The following is the Fast Company SA interview transcribed:
Gary Willmott, along with business partner Anton Moulder, established digital innovation company Urbian, where they use digital to better businesses, deliver new markets and unlock new revenue streams. A technologist and digital native, Willmott has an uncanny eye for discerning new markets and opportunities. Obsessed with creative disruption, he loves technology’s ability to forge new business models that bring brands closer to their customers.
Described by his clients as a “strategic visionary”, Moulder is obsessed with design thinking, disruptive business models, and how technology can make the world a better place for people and business. With his roots in design with digital-first agencies, he offers successful go-to-market implementations for ambitious brands — taking critical projects from design to implementation and beyond to deliver successful innovations.
Moulder played a key role in the user experience, branding and ideation of YoDJ, an app that allows users to decide what music they’d like to hear at a venue or event; they also developed the transformative human resources tool Hi5, a peer-to-peer platform that makes employee reviews simple and fun (anyone can give a deserving colleague a virtual high-five)
In addition to Urbian, Willmott and Moulder are venture partners in UpForIt.co.za: an app that connects coaches and professional nutritionists with users to help people follow a healthy lifestyle.
Tell us more about your creative process in founding Urbian. How did you realise the gap in the market?
Anton Moulder: When we originally founded Urbian some 10 years ago, the company looked very different to what it is today. When we first started we were a digital advertising agency. We ran digital ad campaigns and built microsites in HTML5 and Flash. However, we soon realised that the advertising industry wasn’t something we wanted to be a part of, and knew we wanted to add more value to people than sell them advertising. We needed to evolve with the times to offer our clients products and services that were actually useful to consumers — their customers — in everyday life and actually make a difference. At the time, there were very few companies in South Africa that were offering these skills, so we knew it was a very bold move to make, but one we knew was right.
Gary Willmott: We weren’t looking for a gap — we just followed our passion. We started a company because we realised how poorly many companies were run; they were treating staff and clients like commodities. We started our own initiative to search for a better way of doing work that we passionately enjoyed.
How is digitalisation and technology transforming business?
AM: When you put those words together, it actually means digital transformation. I’ve yet to come across any company that doesn’t need to transform their business digitally in some shape or form. The companies that are doing this are winning and those that aren’t are losing. That’s the bottom line. The effects of digital transformation are huge. For example, it’s not just about using digital to offer a better service to customers, it’s about using digital to scale into new services that they weren’t able to offer before at a speed they may not be prepared for. South Africans are now exposed to large multinationals and their standard of customer services, for example, Uber and Airbnb. As a result, customers are being accustomed to this level of service — and if your company is not delivering a similar experience, then they’re likely to go elsewhere.
GW: We’ve seen how rapidly businesses have changed in the last five years with the rise of mobile and the crowdsourced sharing economy. However, there’s a next wave of digital transformation that will affect us more in the way we do business. Artificial intelligence will change the way we manufacture with daily repetitive tasks; virtual reality will change the way we communicate or experience things; and the blockchain will change the way we transact with finance contracts and even our private identities — thanks to South African entrepreneur Vinny Lingham with the launch of Civic. If businesses have been scared of the disruption that’s happened up until now, they’d better get a wake-up call to what’s going to happen in the future. What I find scarier is that education hasn’t evolved or adapted for what’s coming.
How is a customer-first company different from one that is not?
AM: My best explanation is that a customer-first company is one that believes customer feedback is paramount. Being a customer-focused company doesn’t mean having to respond to every customer request, but it’s about understanding the customer need and responding to this to achieve the best possible outcome in each situation. Being customer-centric is rooted in customer feedback, and marrying those insights with the business goals. It’s about testing and validating the customer feedback early on in the process in order to deliver the most appropriate and best-suited solution to a problem.
GW: In the past, we learnt this the hard war: We used to spend four to six months on a project, only to realise it was a fail. Just imagine the cost of three or four engineers, two designers and a product owner on a project like this for six months — that’s a lot of money! We now launch with a prototype early and at least show something to an end-user within two weeks. We also have a rule to launch to the public within a maximum of five sprints (10 weeks). If it takes longer than 10 weeks, there are too many features.
You are both obsessed with ‘disruption innovation’. What does that mean to you?
