Leading Innovation: Harvard’s Prof Linda Hill

Smart leaders are no longer casting themselves as solo visionaries, but are rather rewriting the rules of innovation, so claims Harvard Business Professor Linda Hall.

Together with a few other CEO-types, I was privileged to spend a half day with her recently in Perth courtesy of the RAC. She writes on leadership of innovation, and her central case was the recently departed Director for Technology and Innovation in Obama’s White House, Tom Kalil. Tom had the difficult job of trying to build innovation throughout the various realms of government (and of course, he was then summarily dismissed by You Know Who who then put his son in law in charge of the same project.)

Tom had to build coalitions, get funding and convince the most conservative types that change was necessary. Innovation was not an option, it was an imperative. He did this by talking to people, being open, listening. It was all on the tight time frame, as his appointment was political. But huge amounts of progress was made, and he left with a very high reputation. He spoke of creating “policy entrepreneurs” and made it acceptable (and, indeed, the norm) to have innovation in government.

Knowing that most conversations in organisations happen horizontally, he knew he had to break down silos to get communication going up and down the organisational levels.

Leading innovation requires an organisation to do two things at once:

  1. One group looks at the present (exploit) and does the best they can with the current state
  2. Another group looks at what might be, the future state (explore)

The difficulty comes, argues Professor Hill, in integrating the future with the present.

Leadership is about dealing with change, whereas management is about dealing with complexity. Leading change is the not the same as leading innovation.

Value Creators can close a ‘performance gap‘ (between where we should be and where we are), and Game Changers can close the ‘opportunity gap‘ (the different between where we could be and where we are), the moon shots. Leaders need to be game changers.

Leadership is a multi-levelled skill:

  • manage yourself ~ make yourself an instrument, have intent and impact, make an emotional connection
  • manage your network ~ build relationships, with those that can help you reach your goals
  • manage your team ~ develop those you have control over

Leadership run amok is a state where high achievement, high affiliation and power balanced people work hard, have high maintenance, but can balance all the main drivers. Great leaders unleash the powers within their teams, from where innovation comes.

Solve problem, have business

Many of us can make business seem a little bit more complicated than it is.

Setting up a business is really easy. I did it (for the 2nd time in my life) this week . I had thought of a name, which had an available web address, a line that encapsulated what I would do, and I asked my accountant to do all the legal work. I bought a new PC and monitor to set up my home office, asked my bank to create a new business bank account and Fiverr did my logo (on 3rd attempt, but I was happy with the outcome). I tested the name and logo with some people and was met with positive reaction.

I’m not fully launched yet, but I’m on my way. The website (which will be here) is still being built. However, I do have my first paying customer.

As I have written before, startups are easy, as you are buying things. Anyone can buy things. Buy a domain name, buy a logo, office, PC, some accounting services… but it’s much harder to sell things. Get money coming back in, the opposite direction.

When it comes down to it, how you are going to get money coming in is the most important question in business, because without it, you don’t have a business. You may have a not for profit, or a loss-making organisation, but it’s unlikely to become a self-sustaining business. These days, setting up a business is so cheap (my total set up costs have come to $3,200) that you can be “in business” very easily, but unless money is coming in somehow, it is not really a business at all.

I’ve met a few people along the way who are still struggling with this fact. They have a great website, lovely content, are pure and passionate in what they do, but they don’t have a business model (a way of having money come in). They’ve tried a few things, but to no avail or not in sufficient quantity to cover costs.

My advice to them is to stop thinking about what they want to do, and start focusing on the problem they are trying to solve for the customer. In business, the money flows in from the customer. In some cases, there are users and customers, different sets of people. One of them uses the service for free, the other pays for their use.

For example, when we started aussiehome.com way back in 1999, we thought we were building a web site for people like us, home buyers and renters. We were going to make property searching easier, by showing properties on maps on the web, 24/7, rather than forcing people to wait for the weekend papers. Fine, except the business model was a subscriptions one for real estate agents. They were our customers, the ones who paid us, not the users who used the site and found their properties for free.

