In a roundtable discussion at a recent ANZ event, Quartz Asia Correspondent Heather Timmons, Tesla Motors Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan Regional Director Isabel Fan and Palantir Technologies Business Development Manager Samhita Jayanti sat down to discuss the issue.
" There are still people in the industry saying “wow, how did we mess that up so badly?"
Heather Timmons, Quartz Asia Correspondent
Each from businesses which have changed the sector they are in, they began by talking about the role their disruptive organisations have played.
Timmons: The journalism industry has gone through the most-incredible upheaval thanks to technology over the past 20 years. When I started as a journalist there was no internet.
I tell that to my millennial colleagues and they look at me and say “Oh my god, how old are you?” But when I had to do reporting about a bank for instance and I needed some numbers from two years ago, I’d go through a pile of annual reports.
The internet has changed how we get out information in journalism and has made it a whole lot faster and easier for us. But at the same time it did that, something funny happened.
Everyone started websites, and every journalism outlet started putting the information they used to charge hundreds of dollars for on a website for free. There are still people in the industry saying “wow, how did we mess that up so badly?”
Things have changed so radically. I left the New York Times to join an organisation, Quartz, which was just starting, which has always been a digital publication, because that’s where I saw the future of the industry.
Jayanti: Palantir was really founded with one foundational idea at its heart, which was to liberate data within an organisation. The only way that could be done effectively was with a combination of humans and a powerful piece of software.
So the fundamental insight was: computers on their own are not good at solving problems with big data, and neither are people on their own. But the combination of the two together is “one plus one equals three”.
Fan: Tesla is a technology company which just happens to make cars. Founder Elon Musk’s mission is to support the shift toward simple transport and simple energy by making great cars.
We have a very ambitious goal of producing one million cars by 2020. In Hong Kong in particular we have one million cars on the road today. Of those, five per cent are electric vehicles.
Musk sold Paypal and put every penny into Tesla to do one thing: to prove EVs are no longer a golf cart. It can be a great car and you don’t have to compromise your lifestyle to drive one.
Timmons: I think a lot of us are trying to figure out how to digitise and transform our companies. I can share an idea I know that doesn’t work: hiring someone to be head of digital, leaving them in a corner and giving them no support. Don’t do that.
If you have people inside your organisation loudly complaining about wanting to do things the old way, but they are valuable and respected employees, you have to win them over. When you do they take other sceptics with them.
Jayanti: A very fashionable thing nowadays is for large companies to come through Silicon Valley on innovation tours. They visit a number of tech companies, some large and some small, but they all ask the same question: how can they replicate the Valley’s culture of innovation and disruption?
I think a culture of innovation is very hard and takes a long time to incorporate into the DNA of a company. It must begin with the business leaders responsible for the profits and loss of that company. It’s only then that innovation is put into practice quickly and effectively.
It only works when teams are actively empowered to disrupt the existing methodology and are effectively paid to take risk. When teams have the confidence they can fail and know there won’t be a cost to failure.
Fan: Cultural innovation is very critical for business development. For Tesla, we are still a startup, even though we are 13 years old. With all these entrenched competitors, we need to do not only a little better, but a lot better.
To do so, we look for the best talent available and provide them with the environment where we can retain them. At the same time, we expect innovation from day one.
Jayanti: The world over every year or so there’s a soul search about how one can foster innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Valley is a very unique ecosystem where there’s some degree of collaboration between government and the private sector on innovative technologies or methods. Not only is it fostered, but it’s encouraged and supported, and in some cases even happening within the government.
But equally this culture, which is really a societal culture, of there being no risk to failing, is a very unique thing.
In the Valley today there is no cost to starting your own company and failing at it five years later.
You will still start in the same place as your peer that went to work at an established company. That’s a very critical thing, that failure is not just not penalised, but in some ways it is also rewarded.
Fan: One piece of advice I would give from my experience is rather than simply product-based innovation, companies need to think beyond that, to innovative business models.
In order to have a sustainable model, you have to think about more than the technology. This means people, environments, and asking yourself: can the team cope with change? In Silicon Valley, things change every day. You always have to think about what is coming next.
Heather Timmons is Asia Correspondent at Quartz, Isabel Fan is Regional Director Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan at Tesla Motors and Samhita Jayanti is Business Development Manager at Palantir Technologies.