It all began with a quick trip to Lismore. I found myself nominated as a finalist for the Alumni of The Year at one of my old unis. (If you’re wondering, I went to three different ones, if you’re not well… it’s too late now!) It was a nice feeling to be nominated and heading back to Southern Cross for the dinner.
The evening itself was a great one and I ran into a number of people I already knew and met so many more interesting people from across Australia who were now doing some amazing things. I always enjoy hearing about other people’s challenges and experiences in whatever they’re doing in life, as it puts your own busy world into perspective. I even met the musician behind the “Bob the Builder” song, which was fun.
After the dinner, I’d planned a quick getaway for a couple of days in Yamba, which was another place I hadn’t been since graduation. It was a warm and wonderful change from the icy conditions of the late winter we’d had in Southern NSW. I went for a couple of runs, ate some local seafood and had a generally relaxing time. It wasn’t until I was heading home that the dramas began.
I left on Monday morning, giving myself plenty of time to get to the airport for my 11:45 flight. Arriving in Ballina, I stopped for coffee and managed to find a wonderful café called …. It was a very smooth double shot latte and just what I needed.
Arriving at the airport, I checked the rental car for marks before dropping the keys back in the box. On check-in, I was informed that the flight was going to be delayed by two hours because of a meltdown of the air traffic control system in Sydney. I thought, ‘Oh well these things happen. I’ll go for a walk.’
I headed off down the road in search of something to do.
I found a homemakers centre in the industrial area and wandered around the air conditioned showroom until I’d seen the same lounge far too many times and considering I don’t own a house to fill with furniture, it was rather pointless. Heading back to the airport, I covered some 5km and was now quite hungry. Stepping into the terminal, I heard over the PA system that there was a further delay in the flight and the airline would be providing food vouchers for everyone on the flight. With my lunch paid for and a new departure time, I was happy to sit and catch up on some work.
For the next hour, I answered some emails and wrote an article, another advantage of being able to work from anywhere. However, as my battery charge diminished, the delays in the flight seemed to increase. There was a momentary reprieve when it was announced the plane had left Sydney and was on its way.
As I had to get a connecting flight to Canberra, I was starting to get a bit concerned about the time. Regardless, I’d worked out that even with another delay I’d still make it. The plane landed and the arrivals area flooded with the passengers out of Sydney. Thinking it would be a fast turn around, I put my phone away and started chatting with a lady who had just sat down next to me. Turns out she was a teacher and had been up scoping out new jobs. We chatted for some time, as the small departure lounge filled with expectant travellers returning to Sydney.
There was a tense anticipation in the air as the plane sat commandingly on the tarmac. Another announcement… ‘We’re sorry to inform you that the pilot of flight JQ451 is over his allowable hours and therefore is unable to fly again today. As a result this flight is cancelled.’ The voice over the PA was suddenly drowned out by hysterical moans and exclamations! The service desk attendant said something to the effect ‘We apologise for the inconvenience…’ but it was barely audible due to the ruckus of bogans swearing.
The departure lounge emptied quickly amid a rabble of angry curses. I remained sitting, thinking of alternate possibilities that could be slightly more constructive and profitable than swearing and yelling at airline staff. In situations like this, you have a couple of options. Quickly turn into an abusive dickhead, or strategise around the problem. As we were already well over the abusive dickhead quota, I decided on the latter.
What were my options? I had three meetings the next day in Canberra starting at 10am. I really wanted to be at all three, but two were moveable. The final meeting in the afternoon had been a long time coming and would’ve been hard to reorganise, so that gave me the hard deadline of 12:30pm landing back in Canberra the next day. Not too bad a scenario!
I quickly looked up alternate flights from other nearby airports, which in Australia is still quite a trek. Goldcoast was the nearest, but no flights given the lateness of the day. The only other one was Brisbane, which was further away, but had a flight at 7:10pm. I checked the map, I checked the time… I could make it. I quickly rang the airline to see if this were possible and after an anxious wait with my battery running low, it was! Feeling relieved, I dashed to the car rentals to get a car. Nothing was available at any of the 6 different rental businesses!
I was back to square one. That solution wasn’t going to work, so I joined the back of the enormous queue with the other 180 people as the airline scrambled to find accommodation for everyone at short notice in a small town. After almost an hour in line an announcement came over the PA. The airline was willing to reimburse customers up to $150 for their accommodation if they organised it themselves. Fearing the sort of accommodation I was going to get given anyway by the low-cost airline, this was a great alternative. With what little battery I had left, I checked out places to stay and found a nice boutique hotel for $169.00. It looked really interesting and was a heritage listed building so I immediately booked it, as there were only a couple of rooms left. Getting there and back was a minor detail. At least I had a bed!
