Alexander Blass, CEO of Innovation Institute of America, International Keynote Speaker and Grand Prize Winner, Top Innovator of the Year Award recently visited Sri Lanka to deliver the keynote presentation at the CIMA Business Leaders Summit themed ‘Future Defined’.
“This is my first visit to Sri Lanka and I can’t tell you how honoured I am to be here. I’m really grateful to CIMA for inviting me to be here as the keynote speaker for their annual Business Leaders Summit. I’ve been to nearly 70 countries in total including a number of countries in South Asia. There is definitely cultural warmth I felt throughout this region and of course here in Sri Lanka as well. I’m very delighted about this beautiful country that, my better-half and I have decided to spend our honeymoon here in Sri Lanka. People in this country are warm, just so present and alive and that’s something I always appreciate,” Blass commented.
Following are excerpts of an interview:
By Kiyoshi J. Berman
Q: As a professional who has had a diverse career ranging from roles of software developer, strategy consultant to venture capitalist, what drove you towards becoming a keynote speaker and master class presenter?
A: In 2007, I was very honoured to be the youngest grand prize winner of the Daily Records Top Innovator of the year award; which was for revolutionising charitable giving by inventing the technology behind the personal crowd funding industry which has grown to an industry of over $ 5 billion. After that, there was media coverage about our innovation and improving the lives of people through our innovative approach to fundraising. That led to a number of speaking requests on business innovation, leadership and entrepreneurship. Keynotes led to master classes and longer form programs to teach business innovation and leadership strategies to companies and executives on how to come up with the next big thing. Eventually, I went on to become the CEO of Innovation Institute of America.
Q: What is your story behind becoming the youngest grand prize winner of the Daily Record’s Top Innovator of the Year Award?
A: I was a venture capitalist in the technology sector. After graduating with a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and attending the Wharton Business School and receiving my MBA from the Oxford University in the UK, I had a career in software development at KPMG. Then I’ve been into consulting and investment banking and venture capital. I wanted to do something of more fulfilment and social impact.
I saw a problem in fundraising and philanthropy sector over 10 years ago. I realised that many industries have been disintermediated by the internet. Whether it was buying books online on Amazon or eBay to even online dating was powered by the internet but fundraising and philanthropy was living in the dark ages. People were giving to the enormous non-profits, charities and NGOs hoping their money would actually go to someone in need.
The donors are in frustration because there is no direct person to create an online fundraising campaign through the internet to raise money for any cause; such as natural disaster victims, a wounded veteran or a couple that are looking to adopt a child but don’t have the money to afford it. Even in countries like the US, healthcare costs are astronomical and millions of Americans don’t have health insurance. There are everyday means being unmet.
So I said, there has to be a better way of doing this. We can cut out the middle man for the fundraising as well. It was also a reflection of the passions and values bestowed upon me by my parents who were always philanthropically minded and never turning anyone away. I wanted to really combine my education, training and experience in technology and business with the passions and the values I had grown up with, that were important to me and my family. It was based around seeing a problem in society and thinking of new ways of looking at it. It was crystal clear to me, in my mind it was so obvious but to other people it was not so obvious.
If you have had that big idea in your head that has been gnawing at you for six years, six months or even six hours, don’t talk yourself out of it. Everyone told me it was a crazy idea; it will never work and don’t leave your venture capital job. If people tell you that your idea is crazy, take it as a compliment. In fact, if people don’t say your idea is crazy, it’s probably not that innovative.
All big innovative success stories you can think of always began as crazy ideas. No big innovation is an overnight success and it’s not glamorous at all; it’s a struggle, innovating isn’t easy and I do not wish to over simplify it. But I would encourage everyone to have that tenacity, that courage to stay, to believe in yourself, to believe in your visions and to surround yourself by a positive team.
Q: Why do you think innovation is essential in today’s challenging economic climate?
A: Innovation is not a new concept. Maybe it gains more attention these days and sounds like a great buzz word but how many of us truly understand what the word innovation means. It’s about improving the lives of people in small incremental ways. It doesn’t always have to be game changing and revolutionary.
Sri Lanka having recent government change and coming out of a three decade long war and being a young country, innovation is not new here. All our cultures as a whole, as a society are constantly innovating. The world has been innovating for thousands of years.
However, for those people who may think that during challenging economic times, political changes or uncertain climates that maybe innovation is the last thing you should be doing or the most difficult; it’s actually the opposite. During times like these, through uncertainty and through change come the greatest opportunities to innovate. Look around you and see what problems you can solve through innovation.
For example, if you look at the Fortune500 companies, I believe that over 50% were surprisingly either founded or experienced periods of expansion, during times of economic downturn. My point is there are actually great opportunities to innovate because it separates the tenacious people, the ones who persevere and look of new ways of doing things for customers and society from those who are more risk averse.
Think, what would you like the future of Sri Lanka to look like and how can you awaken your innovator within to help be a part of that positive change.
