Back in the mid-1990s a large British grocery supermarket picked up an interesting correlation in their purchasing data. They noticed that people who bought newborn nappies (or diapers for our transatlantic brethren) also seemed to buy an awful lot of beer.
This odd relationship caused them to investigate slightly further. They discovered that—quite understandably—women who had just launched a new baby weren’t always up to doing the weekly shop, and therefore sent the husband or partner who had been responsible for laying down the keel to do it instead. You can work out the rest.
Having unearthed this little nugget of intelligence the grocer then proceeded to move the newborn nappies and other new-baby requisites to a gondola on the end of the beer aisle and promptly grew sales of both by upwards of 15 per cent.
I was reminded of this when I was chatting with Charlie Ill of Red Dot Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital fund focused on Singapore-based high-tech startups. “The problem is that in Singapore very few people have a garage,” he said. What, you may wonder, has the availability of garages—or lack thereof—to do with the Singapore high-tech start-up scene? Well, actually, quite a lot.
What Charlie, and anyone who works with or supports early-stage, innovative companies knows, is that you need some space to get them off the ground. I use the word ‘space’ in its broadest sense, because it isn’t just about the square footage required to set up your desk, PC and swivel chair. And it isn’t just relevant for innovative start-ups, it’s relevant for any company serious about pursuing the innovations they need to remain relevant and competitive in this age of exponential technology growth and change.
Thanks to their handy locations, open and collaborative space, yet private and self-contained footprint, garages have given birth to some of the biggest companies of the 20th century. The garage at 2066 Crist Dr. in Los Altos, California was designated an historic site back in 2013, joining the garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto—ten miles down the road. These garages bore the world Apple and Hewlett Packard respectively, whilst others have given us Microsoft, Mattel, Disney and Harley Davidson. Although where else Harley Davidson would have started up I’m not entirely sure.
One can understand then, that in crowded Singapore the lack of garages means an acknowledged part of the start-up alchemy is missing. In some respects it’s a similar problem to that faced by established companies. Innovation needs not just space, but a particular kind of environment, and whilst the square footage isn’t a problem in itself, reproducing that kind of creative, passionate, hothouse experience is tough for process-driven, hierarchical enterprises.
I wrote last year about the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the experimental engineering department set up in 1943 by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Famously the Skunk Works was given 150 days to build the secret XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter, and managed to do it in 143. Kelly’s unorthodox approach to sequestering the brightest minds away from the rest of the organisation and giving them complete responsibility and autonomy was so successful that the Skunk Works continues to this day—one of their current projects is a Compact Nuclear Fusion Reactor.
It’s a great example of the tension between successfully managing the day-to-day operations necessary to stay in business (or in this case, win the war) whilst driving the kind of innovations necessary to thrive in a future we are increasingly uncertain about.
That tension is common across every industry, and examples of Skunk Works and Garages abound, but in maritime, despite many companies recognising the need for innovation, I haven’t come across anything that looks like a formal attempt to create something similar.
That’s why I was absolutely fascinated to hear from my friend Walter Hannemann, who also writes for us this issue, that maritime satellite communications outfit Dualog was setting up exactly that. A Garage. And they are serious.
As I pointed out, the Garage is more than just a physical space, it’s representative of a mindset in which creativity and innovation are explored and boundaries pushed, so Dualog has been very clever not to put the project in the hands of a dyed-in-the-wool Dualoger. Instead they’ve turned to a non-shipping type, Norwegian Geir Isene, to set up and lead the Garage.
A self-described nerd, Isene is a writer, philosopher, artist, musician and gamer, with a love of mathematics, astronomy, astrophysics, particle physics, chemistry, hardware and software, and ‘stuff that amazes me’. In which respect he’s going to love shipping—am I right guys?
Joking aside, when you speak to Isene you realise that hiring him could well turn out to have been Dualog’s master-stroke. Because underlying his myriad interests is a rock-solid record of commercial success.
