Saturday, November 15, 2008

How to Become an Innovative Entrepreneur

NOTE: This article is very long (over 3100 words) and some parts are written in Tag-lish (combination of Tagalog and English). If you don’t have time to read it now, feel free to bookmark it or print it out for later. And if you can’t understand Tagalog, then you can go directly and read my summary (in English).

Sometimes, in our fast changing world, it’s not enough to become just businessmen/women. Sometimes, we have to become “innovative entrepreneurs” to succeed. What is “innovation?” What do we mean by “innovative entrepreneur?” And how do we become one?
"When you invent, you create something new. When you innovate, you turn an idea into something of value."
- Bam Aquino

Above are Bam Aquino’s words as he opened up his show, “Start Up” last Thursday. He interviewed Mark Ruiz (of Microventures) and Brian Quebengco (of Innovent) to give us an idea of what is “innovation” and why should we strive to become “innovators.”


BAM AQUINO: Tonight, we’ll talk about how entrepreneurs can become innovators with Mark Ruiz of Microventures and Brian Quebengco of Innovent. Good evening to both of you.

INTERVIEWEES: Good evening also.

BAM AQUINO: Of course, Mark, my business partner in a number of things, but Mark, aside from that, you’re also part of Innovent as the Chief Marketing Innovator. Ok, that’s big title to have, right?

MARK RUIZ: Innoventor.

BAM AQUINO: Innoventor? And of course, Innovent is in Industrial Design, prides itself in being innovative, so let me throw the first question. A, how important is it to innovate these days, if you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a company, how important is innovation?

MARK RUIZ: Yeah, well, basically if you look at a lot of businesses right now, they’re all beginning to look the same, because you know, culturally, Filipinos, they love copying and pasting.

BAM AQUINO: The lechon-manok phenomenon!

MARK RUIZ: The lechon-manok phenomenon, for example, ‘di ba? So kung baga, parang, in a market or in an industry where people are just basically copying each other then basically there’s no sense of differentiation. What happens is that, the value, kung baga, the price becomes eroded, so there’s less value, really, as more competition comes in, and everybody’s the same, so innovation, for entrepreneurs is really important because it allows you to find something different, something new. And that’s basically it.

BAM AQUINO: So you have to set yourself apart. Is that it?

MARK RUIZ: Exactly! ’Cause that can be a marketing (strategy?), you just say, “I’ll be different.”, say, green lechon-manok for example, but that’s not necessarily an innovation. Innovation is looking for value, if everybody’s doing lechon-manok, lechon-manok, then you have to go back to the consumers and ask, “What else is missing? What other needs are not being met?” If we’re talking about the lechon-manok or food, “What are the other things around that space that people can innovate on?”

BAM AQUINO: So you’ll look at particular, particular group of things or people or product, and you’re saying, “I need to be something that gives more value than what’ already there, right?” With Innovent, Brian, you create things, so you’re an Industrial Design firm, so it’s just not a matter of the business (planning?) innovative; you actually have to have physical innovative things, right? Ok, is that difficult to always be, to have physically innovative things all the time, or different designs all the time?

BRIAN QUEBENGCO: In the beginning, yes, it’s quite a challenge, but when we got into, we, it does come naturally if you have the right people. Um, innovation also starts with having the right chemistry of people, the right people thinking of, like, “What if, what if we do this?” So thinking of crazy ideas.

BAM AQUINO: So kailangan malikot talaga rin ang utak mo to be innovative. So give us an example, with Innovent, how does innovation happen exactly?

BRIAN QUEBENGCO: A, well, we don’t believe in steps or process. We believe in a philosophy, and, one thing that we always share with the client is that, “give us a problem that you’re having a hard time solving, and we’ll come in and solve it through design.” And that’s how we create innovation for our clients.

BAM AQUINO: Ok. Can you give us an example on how Innovent has actually innovated something for clients?

BRIAN QUEBENGCO: Yea, sure, well, because of the non-disclosure agreements I’ll just use the word, Company X. So Company X asked us, they had a problem that they had for 2 years trying to create a system for PWDs – People with Disability to empower them. So they gave the brief, and it was a big problem that we have to solve. And what we did was, we immersed ourselves with the people at Tahanan na Walang Hagdanan, and also the blind community, we visited them, asked them questions, and because of our probing, we were able to get insights and we were able to solve the problem.

BAM AQUINO: How did the problem solve, exactly?

BRIAN QUEBENGCO: Well, basically, some key insights, for instance, for the blind was that, they wanted, they actually wanted to walk in the mall by themselves. So we also realized that they use plastic pads to touch and feel. So we created system that incorporated the designed product that what we did inside the mall, that would act as a beacon for them.

BAM AQUINO: Parang guide.

BRIAN QUEBENGCO: Guide exactly, and they were very excited about it. We actually went to them, showed them the mock-up that we did, we made them feel it, we explained the system again, and they were just so excited they couldn’t wait to go to the mall by themselves.

BAM AQUINO: Ok. Mark in your classes, I know you teach innovation also, are there exercises to get people to be more innovative?