So, in order to get the real estate agents to pay, we had to work out what problem(s) we were solving for them. It took us about 18 months (post launch) to figure this out. (I don’t advise doing this post launch, as we did.) The agents’ problem was not trying to get buyers to see their properties. Buyers seek out properties. They will use whatever means they can, including driving by favourite neighbourhoods, reading sign boards, ringing up agents, waiting for the weekend and local papers…

You can rarely force someone to buy a house they don’t want to live in. What real estate agents know is that if they get a good listing (property), and present and price it correctly, it will sell (most of the time), depending on market conditions. In boom times, properties fly off the shelves. In tougher times, they seem almost impossible to budge. The poor agent can exert little influence on the market. The market is the market, as they like to remind us.

What real estate agents therefore want, is a great listing. List and last, as they say. In order to get the best listings, agents need ‘listing tools‘, the latest gizmo or script or shiny object that will set them apart from their competitors.

Once this penny dropped, we realised what our business was.

Give our agents listing tools, to make them more competitive over the next agent, and they might just win that great new listing. Price and present it properly, and the property will sell. Or not, depending on market conditions.  Pretty much. It was all about the listing, not the selling.

We then spent the best part of 10 years building listing tools for our agency clients; great websites that ran off our platform, the ability to list on a dozen real estate sites through single data entry and XML feeds, full colour gloss magazines, apps and social media advice… anything to give them the edge in that pre-listing interview with the owner.

So – what is business really? It’s all about solving problems for customers. If you can solve problems for them, then you create value. If you create value, they will pay. If they pay, you might be in business.

It all comes down to relentlessly focusing in on the customer problem, and hammering away at that in ruthless fashion.

Never ever fall in love with your own product or service (the worst salesman does that). Fall in love with solving your customers’ problems instead.

So, after all this, what is my new business, and what customer problem have I fallen in love with solving? Agh, you will just have to wait a little while longer before I reveal… although I have left a few hints on this website.

Photo credit: Steve Fettig, Flickr

Let your brain declutter – and clarity ensues

I’ve not posted for a while. In fact, last month was the first time I’d not posted anything since I started this blog over five years ago.

There are extenuating circumstances.

As some of you will know, I left my CEO job last month, and June was spent finishing off some important tasks as well as handing over to my successor. Along the way I have learned a few important lessons.

In the process of writing up hand over notes, I discovered that some of what I did I did not really need to do myself (directly), and that my delegation skills (which I thought were OK) needed some work.

It’s a bit like moving house. You find all this stuff you’ve kept over the ensuing years, and you really don’t know why you’ve kept it.

Whole drawers of drop files were thrown out. Why was I hoarding all this stuff? I rarely, if ever, opened those drop files, so what were they doing there? An important lesson learned. I also found that I did way too many tasks that really could have been palmed off to someone else. They weren’t all that time consuming, but as I’d initiated them, I’d carried on doing them, and could have hand-balled them way earlier.

I then had a week of catching up with about 18 different people (drank a lot of coffee), that I had been putting off til I had the time to do so. Then we had a family holiday in the sun.

Two weeks on, and I return to my blog, loaded with ideas. It’s amazing how the brain can get creative when you remove all the clutter from your life. All the stuff you do, and take on, because you can, but when you step back, should you really be doing it at all? It makes for a busy life, but is it as productive as it could be?

A week in the sun also helps put things into perspective. After a few days trampling through a national park, lolling on the beach or watching the sun set over a cool beer, your brain tends to do what it does so well – ideas come, and you see things with clarity. Things that annoyed you recede.

Cramming your brain with too much meaningless minutiae reduces its capacity to operate. Ever wonder why you get your best ideas in the car, or on a plane, or even on the toilet? It’s because, without the constant distraction of the bustling office, or emails or social media, the brain can breathe and function. (Life tip – don’t take the smartphone with you into the toilet.)

Paul McCartney kept a notepad by his bed, and often would wake up with a great tune, or the start of a classic song as he nodded off. He’d scribble it down, so he’d capture the thought. These days I use the virtual equivalent Evernote, which is an online app and website where I can capture all my thoughts, notes, drafts and to do lists. I can open it up anytime I think of something, and can access it from anywhere – on the plane, in the departure hall, on the platform. I’ve been making Evernote work overtime these past 2 weeks. It’s my external brain. A hard drive of information I can upload to, and download from, whenever I want.

So, to those of you in full time management and leadership roles, I would urge you to organise your day with some time for emptiness. It’s not wasted time. It will be productive, because only when you declutter your life and brain, does clarity ensue.

