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Allbirds headquarters

The customer-centric secrets of the world's most innovative companies...

They are some of the world’s most innovative companies and some of its biggest names.

Titans like Apple and Google, challenger brands turned market leaders like Chobani yoghurt and Casper Mattresses, and start-ups – like Allbirds shoes – that have left their footprint all over categories ripe for disruption.

These are the glittering success stories of innovation-focused business culture. And all of them share a fanatical sense of the importance of knowing their customers and catering to their needs and wants.

They also have something else in common: All of them opened their doors to ThinkPlace’s Peter Harrison and Martin Grant, who recently led a tour of New Zealand business leaders in search of insights from the global innovation elite.

“It was just so inspiring,” Harrison says. “A person like (Allbirds founder and former All-White international soccer player) Tim Brown gave us his time and really shared some of his secret sauce with us. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

The group, part of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s Better by Design programme, visited 29 visionary leaders at 15 of the world’s most exciting companies. We found that customer-centred businesses create more desirable products and services, more passionate customers and more dynamic, purposeful company cultures.

How do they do it? We distilled their experiences into six core ideas...

Slack headquarters
Companies such as Slack are redefining what it means to be customer-centric. ThinkPlace designers Peter Harrison and Martin Grant were delighted to be along for the ride.

1. You need clarity about your “why?”  (your point of view about the world).

Casper Mattresses started with a single product – a mattress in a box sold via e-commerce and targeted at young professionals in New York who found it tough to get a conventional mattress up a Manhattan stairwell. They sold $1 million of product in their first month.

Within four years their annual revenue had reached $400 million. But as their success has unfolded, Casper has pivoted beyond convenience to a somewhat grander aim and purpose. They are using the idea of improving sleep to seek deep customer insights and develop new solutions that will create stronger connections with a wider group of users. "Tell your sleep problems goodnight" they promise potential users.

2. Mihi taonga – tell authentic stories – continually

Contently is a hugely successful start-up that helps companies tell great stories. Having started as an agency to match journalists with news agencies, they stumbled upon the thread of ‘great stories’ and an understanding of how the human brain is wired for stories.

As it turned out, corporations have a greater need for story telling than news agencies and media. Upon entering Contently, we were struck by a native American proverb emblazoned on their wall: “Those who tell great stories rule the world”.

Contently revealed the science behind why stories are so compelling, including the role of the chemical oxytocin. What makes a great story? Contently founder Shane Snow nominates four qualities: familiarity, novelty, fluency and tension.




3. Your people are your value driver no matter what business you are in.

A surprising visit was to one of Apple’s next generation flagship stores in San Francisco. Apple has consistently had more sales revenue per square foot more than any other brand in the US, including Tiffany & Co and Restoration Hardware.

What was the relevancy of a global tech retailer to New Zealand exporters? Plenty.

"At the heart of every Apple Store is the desire to educate and inspire the communities we serve,” said Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s Senior Vice President.  “our people are the software in our hardware – they are what matter most”. Apple has realised the payoff of operationalising delight by creating an environment that empowers their people to do great things.

4. Without great products there is no point in being customer centred.

Chobani yoghurt exists because its founder Hamdi Ulukaya found the existing yoghurt in the American market overly sweet and unpleasant. He just wanted better yoghurt.Founded in 2005 (the same year as ThinkPlace) Chobani had become the top-selling brand in the USA within three years. In 2017, they were named by Fast Company as one of the 10 most innovative companies in the world.

CMO Leland Maschmeyer’s opening salvo to our group of leaders was “stop worrying about customers and build a great product.” Initially a confronting contradiction to being customer centered, his point was that customers ARE important but nothing was more important to Chobani than the quality of their product. “People buy product” he said. “And making an exceptional product is hard to do.” Don’t let being customer centred overtake being product centred – (but still strive to customer centred).

5. Obsess about knowing your customers but don’t always be a slave to their feedback.

There is a difference between improvement and invention – and sometimes invention is what’s called for.Sidewalk Labs isn’t a traditional company – they're reimagining cities. They are an Alphabet company (a Google sister company) that imagines, designs, tests, and builds urban innovations to help cities meet their biggest challenges.

They are combining people-centred urban design with cutting-edge technology; looking to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity. Their point is simple but often overlooked. It’s important to know what your customers want and value… but meeting future needs (needs they maybe haven’t thought of yet) requires you to understand current needs along with a broader world view. That’s when true innovation and invention takes place. This approach doesn’t mean you stop listening and interacting with customers, though. Even when in the invention space Sidewalk talked of “Throwing people out there and getting them to interact with users to get really interesting idea refinement”.

6. Think big (it's reckless not to) – then do small, go fast

Maybe the highlight of our entire tour was the time we spent with Allbirds founder, Tim Brown. In Tim, our leaders saw a lot of what they are trying to achieve: a sustainable product that is genuinely innovative and better for the world than the products it seeks to displace. Allbirds is also succeeding in a tough global markets and in a super-competitive category (up against brands like Nike and Adidas). Tim was hugely inspiring and confidence boosting for our group.

He has transitioned from one successful career (professional soccer) to creating a business and product juggernaut in California that has surprised many. But hailing from New Zealand, a country where we have so much capability and talent but sometimes think of ourselves as a small player. Tim gave us permission to increase the scale of our dreams. I think the sentiment most took out of the session was “it’s reckless not to think big.”

But thinking big doesn’t always means risking big. Many of the businesses we talked to spoke evangelically about the importance of prototyping. Of a minimum viable product approach. Of testing and retesting before putting something into production. Thinking big does not always have to mean risking everything, if you can build a successful method for prototyping, evaluating and reiterating.


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