MARK RUIZ: Well, one of the most practical really is, actually very simple; it’s the art of observation. And that’s really one of the most important exercises I ask my students to do, because observation really, a, innovation, sometimes comes from simple observations from the world around us. ‘Cause a lot of the time, when we draw inspiration, we sort of just try to draw it from inside us. But if you wanna be innovative, then you have to be grounded in what, you know, people are doing. So just learn to observe every day, everyday simple acts, ok, and then try to notice trends and patterns. It’s really very that simple, it’s just looking at everyday occurrences, but with a deeper lens, I mean, just try to ask yourself, “What’s going on in these everyday scene?”

BAM AQUINO: And how can I make life easier for everybody, right?

MARK RUIZ: Exactly.

BAM AQUINO: And if you’re an entrepreneur, how can I make money out of that, too.

MARK RUIZ: Exactly. So then that’s the next question…

BAM AQUINO: In your classes, for example, are there exercises like, do you ask your students to just go out and observe things and write things up?

MARK RUIZ: Yeah, actually, I have a whole exercise, one whole afternoon, all they have to do is basically go around the campus, and they’re armed, you know, now in this day and age, camera phones, digital cameras. So they take all these photos, we go back to class, we process them and just look at the pictures, so “What’s going on here? What’s going on here? What’s going on here? And what could we invent? What could we innovate around what’s going on here?” So it’s very simple, I mean, look at the world around you.

BAM AQUINO: So everyone can be an innovator?

MARK RUIZ: Well, it takes a certain mindset, actually to be an innovator, because you know, it would be unfair to say that everybody is an innovator, but it takes a certain mindset to really want to create something new, and want to create of higher value, actually to be an innovator.

BAM AQUINO: Ok, what will you say to be the, maybe, a local and international examples of really great innovations that we experience these days?

MARK RUIZ: The sad fact is, if you think, international, it’s so easy to come with a lot of examples, of course right now, the whole phenomenon of Web 2.0, social media. These are innovations because, who would have imagined these things 10 years ago, just talk about Facebook, about MySpace, Multiply, all of these things, you know…

BAM AQUINO: You know, in fact, if you would ask somebody, would you want to see videos of common people up on the Net 10 years ago, they probably would say, “I wouldn’t wanna watch regular people put on the Net, but now, YouTube’s like the biggest thing, right?

MARK RUIZ: And innovation is exactly that, you can never predict, a, you know, YouTube, Facebook, things you don’t find out in a FGD when you ask consumers what they want. This is something that you actually, just sort of try to see, and try to understand as patterns, and I guess, what was going on was, the people invented these tools, these web-based tools, just so that, the latent need was really for people to connect with each other, and they just basically created web presence.

BAM AQUINO: So, like YouTube is an innovation of both the Internet and media, per se, right?

MARK RUIZ: Absolutely.

BAM AQUINO: Ok. How ‘bout local? ‘Cause when we’re talking earlier, you had a difficult time looking for local example.

MARK RUIZ: Well, that’s the sad part of it, it’s really, if you really think about its examples, it’s a little bit harder to actually think of, well, one that actually comes to mind is Chikka, a few years back when they came out, Chikka web-based, you know, messenger platform, and you know, actually predated the Yahoo Messenger sending-through-text. So that’s an easy example, but I guess now, it’s a bit of a challenge. I asked my students to research on that also, and it’s either really funky inventions by Filipinos that can’t be really used or, um, that’s a challenge. But I guess, there’s a lot of space in outsourcing, I think, I think a lot of Filipinos are creating new business models serving foreign clients. Um, retail, I think is also a place, a space wherein companies are innovating. You look at Greenbelt 5, wherein, or, even, you know, that whole Greenbelt area, that’s an entire experience in itself. And I’d like to call that an “experience innovation,” so like Starbucks, they invent there…

BAM AQUINO: So it’s not your usual mall already, right?

MARK RUIZ: Yeah. That’s probably a good example on that space.

BAM AQUINO: Ok. With regard to Filipinos, is it because, anu ba, hindi ba tayo magaling mag-innovate? I mean, you’re saying, local examples are hard to come by. Filipinos and innovation is it, it’s not a natural fit or there is an issue in it?

MARK RUIZ: No, I think Brian and I would want to answer that. Let me just, I’ll give my 2 cents. I think Filipinos are afraid of risk. Um, and to be innovative, you have to be a little bit risky, I mean, first step. Filipinos don’t wanna be, aren’t natural entrepreneurs sometimes, so it’s a challenge for them to, they’d rather work for companies, rather than being entrepreneurs, so that’s a hurdle. Now second hurdle is, “Ok, I’ve decided to become an entrepreneur…”

BAM AQUINO: Gagayahin ko ‘yung sa other side…

MARK RUIZ: Exactly, so that’s the second hurdle. It’s what kind of business do I wanna be in and again, ‘yung parang, aversion of, to risk, of Filipinos, would say, “Ok, I’m gonna be an entrepreneur, I want to start my own business, let me just copy what other guys are doing.” So I think it’s not risk aversion, of Filipinos…

BAM AQUINO: So how do we get out of it? How do we get out of this? Brian give me the last word. How do we get out being a, you know, not innovative, basically, how do you become innovative?