Photo: Sunset over Mindil Beach, Darwin ~ 

Where WA’s future will stem from

The rise and fall of once dominant people, companies and economies is common place. These days, if you think of the most amazingly successful, be wondering how well placed they will be a decade from now.

10 years ago, the top website in the world was MySpace. It was the first social media darling, quickly to be overtaken by Facebook. Who uses it now?

For the first time ever last year, the top 5 companies in the world, by market value, were all tech companies: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. 2 of them were formed in the 1970s, 2 in the 1990s and one in the 2000s. They all stem from the US.

Four of these five companies dominate our landscape here in Western Australia – even though we are about as far away from their headquarters as you can be…

  • Apple devices are everywhere. We have 2 iPhones and 2 iPads in our household alone. (10 years ago, these devices did not exist.) We purchase nearly all of our music through iTunes.
  • Google is ever present. It’s how we search for anything, and 2 of the other smart devices in our household have Google-operated platforms.
  • Facebook is all pervasive for the parents in the household, while the children are on Snapchat, Instagram and Youtube. The last 2 of these are owned by Facebook and Google respectively.
  • We have 3 Microsoft  PCs in the house running Microsoft software and operating systems.
  • Only Amazon is not (yet) a dominant player. Amazon online retailing is coming to Australia this year, and it could also become a force to be reckoned with in our house. In the US, 50% of all online commerce goes through Amazon. I have a feeling they will make a huge impact here, maybe not immediately, but do check back in 3 to 5 years.

Which gets me to thinking about my teenage children, the environment they are growing up in and the world of work they will shortly enter. If the rise and fall of organisations teaches us anything, it’s that the businesses that cannot sustain relevance fade away, and the wildly successful dominant players better be re-imagining their future before the rug is taken out from under them. Reinvention is the key, keeping on top of the trend and perhaps getting in front (if possible) is crucial to survival.

Western Australia has an economy almost like no other. It has a massively successful resources industry, which grew to three times its size over the 2002-2012 period. It’s still growing, but is in another phase now (production, rather than building). So much income is earned from it, and from our State, almost half of the country’s entire export income comes from WA (even though we represent just over 10% of the population). The resources industry is not going away!

If I liken the WA economy to a major organisation, then during the very strong years (the decade from 2002), it was time to make hay while the sun shone (yes, we did that) while also looking out for the next success story before the end of the current one (err….).

It’s easy to look back in hindsight to the one trick pony mentality of the 2000s. Here in 2017, we are where we are. So what now?

One thing is clear: we need a diverse economy, in every sense of the word. Not only do we need to draw on the rich and full resource of all working people, at the managerial, C-suite and board level, we need to develop our other industries to take up the slack. Tourism, health, technology, agriculture, aquaculture, education … these are areas of great potential. The trouble with many of them is that every city or region in the world could claim to have some prowess here, or aim to be a world leader. In only agri/aqua-culture could we claim to have some innate natural advantage.

If we’re to lead in tourism, then we need to have a reason for the Asian and global tourist to visit our State, and to return. In health and technology and education, we need investment and smarts and hyper-intelligent people to be drawn to live, work and stay here (including our brightest).

There’s one thing we could do that would be a true investment for the local economy; one thing that could make a significant difference long term, and might save us as a State. It’s not a hopeful, wishful thing, it’s an absolute necessity if we are to continue to enjoy our great lifestyle.

The answer is a meaningful and rigorous devotion to world class STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education for our children – from primary school all the way through to university (and then beyond, through continuous education). We have to commit ourselves to extracting maximum value from the best resource of all – our brains, well, the brains of our children. As you and I are not the future of the economy, yet our school children are, then it’s to them (and their education) we must turn.

It’s a sad fact that the numbers of children taking STEM subjects in our schools has been dropping, and the quality of STEM teachers is also moving in the wrong direction.

The average number of science subjects taken by Year 12 WA students declined from 1.41 to 0.66 between 1986 and 2012. (Report: Optimising STEM Education in WA Schools, TEAC/ECU, 2012). The average number of maths subjects taken declined from 0.92 to 0.69 between 1992 and 2012. There is also a lack of STEM qualified teachers (too often teachers are teaching out of their training area just to get someone in front of a class), and we don’t even have a database of what qualifications STEM teachers currently have. If you don’t measure the problem, you can’t manage it.

