their terms – who is it for, why people buy, what they pay and get, and how they work.

I’ve met and profiled over 250 “gamechanger” companies on my travels, in almost every sector, and in every part of the world. Corporate giants and start-ups, from Dubai to Berlin, Colombo to Qingdao.

There is no one way to change the game, but there are definitely some common traits:

  • Audacious – Gamechangers are visionary and innovative, but also daring and original; they seek to shape the future to their advantage.
  • Purposeful – They seek to make life better, in some relevant and inspiring way; they have a higher motive than just making money.
  • Networked – Gamechangers harness the power of networks, digital and physical, both business and customer networks, to exponentially reach further faster.
  • Intelligent – They use big data analytics and algorithms, machine learning and AI, to be smart and efficient, personal and predictive.
  • Collaborative – Gamechangers work with others, from ecosystems to platforms, social networks and co-creation, to achieve more together.
  • Enabling – They focus not on what they do, but what they enable people to do; and thereby redefine their marketspace, find new opportunities and redefine value.
  • Commercial – Gamechangers take a longer-term perspective, adopting new business models, and recalibrating the measures of progress and success.

Do you have a future mindset?

Today’s business leaders need a future mindset. That sounds obvious, but isn’t.

Most leaders have a “fixed mindset”. They keep stretching the old models of success. They stay loyal to the model that made them great, seeking to squeeze and tweak it for as long as possible. They seek perfection – to optimise what they currently do – which leads to efficiency and incremental gains.

Instead a “future mindset” is prepared to let go of the past. To explore the future, to experiment with new ways of working and winning. Failure is a way to learn, and innovation becomes the norm. Change is relentless inside, as it is outside. Innovation is their lifeblood. Like Jeff Bezos loves to say “it is always day one”.

With a future mindset, the CEO needs new attributes:

  • Sense maker – to interpret a fast and confusing world, to see new patterns and opportunities, what is relevant and not, to shape your own vision.
  • Radical optimist – to inspire people with a stretching ambition, positive and distinctive, to be audacious, to see the possibilities when others only see risk.
  • Future hacker – they start from the “future back”, with clarity of purpose and intent, encouraging ideas and experiments, leveraging resource and scale.
  • Ideas connector – da Vinci said innovation is about making unusual connections;  connecting new people, new partners, new capabilities and new ideas.
  • Emotionally agile – whilst organisational agility is essential, emotional agility matters even more; to cope with change, to be intuitive in making sense, and making choices.
  • Entrepreneur at large – keeping the founders mentality alive, hands-on working with project teams to infuse the mindset, to be the catalyst and coach.
  • Having grit – “gamechanger” leaders need to go against the grain, to persist but know when to move on, to have self belief and confidence, guts and resilience.

The future is a better place to start

Start from the “future back”.

Trying to evolve in today’s complex and confused world is unlikely to lead you towards a bright and distinctive future. It will extend your life a little longer, but it will be tough and uninspiring, with diminishing returns.

Instead jump to the future. I tend to start with five years ahead, although it may differ by company. 5 years is long enough to change the world, but close enough to be real. Start by creating a positive, collective and inspiring vision of the future market. What will it be like? What will people want? Why? How? Where? Then consider how to win in this new world.

This is where “moonshot thinking” can be really useful. “Why be 10% better, when you could be 10 times better?” 10 times more profits, more customers, more quality, reduced cost, reduced time. Whatever. By giving yourself a “How could we do it 10x better” challenge you take a new perspective, solve problems in different ways.

Be inspired by ideas from other places.

Explore how ARM or GE, Inditex or Netflix, Glossier or Novo Nordisk have changed their markets. Choose any of my 100+ “gamechanger” companies! How did they do it? How did customers respond? (Remember, they often serve the same customers as you!). You can’t learn much from competitors, but you can learn a lot from relevant parallels.

Copy. Adapt. Paste.

Customer insight also matters. Deep dives and design thinking, exploring the emerging trends and deviant behaviours. This can enhance and validate your ideas, but the problem with most customer insight is that it is filtered by our current world. You need something to disrupt your thinking.

I have a great box of disruptive techniques. Some are really simple – like break then remake the rules, like imagine its free then find a way to make money, like reverse polarities and many more. The point is to disrupt your conventional thinking.

From this, ideas rapidly emerge. You need lots of ideas about the future. But these are fragments of the real answer. The real creativity comes in fusing together into bigger “concepts”. These could be customer solutions, or new ways of working, new revenue streams, or new business models, and new market scenarios.

Once you have a clear and collective ambition for the future, it’s time to work backwards.  “If this is how we want to be in 5 years, where do we need to get to in 3 years, and then in 1 year?  Therefore what do we need to start doing now?” You develop a “horizon plan” for your business; a strategy roadmap if you like, but developed backwards.

The important thing is that by working backwards, you have jumped out of the morass of today. You’ve avoided the assumptions, limitations, problems and priorities of today’s thinking. You have a more inspiring “gamechanging” future, and have started to map out the steps to get there. Most likely with different priorities in the short-term too.

Of course the steps on this journey might change, but it’s going to be an exciting adventure.

Change the way we think, resolve the conflicts

In today’s busineses, we have created artificial divides in how we think and operate. Digital and physical seem like two different worlds, global and local seem like alternative strategies that cannot combine, many still struggle to align value to customers and shareholders in a mutually reinforcing way, and short and long-termism continues to confuse our priorities.