BRIAN QUEBENGCO: Well, I think, to just be fair as well, there are small pockets of Filipinos who are innovative. It’s just that we have to reach that tipping point where, all these people and their efforts will be seen. We need more heroes. So that we could show examples to other Filipinos who are, like Mark said, less risk averse, and maybe we can inspire more Filipinos to do it, but we require those pockets of few Filipinos who are already doing it now.

BAM AQUINO: All right, Brian and Mark, thank you very much. Maraming-maraming salamat. We hope that more of our viewers will be inspired to be innovative by this interview.


SUMMARY: How to Become an Innovative Entrepreneur

So how do we become innovative entrepreneurs? The program gave us 7 tips. Here they are: (I added my comments after each tip)

1. Find a new way of looking at products. Set yourself apart. The country that comes to mind is Japan. Japan is so innovative. I prefer to call them the “innovation nation.” It’s like the Japanese people are always thinking of new ways to do something. They’re always striving to create something different, something unique, and sometimes, even something odd. Examples would be the Nintendo Wii, the EPSON projector that can project movie images to the ceiling so you can watch movies even while lying in bed, automated toilet bowls, robots, and so many more. I remember one tech-reporter who was asked to describe Japan. His answer was, “it’s where the future happens.” And I absolutely agree. I don’t know why, but do they have some special kind of DNA that we don’t have? Hehehe.

2. Look for new value. Identify the needs of your market. This reminds me the ballpen brand PILOT. I didn’t know that they’re a Japanese brand until they got featured on NHK (a Japanese TV network). They came up with this very unique pen that has an ink that can you can erase using heat. You’ll just have to rub the other end of the ballpen on the paper and the friction will generate heat that will cause the ink to dissipate. It was an amazing product. But what’s more amazing is that, this company knows how to value and identify the needs and preferences of their market. For example, from time to time, one of their employees would visit school supplies stores and quietly observe what their customers are buying, the color of ballpens that their customers prefer, etc. And with this knowledge, they are able to create ballpens that their customers actually want to use.

3. Hire the right people. What comes to mind is Google. To quote Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, “Virtually every person who interviews at Google talks to at least half-a-dozen interviewers, drawn from both management and potential colleagues. Everyone’s opinion counts, making the hiring process more fair and pushing standards higher. Yes, it takes longer, but we think it’s worth it. If you hire great people and involve them intensively in the hiring process, you’ll get more great people.” And I absolutely agree. The people you hire can make or break your business. Perhaps this is the reason why Google is at the forefront of innovation today. The company is heavily investing on its “knowledge workers,” who, in my opinion, Google’s greatest asset.

4. Innovation comes from simple observations from the world around us. What comes to mind? Airplanes. For hundreds of years, people have dreamt of flying, and it was only when humans discovered the science behind birds’ ability to fly, that they were able to build flying machines. Other examples would be – incubators (sea turtles and some birds lay their eggs in the warm sand), light bulbs (fireflies), sonar (bats and dolphins), etc. People can always draw inspiration from nature. And according to Mark Ruiz, you just need to look at everyday occurrences with a “deeper lens.”

5. Observe simple acts and try to notice trends and patterns. I guess this is the reason why we have Google Analytics, Statcounter and the like. We somehow have to know the trends and patterns of what’s going on around us, so we can arrive at a conclusion of what people want and why do they want it. The modern world is dynamic. What’s new today becomes obsolete tomorrow. As innovators, or as entrepreneurs, we should arm ourselves with knowledge of these trends and patterns in order for us to provide whatever the world wants or may want, and of course, more importantly, what the world may need. Change is all around us, and I guess, we need to have a healthy attitude towards change. Innovation, after all, is “change for the better,” right? So here’s an inspiring quote from Mr. John Gokongwei, Jr. (my favorite hero – entrepreneur): “I somehow survived…because I recognized change when I saw it.”

6. Develop a mindset to really create something new and of higher value. My question is, “How?” I guess this comes naturally to Japanese people. I just don’t know with Filipinos. What Mr. John Gokongwei, Jr. said in one of his speeches should be a challenge for all of us, “in the Philippines, progress is slow. Very little is new. Hardly anything is fresh. With a few exceptions, the biggest companies before the war – like PLDT, Ayala, and San Miguel – are still the biggest companies today.” Yes, I know, our political system is not perfect. Problem is, for so many of us, all we see is hopelessness. Many have lost their trust in the government, or perhaps they are simply selfish people. I don’t know why, but, instead of hopelessness, I can see so many opportunities for this South-East Asian country of ours.

7. Don’t be afraid to take risks. This last tip reminds me of the 90s band, the Eraserheads. Although I can cite so many other examples aside from the band, I just feel the need to introduce them more to the world. What’s amazing about this band is, they were able to make history with their music. Their secret? In my opinion, it was because they were not afraid to take risks. They went beyond what was considered “pop” then. They included cuss words in one of their songs, which was a pretty brave thing to do at that time. But then again, I know that not everyone is cut out to become risk takers, but let me, at least, inspire you with this quote by Mr. J. Gokongwei, “set aside comfort to set up businesses that will provide jobs.”

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