Just think about this. The average year 12 student does not even take a maths or a science subject. In other countries, such as one of our closest neighbours Singapore, where I taught for 7 years back in the 1990s, students record among the best results in maths and science globally. There is serious investment in education by the government, and a drive (by students and parents) to get the best results. It’s embedded in the culture, and in many ways Singapore, with few natural resources to speak of,  has had to invest in its people to survive, and thrive.

It’s always been the case that economic growth derives from investments in education, science and technology. Which brings us back to where we came in. If the 5 richest firms are all US-based, and are deriving more and more income here, paying little tax, and employing few people relative to that income, where are the Aussie and West Aussie firms coming from, who will employ our children in 5, 10 or 15 years time? What jobs will be there waiting for the 20-somethings of the 2020s and 2030s? If the STEM skills are the ones future employers will require, are we going to get serious about STEM education?

We all have a role here, not just government. More of our bright young things should teach, at least during their 20s. More of them should take STEM subjects, not because they’re easy and may improve an ATAR score (they’ll likely not), but because they’re important. Especially girls. We need diversity all the way through our businesses, right to the top and across all industries.

Parents, colleagues, managers, employers – I’m talking to you.

~~

More reading on STEM:

Transforming STEM teaching in primary schools, Prinsley & Johnson, Dec 2015

Optimising STEM education in WA, TIAC, ECU, 2013

Image Credit: Lorenzo G Alarcon Elementary

Pitching advice for startups

Last weekend was the 10th Startup Weekend event. A sell out, with 118 people attending. From their 1-minute pitches, 15 or so teams were formed Friday night, who dutifully worked their way through their idea(s) before presenting in front of judges Sunday night. Most of them had a working product and some even had revenues by that time.

Earlier on Sunday afternoon I presented to the attendees on what the judges love and hate in pitches. Here are my slides, and also if you want to watch my talk, it was also recorded (20 minutes).

Here’s my basic advice:

  1. Know the criteria your judges (VCs or whatever) are judging you on. For Startup weekends it’s 3-fold: the business model, customer validation and execution & design.
  2. Start with the problem – preferably a huge, global problem. A problem that you just have to scratch, the itch is that strong. Define, describe and explain it, clearly. For if you are not solving a problem, you are not creating any value, and if you don’t create value for a customer, they are not going to pay, and if they are not going to pay, you ain’t got a business. So, on your first slide – explain what the big hairy problem is. And how you’re going to solve it.
  3. Explain how you have validated your solution – what evidence do you have that customers have this problem, like your solution, and will use and pay you for it? Surveys are nice, but usage of your piece of tech is better. And actual dollars from paying customers (not your Mum!) is best. Only when people are parting with their cold, hard cash do you know if there may be a business in it.
  4. Explain why you and your team are going to be the ones to solve this problem. Investors mainly invest in people (not an idea), because they understand that ideas can change but you remain. Above all the other opportunities they pass on, they have to believe that you have the determination and grit to keep going, when the going is really, really tough. Which it will be, often. So provide evidence of your toughness under pressure, and how the super blend of your amazing team is perfect for the challenges ahead. This should come across in your voice, your manner and your tone. You sound confident, but not overconfident. Strong.
  5. Don’t do crazy valuations or overly confident projections. Banish all ‘hockey stick‘ cash flow and revenue charts, showing slow, low revenues then some astounding take off to amazing heights after only 18 months. Rarely, if ever, (never?) do startups actually take off like this. It can take years of trial and error, pivots and tantrums, to get to a position where you are even paying your way, let alone making super normal profits. It did for AirBnB (who launched 3 times), Google (who had no business model for years) and many other very successful unicorns.
  6. Beware the ‘China number’ syndrome. ‘Oh, the market we are entering is a $20 billion market… if we’d only grab 0.05% of it, we’ll all be multi millionaires!’ This is lazy. Tell me how you are going to get your FIRST paying client, and why they will pay, and then tell me how you are going to get your 10th, 100th and 1000th… Explain, in detail, your customer acquisition strategy, and how you will scale.
  7. Do a great demo of the tech you have built, but better to do this through screen shots, not through live demo, which is fraught with problems in a live environment in front of 100+ people and judges looking on. Make it swish, have a great UX and show off the elegance of your solution. Mention what you would next do, and like to do next, given more time.
  8. In your slides, don’t inflict death by powerpoint. Use images rather than words. Use as few bullet points as possible, with a large easy font. Not too fussy, the slides are supposed to be a visual aid, not a crutch for you to lean on. In a 4 or 5 minute pitch, you may have 6 to 8 slides.
  9. Enjoy it. Smile! Engage your audience and the judges. Allow your passion to shine through.
  10. Practice, practice, practice. You should be able to nail your presentation after a few run throughs (at least half a dozen), and your timing should be bang on. There is no excuse to be rushed towards the end. Take things out if they are peripheral. You can always refer to other points during Q&A time. Aim to be word perfect, no ums and errs, no awkward moments, just one strong, believable logical argument with evidence.