On top of that commercial nous, he brings experience of coaching everyone from high-performance Olympians to international artists, inspiring them to reach their full potential. “In every software company the initial innovative drive begins to taper off, that’s inevitable,” Isene tells me when we speak, “as a technology company you find your energy being directed towards supporting the products, maintaining them and incrementally upgrading them, fixing bugs.”
It’s a problem that even the mighty Google has to contend with, responding by allowing its employees to work on their own projects for 20 per cent of their time. Now it’s gone further though, allowing individuals to pitch it to set up within its start-up incubator—Area 21—where Google will seed fund and take a stake in the business when it eventually spins it out.
Dualog’s model has similarities in that it’s physically located within the organisation’s buildings, but in other respects it is very separate. “Dualog has a 60 per cent stake in the Garage and it will have first refusal on any innovations and concepts which we create there,” explains Isene. “That means that what we develop might be sold to Dualog, but it could equally be sold to Doctors Without Borders, if the application is appropriate for them.”
The majority of the staff though, will be from Dualog, “We’ll rotate people into and out of the Garage on a roughly two or three month cycle, so that everyone can expand their thinking, but I expect that there will be people who end up staying,” admits Isene. Complementing the Dualogers however will be a variety of new hires including a German, “black-hat hacker, turned white-hat, total genius” and a Chilean with a ‘passion for challenge’ whom Isene has persuaded to uproot his family from Chile and travel all the way to the bleak Nordic north to take up residence in his Garage.
Despite Dualog’s focus on the shipping and maritime industry Isene doesn’t have a background in shipping, although he’s already embarking on a whistle-stop tour of some of Dualog’s large customers seeking out intelligence about the kinds of problems the industry needs to solve, and the sort of questions the Garage should be asking.
When asked how he intends to manage the Garage Isene is clear that as, “an anarchist at heart” he doesn’t intend to micro-manage anyone. “If you work with geniuses you find that they are very self-propelled,” Isene explains. “My job is to ensure I maintain an environment which is conducive to innovation, allowing them to think creatively and not be stifled. If that means I run around getting them coffee or a massage, it’s fine. Fun is a very important part of experimentation and innovation.”
So what will success at the Garage look like? “When I see a report in this magazine about a tangible solution or service that we’ve created, that will be a success for us,” says Isene. But speaking to him what comes across powerfully is that the mindset Isene brings will be as important as any single product the Garage conceives, if not more so.
Aside from numerous companies, books and music Isene is also the co-creator of four sons, whom he credits with teaching him the importance of simplicity. “When questions like “Daddy, do you believe in reality?” or queries about parallelisms between dreams and reality come up, I am challenged to explain complex physical and philosophical concepts in really simple terms,” he writes on his blog.
“This has been immensely valuable as I have come to understand the real power of simplicity. If I cannot explain a concept such as quantum mechanics so that a 10-year-old can understand it, I have not myself sufficient understanding of it. I always seek to understand subjects, ideas, methods and results to the degree that I can make it simple enough for a boy to get it.”
I have my concerns about Garages or Skunk Works when they’re the product of big legacy organisations, trying to recapture their failing innovative beauty, like a fading movie star. My instinctive reaction is against anything which silos off what the organisation perceives as its best creativity and genius from the rest of the organisation.
In an era when we are recognising that great ideas can come from anywhere, that kind of hierarchy strikes me as counterproductive. But having said that, these things are all in the execution, and if Isene and the Dualog team are capable of feeding their people through the Garage in such a way that they not only suck up the creativity and exuberance which Isene is determined to deliver, but most critically, are able to go back out into the organisation and spread those concepts and that purpose in simple terms that everyone can coalesce around, then that really will be something of value. If Dualog can make its solutions powerful enough to solve problems and simple enough to be understood by a ten-year-old, it’ll be on the right track.
Innovation may just be the toughest of the tough challenges the shipping and maritime industry is facing, but whereas so many companies are paralysed by the sheer scale of the change coming their way, Dualog is taking a bold step towards shaping its own future.
I, for one, will be watching them and their ‘Geirage’ with great interest. And I hope it’s a runaway success.