Q: You deliver keynote presentations worldwide based on ‘IIA’s proprietary 3-pronged business innovation framework’ known as the Wheel of Innovation. Can you briefly explain what it entails?
A: In America, we use several proprietary business innovation frameworks which we teach worldwide to executives, managers, entrepreneurs as well as to university students. The framework which we call the ‘Wheel of Innovation’ is a three pronged business innovation tool. It’s a high level view of the three core modules on how to build a successful business innovation ecosystem.
In summary, the first spoke of the wheel of innovation is the innovation in people, leadership, mindset and culture. The culture of innovation should run through the lifeblood or the DNA of the company. Both from the top down that is senior management to other levels being part of the corporate culture and tracking the top talent from the top universities and colleges.
Also from the bottom up, because often times the young fresh grads who want to come out and change the world and are less risk averse, have a more entrepreneurial zeal and have grown up in the era of the internet and see new opportunities with fresh eyes. So it has to come from both, top down and bottom up. You have to offer a culture of innovation that welcomes diverse views, new ways of thinking, challenges and conventional wisdom.
The second spoke of the wheel is, now that we have the innovative mindset, leadership and culture, how do we actually do it. That is innovation in product, service and process development. In that module we teach a proprietary six pronged framework for strategies and methods for innovation and creativity for your products, services and processes – in other words, how to come up with the next big thing. Again, it’s not all about game changing innovations but also incremental innovations to teach your employees how they can innovate in some way in their daily jobs.
The third and final spoke of the wheel is innovation in sales, marketing and customer enthusiasm. The final component of innovation is to get the word out about your wonderful products and services. These include ‘buzz’ marketing and viral campaigns as well as innovative customer engagement strategies such as gamification, ethnography, empathy, and crowdsourcing. It’s more about customer enthusiasm than customer service. These days, you can get your customers and your prospects to be your greatest supporters and evangelists by building that sense of community and that emotional connection between your customers and your products.
If you look at some of the biggest success stories of our era for example a company like Gopro, the camera manufacturer ... the owner being a multi billionaire, the company is not more than a decade or so old. The success started to build momentum after YouTube where millions of people have posted their Gopro videos of doing cool things like jumping off air planes, sky diving, surfing and whatnot. Whenever someone does that, it builds a sense of community and user generated content for selling Gopro.
Some people say that, all the good ideas are taken and it’s too difficult to innovate now; but I would respectfully disagree and say it’s the opposite. Now it’s easier than ever, there are innovative tools for sales and marketing that didn’t exist in the times of even Amazon. Now you can do it on a low budget to no budget and you can really create that buzz to build your business.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the most interesting experiences you have had as a keynote speaker and master class presenter?
A: I’m grateful to all the opportunities I’ve got. I’m privileged to meet people in different cultures and communities and I’ve learnt a lot from the audiences than the other way around. It is eye opening and a great honour and privilege to see the beauty of the world and its many warm, hospitable people.
Q: What would be your advice for young Sri Lankan business leaders?
A: My advice would be to have the self-confidence and tenacity to believe in yourself and your vision and tune out people that don’t believe in you and support your entrepreneurial endeavours; and have mentors to help you and guide you. There’s a difference between mentorship and discouragement. Although you should get input and feedback from people that you respect, admire and support you, ultimately you make the call. It’s your life and you got one shot.
Remember, regret is far worse than failure. If you have that big idea in your head and wondering what could have happened if you had followed through your big ideas; that regret is so much worse than the failures from trying and learning from the experience. It’s ok to fail; many entrepreneurs and innovators if not virtually all have failed repeatedly. It’s not that what separates the successful entrepreneurs from those who are not. It’s your ability to get back on the horse, to get back up and fight again another day. Only a few entrepreneurs hit a big win on the first attempt. It maybe your second, third or even tenth go at it, but it’s your ability to get back up and keep believing in yourself. Because eventually you will make it and hit that big one but you got to have that motivation.
Innovations and entrepreneurial success does not happen alone, it’s a team sport. Whether you’re working for a big company or small company whether it is intrapreneurship or entrepreneurship, it won’t happen alone. Of course there is that one champion with that fire in the belly to shake up that industry, but you got to have a great team around you.
Don’t come up with an innovation looking for a problem; look for a problem looking for innovation. That’s what distinguishes invention from innovation.
For example, look for what your customers are looking for tomorrow. Your customers don’t always know what they want until you innovate it and bring it to them. Think about what people would want in the future; observe their behaviours in empathy and ethnography. Don’t get talked out of it, and most importantly follow your passions and values and combine these with your professional training and experience.
If you look at the most successful entrepreneurs and innovators throughout history; you will be surprised to know that many of them often had little to know about the industry, prior to experiencing in the field in which they were credited with revolutionising. Having a fresh set of eyes is an advantage. If you don’t have experience in the field you’re looking to innovate don’t let that discourage you.
There are great opportunities to become successful innovators locally, regionally and internationally and I wish you all the best for continued success here in Sri Lanka.