Hackathons, like Startup Weekends, are a great way to condense months of learning into a 54 hour period. All the trials, tribulations & tantrums are smashed into 2 days… little sleep, anxiety, things breaking, things not working, arguments, chaos, and even triumphs… I highly recommend them.

Post Truth or Expensive Truth?

Do facts matter anymore?

The person who would go on to win the 2016 US Presidential election made statements that were true (or mostly true) only 15% of the time over the election cycle. His opponent’s statements were true or mostly true 55% of the time. Fake news was shared more than correct news. Last year, the Oxford Dictionary made “post truth” its word of the year.

Yet this phenomenon is not new. At a recent UWA lecture by Stephan Lewandowsky provided analysis that showed how Fox News (in 2010) misinformed twice as much as other news outlets (running stories on Obama not being born in the US). Even earlier, in 2006, Republican supporters in the US believed there were weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, even after a report conclusively found (in 2004) that no such things were ever there, or found.

Post truth politics work, it would seem.

Two thirds of white males voted for the current US President, and he actually did better than his opponent in the mid-income range. The poorest actually voted for Clinton.

Despite all the lies and half truths, on both sides, supporters of each candidate believed their person was telling the truth 94% of the time. Research has shown that preconceived support is the largest determinant of whether you believe a proposition or not.

In other words, it’s become tribal. Even if supporters are shown that their candidate has told a lie, they accept this, and it does not change their support.

We like to hear good news – it’s only natural. We prefer to hear information that marries with our view of the world. Facts that differ with our own values and inner held beliefs are uncomfortable, and on the whole, we prefer not to be uncomfortable. We’re wired that way. When your team is being belted in the game, you might switch off in disgust, or start walking down the aisles to beat the traffic home. Why prolong the agony?

And then along comes social media, and we can gather whatever information we want. We can live in a cocoon of information that pleases us, whether it is true, biassed or just plain made up. In fact, Google and Facebook’s algorithm’s serve it up to us, because they know what we prefer. They know what we will pause and comment on, click and share.

Now, I’m not blaming the media, or social media, or tribalism, or how we are wired … it is what it is. However, we need to recognise this, if we are to deal with it. Because if not, then we are moving into a world where facts don’t matter, and that’s dangerous.

The trouble is that opinions are cheap and facts are expensive. Worldwide, media is trying to find a business model that will pay for facts, now that the former business model (classified and display advertising) has moved online. Some media don’t care as much as they used to about facts, and peddle opinions, or just promotions.

Yes, media should have seen it coming, but that’s easy to say in hindsight, and what move should they have made anyway? Were they always going to be bowled over?

True, truth is in the eye of the beholder, but we have seen instances (at the highest level) of just plain faced lies (proven lies) being waved off and ignored, as if at least trying to say things as they are is in itself unimportant.  It’s not how things are anymore (people don’t want that), it’s how they make you feel.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m out there looking… answers on a postcard please.

Is your twitter account yours?

Does a company have the right to your twitter account after you leave their employment? Are they in control of what you send out while you work for them? Should they be? Can they be? Does it matter?

These questions have vexed many a business owner and manager, and I’d like to share some of my own personal views on the matter.

I believe that if a member of staff has their own twitter account, with their own name, whether created before or during their employment with us, it is their property.

Take for example, someone called Jo Smith…

If their account handle is @josmith, that is their name, and they will take it with them if and when they leave. The account itself is not company property, nor are the followers of that account.

If they tweet as themselves, they may tweet about their work and/or their own life. Being employed is part of their life, but not all of it. I would ask that if they tweet about anything official, something about us, and even perhaps about something unrelated, they do so with all due respect and realise that as part of their life is being employed with us, they take that into account. I would ask them to be courteous and wary of what they post, and that everything they send out (once sent) is permanent. Even a deleted tweet can be retweeted (or screenshotted) before you get a chance to delete it.

