Graham Stewart reports on the March Like Minds Business Breakfast with Ajaz Ahmed Founder and Chairman of digital agency AQKA, in the stunning surroundings of Radio Bar atop the ME Hotel in London’s Aldwych.
Among the audience of 60 or so who had ignored the cold and unseasonal weather for an early start were a number of well known faces, including innovation expert Paul Sloane (who gave Ajaz his first job as a teenage programmer at Ashton Tate) and “Beermat Entrepreneur” author Mike Southon.
The title of Ajaz’s talk – “A Smith And Wesson Beats Four Aces” – was taken from a chapter heading in Velocity the book he co-wrote with Nike VP of Digital Sport, Stefan Olander. The book grew out of conversations between Ajaz and his co-author and this is possibly the first time such a business book has been written by a coming together of representatives from the client and agency sides.
Immediately, you can see how the content might offer a unique perspective. Readers obviously agreed: the book reached number 8 on the best seller lists. Ajaz was keen to remind the audience, however, that all money from the sale of the book goes to homeless young people in the UK and to global healthcare through Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite programme.
The twin themes of the talk were entrepreneurship and disruption, topics that Ajaz understands well – and at first hand. The digital agency he started in 1994 grew quickly on the back of decisions that were both disruptive and unconventional – key elements of entrepreneurial success. AKQA’s success has been such that WPP has recently bought a large share of the company valuing it at £350M.
To put disruption in perspective, Ajaz first displayed a simple statistic: 85% of the Fortune 500 companies from 1955 were no longer in business by the turn of the century. The reasons for the demise of any business are many and varied but there is no doubt that disruption – in the form of incumbents failing to react to changing market conditions or the challenge of technology – is a constant factor for many leading companies.
Disruption takes many forms and Ajaz offered a list that included: The democratisation of what was originally the domain of the elite; Taking the pain away; Simplicity displacing complexity; A perfect balance of chaos, experimentation, and Operational excellence.
Ultimately, many businesses fall into the trap of choosing convenience. As Ajaz said, convenience is the enemy of right. He used the example of Disney having no visible rubbish collection in their theme parks, but an underground system that disperses rubbish automatically. For me, the image of the hidden trash inside a Disney park was quite possibly the most powerful of the morning. Not so much for the actual mechanics of the implementation of such a system but for the immersive customer focus that went into making the decision to do things that way. The right way.
I was particularly struck by something Ajaz said towards the end of his talk. He said that, although comfort in a family situation gives you strength, comfort in business makes you weaker. Seeking discomfort may not be the most instinctive trait of an entrepreneur but it would seem to make sense, when discomfort is defined as taking risks, accepting challenges, and stretching the possible.
One of the most interesting questions asked during an entertaining Q&A session raised the issue of why so many successful entrepreneurs are from the US and why in the UK we seem to struggle to produce our fair share of successful technology companies. Ajaz felt that it was a question of culture: in the US successful entrepreneurs are regarded as heroes; in the UK we look almost with suspicion on overt success.
That’s not to say the success isn’t there; it just tends to need to relocate to the US to find fruition. Unfortunately, a solution to this state of affairs is not easy to define or implement, certainly not in the short term. After the talk, there was a real buzz in the room and many people lingered in the Radio Bar long past the official event end time. There’s probably no better sign of a stimulating talk.
And finally, I have to make a point of highlighting the quality of the goody bag. This was swag to crow about: it included a copy of Velocity, this month’s edition of the Harvard Business Review and a Mu plug. If you haven’t yet discovered Mu plugs – or haven’t yet realised you need one.
Throw in some great conversation, coffee and pastries, a fantastic venue with breathtaking views of the London skyline from the Houses of Parliament to the City via The Shard, and some true entrepreneurial insight from Ajaz Ahmed, and I think that’s a pretty good return for £25. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
Graham Stewart is the Founder of BPODR Consulting