Our thinking within business, has created separate and apparently conflicting approaches. The opportunity is to make the combination of both approaches world – “fusions” if you like – to be innovative in the way you combine apparent opposites.

Digital and physical are two sides of the same coin.

There is only one world, unless you believe Ray Kurzweil, and it is the real one. It’s human and physical. Digital technologies are incredibly powerful, enabling people to connect, to work, to learn, to play in new ways. From mobile phones to blockchains, 3D printing and augmented reality, digital allows us to do more, do it faster, do things we could never do before. But it’s still about humanity.

Start with people. How can you enable them to achieve more? To live better, to have more fun, to do better for the world. Whatever matters. I work closely with Richard Branson and his Virgin teams. Their mindset is to “start from the outside, and then work in”. Design a better customer experience. Built on your ambition and insight, and then explore how you could deliver it with new and existing capabilities.

Global and local are opportunities for every business.

I love Amazon’s “Treasure Truck” … Most of us have never connected with Amazon beyond the website and the delivery guy. Amazon is huge, global and anonymous. But the Treasure Truck is real. It travels around the country, bringing its pop-up store to local neighbourhoods, fun and games, bargains and demos. For Amazon, it’s a chance to make real connections, listen to people, and to be local.

We can all see a backlash in society against relentless globalisation, huge corporations, and social inequality. We see a lack of trust in brands, and know that authenticity matters. Etsy shows us that even the smallest and most local artisan businesses can also be global. For every business, local and global markets are within reach, however it’s also about combining scale and standardisation, with relevance and individuality.

Ideas and networks should be the core of your business.

Gamechanger businesses need a compelling idea, a core purpose, an inspiring proposition, that can spread fast and contagiously. In a digitally-fuelled world, the most innovative businesses embrace “ideas and networks” to drive exponential impact – like WhatsApp creating $19bn in three years, Airbnb $40bn in 9 years, Alibaba $476bn in 18 years, Amazon $740bn in 23 years.

Think about that concept of “exponential” … The power of networks – be it franchisees, or distributors, or customers and users – lies not in the number of members, but in the connections between them. Networks have a multiplying effect. Exponential. Consider, for example, Rapha, the sportwear brand that brings together people with a passion for cycling, who conveniently meet at their “Cycle Club” stores, and buy their premium gear. A fantastic “ideas and networks” business.

Finally this idea of short-term and long-term being in conflict with each other.

Jeff Bezos never has this problem, nor Elon Musk, nor Richard Branson. They focus on the long-term, recognising it will require some years of investment to get there. They all of course lead privately-owned companies. But every public company has the same ambition to innovate and grow. And so do most of their investors, actually.

The reality is that any company’s stock market performance is based on its future earnings potential, not its past. The better you can engage with equity analysts, journalists and investors themselves to explain why you will deliver a better future worth waiting for, then you get their support. If you don’t engage them in your future vision, plans and innovations, then they will default to looking for short-term evidence. It’s really in our hands, to work together to create a future we want to invest in. And to share the greater risk and rewards.

Time to embrace your future mindset

We live in an incredible time … More change in the next 10 years than in the last 250 years … remember? I know that sounds a little crazy, but think about Hyperloop in 3 years, a tipping point to electric cars in 5 years, Mars missions in 8 years. They are all real, and possible.

Digital platforms connecting buyers and sellers in new ways, blockchain having the potential to transform relationships and trust, 3d printing having the potential to transform value chains to deliver anything personalised and on-demand, AI and robotics giving us the capabilities to be superhuman in our minds and bodies.

These are just some of the fantastic new capabilities that enable us to innovate beyond what we can even imagine today. The future isn’t like the future used to be. We cannot just evolve or extrapolate the past. Today’s future is discontinuous, disruptive, different.

It is imagination that will move us forwards … unlocking the technological possibilities, applying them to real problems and opportunities, to drive innovation and growth in every industry, in every part of our lives.

Imagine a world where you press “print” to get the dress of your dreams, the food of your fantasies, or the spare parts for your car. Instantly, personalised and on demand. Think then what does that mean if we don’t need the huge scale of manufacturing plants, warehousing and transportation. Maybe we will even subscribe to the IP catalogues of brands, rather than buy standard products, in the ways we currently subscribe to Netflix.

Time to embrace your growth mindset … Unlock your Einstein dreams and Picasso passion … Embrace your Mandela courage and Ghandi spirit. Be more curious, be more intuitive, be more human. Ask more questions. Don’t be afraid to have audacious ideas, to challenge the old models of success, and turn future ambitions into practical profitable reality.

How else did Zespri reinvent the Chinese gooseberry as the kiwi fruit? How else will SpaceX reach Mars by 2025? How else did Netflix came to be, or NuTonomy, or Nespresso, or Nyx?

This is why 23andMe’s Anne Wojicki wont give up in her quest to make DNA analysis available to everyone, and to ultimately find a cure for cancer. And it’s why Jack Ma didn’t give up as he rose from $1000-per year English teacher to technological royalty.

The secret is the future mindset.

To realise that the future is malleable. So we need to grab hold of it, and shape it in our own vision. To our advantage.

This is what “gamechangers” do.

More ideas from Peter Fisk …