I waited in line for another hour, as transport into town was arranged to the various motels. It was disorganised chaos however. Buses had arrived and passengers were being ushered onboard. I hung back as a wild rabble of bogans who’d been standing in line drinking for the past hour appeared as if they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. I felt relieved as I overheard they were going to the Best Western. Two other ladies had boarded that bus, but it was full and the bogans ungraciously told them to get off the bus.
Meanwhile, I was standing just inside the terminal with one other lady by the name of Jill. I chatted with her for a few minutes before the other two who’d been thrown off the bus joined us appearing rather frazzled. We were the last four at the airport and after being given an assurance that another bus was on its way and going exactly where I needed to go, I was happy to wait a little longer.
Relieved to get on the bus, despite not knowing the area, we had to direct the bus driver to the hotel. As we pulled up, a feeling of relief and excitement came over me. It was a magnificent old Victorian style two storey mansion. Inside the foyer, it was a beautifully restored building that had once been a girls’ boarding school. With some old uniforms and tennis racquets on display, it had a distinct St. Trinians feel to it!
As we waited on the lounges for the receptionist, it was calming to be out of the din of the airport. However, the tranquility was about to be disrupted again. The receptionist walked out, saw four of us sitting on the lounge and a worried look appeared on her face. I knew at that moment, despite the ladies having asked the airline staff several times if there were enough rooms, there weren’t going to be enough rooms!
Having booked the place myself online, thankfully she had a room for me, but then there was only one room left with a single bed and three ladies! At this point after the rolling problems the looks of horror on the ladies faces said it all. They weren’t going anywhere. They were all staying and that was final. It was almost like a scene out of Fawlty Towers. I asked if there was a spare bed in my room, but no, nothing, just a single. Luckily the hotel had a roll out bed for one and they put that in the room for the ladies, who then worked out the rest.
With my stomach growling having missed lunch and the restaurant in the hotel closing, I said I’d freshen up and then meet everyone in the dining room. The dining room was more Fawlty Towers than reception had been, with everything but a hamster and a man from Barcelona. Despite the historic look and feel, the food was great. With the dramas of the day over, dinner was a wonderful experience. I was able to get to know three total strangers and enjoy a really enjoyable meal with them, an experience that would never have happened if it weren’t for a computer malfunction in Sydney.
It’s often the most unusual circumstances which can lead to the best adventures. The only thing you need to be able to do in this sort of situation is have a sense of humour and always remain adaptable as the situation evolves. If you stress too much about it or just believe the solution is through yelling and swearing at people, you’ll miss out on the possibility of having a much better and memorable experience than what would have happened with the original plan anyway. I ended up shopping for sofas, meeting new people, sleeping in the old headmistress’ office in a slightly quirky and most likely haunted Victorian mansion and ended up back in Canberra for my most important meeting the next day.
In any situation, where tensions may get high due to things not going to plan, never forget that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is one and the same. In the words of Homer Simpson embrace and enjoy the ‘Crisatunity!’
Recently, I was at a council meeting where they invited members of the community in for a brainstorming session. I liked the sound of it and there was free food, so I decided I had to go along. There were around 30 people there, with a mix of people from Council, business owners, local professionals, and other community members.
The task for everyone was to come up with innovative ideas for creating a modern connected city. Sounds simple, right? As with many other brainstorming sessions, the tables were covered with butchers’ paper and we had permanent markers to jot down notes. A presentation was given by Council as to what they were already innovating with in terms of local services. Whilst this was quite interesting, unfortunately, it seemed to skew the way everyone was thinking about innovation and so instead of people truly throwing out radical and innovative ideas, it merely appeared that they were replicating ideas, or just adding to the ones that Council had already said they were doing.
Whilst there’s usually an advantage to frontloading situations and getting people into the right mind-set, unfortunately in this case, it didn't seem to work and many of the ideas that were being thrown up, were not innovative. They were just pointless and some quite ludicrous.
I found myself sitting there feeling quite disempowered, as I frustratingly had no innovative ideas of my own. So why was that? Why was nothing coming to me? I've created and developed a number of innovative products, from the ‘Reducer Flush,’ that limited the amount of water that’s used each time you flush your toilet, as well as software for the livestock industry that provides up-to-the-minute pricing data for farmers, to medical and incident management software for teachers when they're out on excursions. If anyone at that table should have been coming up with ideas, I felt it should have been me…Or should it?