We provide coaching tips and guidelines to all staff members, and sometimes sessions, on how to use social media at work – the traps, the way it can work, how it can benefit their and our brand.

I believe a twitter account is very different to a staff member’s official email account (which absolutely is company property, including its name being that our company brand forms part of the address, and is run off our servers).

When and if Jo moves on from our employment, he or she can take their twitter handle and account with them … but not their email account. Their own name is Jo Smith and belongs to them (not the company), and so @josmith, and all its followers, moves with them.

To be honest, their twitter account is not much use to me after they leave anyway, even if I insisted I retain it. Their contacts, or followers, followed them for various reasons, and enjoyed (or not) their content. I don’t believe I have the authority to take over their persona, even during their employment with me, and certainly not after it. Even if I did, what would I do – carry on tweeting as them? Change the name and twitter handle? That’s deception.

I have noticed some companies (such as the ABC) have some of their reporters use a twitter handle such as @josmithABC, which presumably is created when they join, and ties Jo’s twitter account to the ABC, and only the ABC.

I actually don’t follow this policy because, what happens when Jo leaves the ABC? Are you going to rename his twitter account, take it off him, and give it to someone else? Shut it down? Plus, if you do this with all your staff, then they will have to start their accounts from scratch, and it can take a long time to build up connections and followers. What happens to their personal ones? Do they now run two?

I would argue that when Jo joined me, he or she brought with them everything learnt prior. Their skills, experience and yes, even their social media nous, was what I was hiring. When they leave, that walks out the door with them. When they arrive, I benefit from all their former employment and education and experience (this is what I am hiring, after all), and when they leave, that leaves too.

I try to treat all staff the same. If they have their own social media accounts (most have several), then our social media policy does remind them that whenever they use it, part of their audience knows they work for us, and for them to be respectful of that. We have a public persona, a brand, and that needs protecting, and hopefully, building upon. They do too.

On my own twitter account, which I started in 2009, two employers ago, I clearly state who I am, and that any views are mine and not of my employer. However, I always try to use my accounts to the best of the company’s goals, by liking and sharing content (but overly so, so as to annoy my followers) as part of my overall social media strategy.

See > https://twitter.com/ChazGunningham

Social media has developed into an important communication tool, and like the computer, phone and pen and paper before it, has its own foibles, pros and cons as compared to other forms of communication. What one needs to remember is that this form of communication is now permanent, and that proper staff coaching, including providing clear guidelines, tips and traps, is essential these days.

A watershed moment for Perth tech startups

Dr Marcus Tan addressing the ‘Digital Disruption in Health’ YOLK event, last week

This week it was revealed that local tech business, HealthEngine, had raised $26 million from global venture capitalist Sequoia Capital.

This is notable for a few reasons:

  • it’s the largest private sector investment in a local tech startup
  • the first such investment from this Silicon Valley VC in Western Australia, and their second in Australia (after investing in Melbourne-originated LIFX)
  • the same VC that has invested in such global successes as Google, Apple, Whatsapp, Stripe and AirBnB
  • the business is headquartered and will remain (as far as we know) in Perth
  • the investment reduces the need for the company to do an IPO & keeps the business private

On so many levels, this is a knock-it-out-of-the-park deal, made all the the more notable in that the co-founder and CEO, Marcus Tan, has been a fixture on the local startup scene for 7 years or so.

I remember first meeting Marcus when he was a fellow mentor on Perth’s first Startup Weekend in September 2012. The 10th such event will be held next month. The more I got to know Marcus, the more impressed I was.

Not only a cofounder and CEO (he’d put together the HealthEngine startup in 2006, developing it from his lounge room), he was also an angel investor himself, and a philanthropist (being behind the Global Meridian fund raiser for local worthy causes). He was one of those who set up Perth’s second co-working space for techies, Sync Labs (now run by Spacecubed). He has been basically everywhere in and around the sector in the past decade, as well as a practising GP. Is there nothing he can’t do?

A week last Friday I moderated a session down at the Old Swan Brewery (see photo above), on the topic of digital disruption in health, and he was quite brilliant on the panel. His deep intelligence and soft spoken authority came across (as always), and anyone that met him and heard him cannot but be impressed.