AM: Like many catchphrases, I think ‘disruption innovation’ is overused and often misused. [Harvard Business School professor] Clayton Christensen coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” which refers to technology enabling cheaper and easier access to previously expensive or hard-to-come-by products or services. While disruption can’t always be planned for, companies need to be aware of this and should learn from Christensen’s thoughts about building a moat of products and services around themselves so as not to get negatively impacted by people looking to disrupt them. Clients are sometimes wanting to disrupt their sector; however, what companies really should consider is creating value first and serving a customer — this in itself will disrupt the industry if done well.
What are some of your innovative projects?
GW: It was while managing Urbian that we noticed the pain, effort and admin that managers at SME companies endured in people practises in particular. Always keen to solve a problem with a smart tech solution, we launched Hi5 internally as a side project. Primarily, it started out as a solution to cut down on admin and the effort required to manage staff; however, word spread quickly about Hi5 and it’s now being used by many corporate and SME brands in countries around the world.
AM: We also work with a lot of companies in the financial and insurance sectors. We continue to work with a range of companies in various sectors helping them digitally transform large sections of their business. One example was our work for Vital Health Foods where we digitised all its customer collateral (for example the Vitalise magazine) into an online publisher that was more than just a digitised flipper — it’s a user-friendly and dynamic online magazine. We are also launching a new subscription service for South African customers to improve how they order and receive vitamins and supplements as well as health foods and snacks. Throughout 2017, we’ll also be working with Vital on launching a one-on-one health coaching service through a digital platform called VitalME, an app for iOS and Android that connects a person with a health coach (in person). Together they can discuss exercise, healthy eating plans, improving sleep or healthy ways to lose weight.
In your opinion, how does creativity add value to a business today?
GW: When people hear the term ‘creativity’, they think of designers behind Photoshop or an artist behind a canvas. However, the term actually refers to “resulting from originality of thought, expression etc.” I believe everyone is creative; it’s just about inserting people in the right environment, team and framework. If this is done right, creativity is unstoppable.
AM: Creativity can be found in any kind of discipline. There’s no business, industry or discipline that’s not creative. Creativity is found in a new business idea, a new fresh way to code or a particular approach to a research project. Creativity adds value to every part of a business, and a company that encourages creative thinking is the one that wins hands down.
What do you do in your spare time that sparks creativity?
GW: First of all, spare time is something precious. My concern for most people I see in tech is that they aren’t taking breaks and don’t realise how this life actually affects their work and life in the future. I generally spend my spare time with friends and family. I surf when I have gaps and I find this helps me to clear my head and come up with ideas. Often I’ve found that when I’ve been stuck on a problem, I’d take a break and go for a surf, and boom! the solution comes to me while at the backline.
AM: I like solitude, peace and quiet. Being outside, away from technology and the business, is the best environment to spark creativity and allow the ideas to flow.
Your leadership philosophy?
GW: I love Howard Behar’s quote: “The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom.” An important ethos and value for our employees are that they need to be self-learners and open to the ambiguous, ever-changing platform called the Internet. We don’t focus on roles or titles, but rather on output, responsibilities and goals. We let our staff members create their own goals and we all track and review that on a regular basis using Hi5. We’re fairly flat-structured and avoid policies that hinder our culture. We often allow the staff to work from home and work flexible hours. I’m also a big fan of employees being faithful with the little and then be entrusted with more. Yes, we’ve had employees fail, but as long as they take responsibility for their failure, learn and adjust — how else will they ever learn.
AM: To allow people space and the licence to try new things in a safe environment, and supporting them even if what they tried has failed. That doesn’t mean I believe in commending failure; it means I believe the most innovative work is done by people who are given the confidence to try big things and are not scared of failure. Tom and David Kelley’s book, Creative Confidence is a great read on this subject.
What has been the biggest challenge for Urbian thus far?
AM: Without a doubt, it’s been finding people who don’t just have the skills we need — user experience, design thinking, coding or engineering — but actually have the same DNA as we do. There are amazing rockstar coders, designers, business analysts and consultants out there, but to build a cohesive team that works well together is difficult because you need people who work well together. And that doesn’t happen easily.
GW: Clients generally love our ideas and the prototypes we build for them. The challenge we face is in getting them to actually launch and risk with us. As these types of digital products are so new to local clients, they often don’t know under which budget even to classify the expenditure, and by the time they’ve found a solution, it’s too late — a competitor or a startup has launched a competitive solution.
What can we expect from Urbian in the future?
AM: A significant part of our business has always been client projects and engagements, and while we will continue on this path, we’re increasingly diversifying the work we do to include investing in joint ventures and launching our own businesses and products, one of which is Hi5.