Despite my frustration, and feeling totally and utterly out of my depth, all I needed to do was realise that for me, sitting around a table and brainstorming with other people was never ever going to work. Why’s that you ask? If all it took to be innovative was to sit around a table and talk, then the world would be running short of problems to solve. The number of times I sat around a table at work in this manner, should mean that we have the most amazingly productive and cohesive workplace on earth. Unfortunately, it's not in time spent sitting around the table as that usually results in plenty of stupid ideas and a total lack of productivity.
Innovation is therefore a really tricky thing to understand. I recently read a number of books on early stage start-ups in the US. Many of these start-ups don't actually do anything. All they seem to have done is put a ‘high-performing’ team of people together and try to get them innovate, then at the same time try to delude VCs into giving them money to perpetuate their fantasy long enough in the hope of striking something useful. Think of it being like the gold rush days, where everyone was trying to get a piece of the action and instead of digging for gold in hills that actually might have gold in them, you just dig anywhere you can find a piece of dirt. Taking this approach just means you will get very good at moving mounds of dirt.
So how do we actually innovate? For me, every time I've had a good idea, it's been whilst skiing, paddling or running. It's not until I'm in a creative space that works for me, that I can be creative. Despite many people telling you if you put enough creative people together they will create something amazing, this is not always the case. The opposite can be true as well if you put a lot of creative people together, there is every chance they just go to fight. Can you imagine Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh in the same room? Would they work together to create the world's greatest masterpiece that would eclipse all of their individual works? Or would they simply argue and end up throwing paint at each other?
There is so much money in innovation and technology has been a great enabler. Consequently, people are desperate to somehow be part of it and try to invent ways for people to innovate. However, this often fails to recognise how individual and obscure the art of innovation is. Many innovations fail because they're not developed to solve a real-world problem. The truly successful innovations however, when looked at retrospectively seem so obvious. They usually are, because they fix a problem that previously caused great pain or annoyance.
So how do you come up with a simple and obvious solution that people will talk about retrospectively and say how ingenious it is? Firstly, what's your greatest frustration? Secondly, how can you improve or change something to reduce this frustration or fix the problem? Thirdly, when you come up with all sorts of ideas to solve your big frustration, test out the theory to see if it’s also other people’s frustration and check whether your solution would work. Fourthly, take action and do something about it.
With any innovation, it's often the last step that is forgotten. Many people have great ideas every day. However, very few of them have the time, energy and persistence to take the action necessary to turn these innovative ideas into workable solutions that make a difference to people's lives.
Next time you’re at work and you're forced to sit at a table and solve all the world's problems at once, think about where your most creative space is and instead of sitting around the table go to that creative place so you can innovate in a natural and effective way. If you approach innovation in this way, you won't be left at the table feeling disempowered. You can come back to the table with something truly amazing.
During the January break, I was in the US for business, but took a couple of days out for skiing. I somehow found myself heading up a lift with some venture capitalists. One of them asked me what I did and I explained briefly about software platform. Then they immediately started asking about capital structures, investors, listings and all that crap they talk about in their line of work.
So naturally I started bagging out the whole VC industry. They seemed shocked that I had some other point of view of building a business. But putting it bluntly, the reality is that a VC will want at least a 10X return. They want a clear exit for themselves, don't give a crap about you and they only see $$$ and often don't really understand the underlying business. I said to them in no uncertain terms, most VCs are toxic and destructive to business, because they're thinking short-term and don't share the core values, beliefs and vision of the company. It's rare to discover an investor that understands your industry so well, that they complement and enhance your business, rather than artificially inflate a business with cash, only for it to implode when the Seed, Series A and Series B capital runs out and the whole ‘Ponzi scheme’ collapses.
It was interesting to gauge the response to the idea that a business should only exist when it's solving real world problems. Whilst I seemed to get an agreement out of them on this, it was more of a muted response. This is the reality of business. If you can't solve a pain point or provide a happy satisfying experience to your customer, you're not going to get any money out or them. If you don't get money out of customers, you won't be able to run and grow your business for very long. Under the VC logic, if you inject enough money in, you can keep running this profitless exercise for a much longer period of time before you run out of money, by which time some of them may have already jumped ship.
I got the impression they were under the mistaken belief that everyone wants and needs their money. I've written about this before, but it really is such an important issue, especially for new businesses starting out and it's well worth mentioning again.
VCs believe you need their money, because that's the business they're in. If they're not investing in anything, they're not doing their job. Hence, they make people feel as if they need their money, but at what cost? Do you really need finance? If you do need capital, what other finance options do you have? Explore all possibilities, as having a VC shackle themselves to you has the potential of crippling your vision and ability to effectively run your business. Humour them if you have to but evaluate the real cost of capital to you and your business. You've created something special. Don't let them bastardised it to make themselves rich.
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