A few years ago I invited him to be a guest speaker in my eBusiness MBA class. Along with many gems of advice, I remember him saying that that Australia is of a certain size that one online business can totally dominate a sector. Realestate.com.au (REA Group) has done this in real estate, and is one of the most profitable online real estate businesses globally. A larger country, such as the States, he argued, is almost too large to have one business dominate. It was clear he was out to dominate Australia, and this week’s funding probably allows him to complete that mission, while looking out for regional and global market expansions.

It could not happen to a better person, and I wish him and HealthEngine all the best.

What this also does is demonstrate to other local tech startup aspirants that a good tech idea, well executed, can be built from Perth. Apart from traditional ICT businesses like Amcom and iiNet, we’ve not seen evidence of this being done. You can also bet Sequoia and others will be looking at Australia, and maybe even Perth. To Atlassian and Canva (Perth originated, but now Sydney based), HealthEngine is now added as the next possible Aussie ‘unicorn’.

Be inspired Perth tech startups up, for you could join the list sometime soon…

When the World Wide Web Conference comes to town

The World Wide Web conference, now in its 26th year, hits Perth this week. The last time it visited Australian shores, in 1998 in Brisbane, a certain unknown couple of Stanford PhD students with an odd-sounded company name presented a paper showing how they were going to revolutionise the world of online search.

Yes, the Google guys, Larry and Sergey, delivered what is now believed to be one of the all-time classic papers about the web. The conference itself was initiated by such luminaries as Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the world wide web) and others a few years earlier.

19 years since it was in Brisbane, it has travelled around the world (next year it’s in Lyons, France, last year it was in Montreal, Canada) and moves into my home city this week, with 400 sessions being put on at a dozen different locations, mainly centred at the Convention Centre.

Looking at the agenda, it is geek heaven. What next big thing will be presented this week? There are topics ranging for the semantic web to AI to data visualisation to machine learning. There’s a session entitled ‘Is Tofu the new cheese of Asia?’ and ‘Web-based surveillance data to improve influenza forecasting in Italy’. Some pretty obscure stuff. I love it!

On Thursday I get to interview on stage 4 senior tech people from Google, LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Snapchat. Can’t wait. 375 people are booked in for that event.

As we rush headlong into the future, it will be interesting to hear from these incredibly smart folk about what type of future we are hurtling towards. You get the feeling, like the 2 PhD guys in Brisbane in 1998, that the future will be moulded by some of the 2000 tech people descending on Perth this week.

How to win those important moments

There’s a moment, a fleeting split-second, when you’re tested and everything suddenly seems on the line. It sharpens your focus. It’s now or never. Pressure on!

Some people attempt sheer off the cuff bravado, roll the dice and get away with it (or not). Others stumble, nervously panic and whimper a little. Some seem to know what to do, what to say, and do it with aplomb as if shelling pees.

Whether it’s at a crucial point of a negotiation, a tough question put to you live on TV or a fast cricket ball hurtling towards your stumps, how you handle the next split second can make or break your month, your career or your team’s chances of winning the grand final.

Justin Langer, current coach of WA cricket team, and former Australian test batting legend, likes to remind his players that if they don’t put themselves under pressure in practice, how can they handle the pressure of a real game? Because being put under pressure in a game is exactly the situation they will be put under, and how they handle that moment, is important.

This reminds me of my last game of cricket, played about 10 years ago, coincidentally one in which the same Justin Langer played …

OK, a wicket has fallen, and my heart jumps as I realise I have to bat now. I’ve been padded up for a while, watching the bowling and now it’s going to be my turn. I start to walk out, practice a few off drives, blink up at the sun, skip to get my feet moving. I pass the outgoing batsman. Bad/Good luck we murmur to each other. Arriving at the middle, I look up at the umpire and ask for middle and leg. Marking my guard, I glance around the field, to see faces staring looking back at me disdainfully. 11 of them. Plus 2 umpires. I acknowledge my team mate at the other end. I twizzle the bat in my hands, look up at the bowler, who then starts his run up. The pitch looks lighter than I remember, and broader, and far away from the boundary edge from where I was just a minute ago. All eyes are on me. Concentrate! watch the ball, watch the ball.

There’s a split moment after he delivers the ball when I have to decide what to do. As the ball is in the air, I try to pick up it’s trajectory. Can I leave it alone? Please for my first ball, I just want to either leave it alone, confidently, or play a resolute defensive shot. Feel bat on ball. Get to the end of the over unscathed, or even better, tickle a single somewhere and get up the other end and off the dreaded nought.

The young strapping fast bowler delivers a thunderbolt, yorker length and I can’t react in time. I hear the clatter as my leg peg is knocked over. Golden duck!

I barely saw anything, and barely moved. I froze. I’d been playing cricket for 30 or more years, had scored a good share of runs in that time, but nothing saved me that day. Castled. First up. Good nut. Cue trudge back to the pavilion. As I walked off, I think I knew that my eyes had gone, my reflexes has gone, and golf was going to be the pastime from now on!

I now coach my son’s Under 13 team, and yesterday they lost to a very powerful, all conquering team of older lads. They tried as hard as they could, but for the team as a whole, the gulf was too wide. They’d not been close to being bowled out all year, but yesterday they were knocked over collectively for less than one of the players had scored individually in a recent game. They will be stronger for it the next time.

My last ignominious innings was preceded by 10+ years of no practice at all, so blaming my 40+ year old eyes and reflexes is a cop out. I play golf most weekends, but apart from the occasional 5 minute blast on the driving range and swinging of a few clubs a few minutes before my first drive, I don’t practice. No wonder it can take my game a few holes to warm up. And in any case, the driving range in no way resembles the pressures and situations you encounter on the golf course, among thick bushes in a bad sandy lie with swirling gusts of wind when you’ve already had 3 shots.

If you can going to win these micro moments of importance, in a negotiation, a sales call, a board room, live on TV or on stage or in sports, you need to practice, and put yourself under pressure during practice.

In my U-13 cricket team I know exactly who has practised well all season, and who has not. Those that have come on this year, have practised the most. Those that have not, have stood still.

People say to me (which is very nice of them) that I ‘own the stage’ or am a ‘natural speaker’ when I am doing a presentation or moderating a panel discussion. Believe me, at school, I would go bright red if the teacher so much as looked in my direction. I was a geeky, awkward and slightly overweight 12 and 13 year old, not very confident, a bit shy and hated any attention in class.

This other cricketing memory from that time, 40 years ago one English summer, pretty much sums it up…

My year’s cricket team was playing the nearby rival school across town, and we were in trouble. We had no chance of winning the game, so had to try and last out the day, batting for a noble draw. I was last man in, and in the last over, had to face a few balls to deliver us that result. I don’t remember the ball being delivered, but I do remember closing my eyes and lunging forward to try and play the most immaculate forward defensive shot ever played. By the time I’d opened my eyes (I swear this is a true memory) the opposition team was walking off in celebration. I looked back, and my stumps were intact. I remember the ball hitting my bat, quite well… but then it must have popped up for a catch, which was taken. I had not seen my calamitous shot or the catch being made. Eyes were closed in defiance. Game over, we had lost.  

And yet, within a few years, I had grown in confidence, become a useful batsman and played some serious club cricket in the UK and Singapore. I even made 7 appearances for the Singapore national team and have a page on the CricInfo website that proves it so.

In between there was lots of practice, lots of mistakes and lots of games. Even though I was not particularly gifted, I loved the game and worked at it.

As I grew in confidence as a teenager, I learned how to speak in public too. I practised. I still do. Every time I am going to speak on stage, I have spend hours honing the slide deck, the talking points, the words and stories I am about to say. If the event is video’d, I watch it back and criticise my performance.

It’s boring, but it’s also 100% true that performance is borne from practice. The right type of practice. Those that try to wing it on the night may fluke a few wins here and there, but more often that not they will be caught short and won’t reach their potential. Same for final year exams. Those that put in the effort, and importantly, practice like the real thing, putting themselves under pressure during practice (such as doing timed exam questions), will be more able to handle the slings and arrows and random things that are thrown at you when the chips are down and the thing is on, for real.

I am amazed at sales people who baulk at practising their craft, honing their phone technique or role playing their sales meetings. It’s critical. So much learning results. Similarly, startup founders who cannot articulate their obvious passion into a clear, sensible business case for potential investors. Or business leaders with hopeless presentation skills, droning on through boring bullet point laded powerpoint pages.

So, take it from Alfie. Put yourself in a game situation, under pressure as you practice. And when the actual moment comes, and when the next move you make, or words that come out of your mouth, determine whether you will win or lose, you’ll be much more likely to win.