What kinds of – NEW – purposeful and successful enterprises are currently surfacing? We asked Oscar Rosa and Sjoerd Luteyn ebbf members, co-creators of the entire ebbf brand and co-founders of one such NEW enterprise (Refresh Interactions) this and a number of other questions opening our minds to a new way of being an enterprise.
CLICK UNDER “RECENT TOPICS..:” TO DOWNLOAD THE TRANSCRIPT of the “ebbf meaningful hangout” we enjoyed with Oscar and Sjoerd
CLICK HERE TO MEET AND INTERACT with Sjoerd and Oscar in more meaningful face to face exchanges at the next ebbf international learning event, May 10 to 12th in London: co-creating the NEW enterprise, the shift from competition to collaboration
1. Sjoerd and Oscar what are the common themes around this new enterprise?
We have always seen our company as a way not only to earn a living but also to experiment with a new collaborative way of working. We have always been passionate about breaking patterns of thinking and not only working for a salary or safe future but specially for something that really makes coming into work on Monday worthwhile. This mentality of ours has upset some old employees but also attracted new individuals who shared our passion and our way to thinking.
2. So what is your key objective and consequently that of your company?
More important than profit, which we also see as an essential part of our sustainability of course, is creating something that can contribute to the interest of the owners of the company. So we go well beyond the concept of “serving the client” and instead offer our clients new scenarios for how their business could develop and become of service to their community, or even better have each of their employees, products and services become an integral part of the community they serve.
3. How do you keep your staff aligned with your values?
One key element is being open and transparent with all co-workers in our company. Our decision making has a spirit of consultation embedded at every level.
I’ll give you one example: at beginning of January when I came back from my winter holiday , something happened financially that made us aware of our situation: sales dropped, cash flow went really bad as we did not receive payments from major clients. We had sustained a 35% growth per year, every year, and suddenly having a cash flow issue is like death for a company. In our case we could have sustained this for a few more months but then we’d be out of business.
So we could do the obvious: let 2 people go from a team of 7. This would have cut our costs and allow our cash flow to survive, we knew we could do this but decided to do things differently. On Monday morning we had a full company staff meeting and we presented the figures around the table with them and we said that us, the owners, would not get our salary paid in two or three months and that I would not take the usual Friday off that I so enjoy to refresh myself and my mind with new ideas and inspiration.
When we asked the team what they suggested we do, the reaction from the team was amazing: one guy was willing to get a salary payment stop of 2 months, another was ready to work for 5 days and only be paid for 3 days (regularly working 4 days in a week). There was a real sense of co-owning the situation and the whole company.
But for me the idea was not only to focus on the short term solution but to how to get the cash flow back and with a set of new ideas and enthusiasm shown by the team, by the end of February our growth targets were completed and so just 3 weeks later we were back in line again, and we ended paying all salaries on time.
When attending the last ebbf conference, which are always an unmissable source of inspiration for us, I remember a great conversation I had with ebbf board member Françoise Le Goff and I wrote down in my notebook a little note she mentioned “never sacrifice people for profit as in the future that will be thrown back to you”
4. How do you create your company strategy? Who do you involve?
Last year, in November, we did a 2 day strategy session with the everybody in Refresh Interactions. The entire team came together and we invested some 7,000 € in creating an experience that would allow the group to truly co-decide our direction.
We started with a consultation around our core personal and company values, asking the key questions: What is the purpose of our company? Why do we do what we do?
We built an overarching long term strategy and split it into: one year, 6 months and 3 months actions.
It was a truly inspiring experience: during those three days, everyone understood the evolution of the company, they were part of this direction setting and they clearly saw their own role in making it happen. Everyone had a true and deep connection with what we are doing.
5. How do you keep faithful to what is important to you? How do youcommunicate this with your stakeholders, including your clients?
We have recently dropped some very lucrative contracts, with benefits that would have been most welcome because those companies wanted to use our expertise to sell a product that did not match our values and what we stand for. When we involved the Refresh team in making the decision on whether to accept these contracts some people were more practical “we can use the money” whilst others said “I’d rather spend time in learning and not on this client” at the end they came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do. We were not dominant in this consultation with our staff it was truly a team decision.
The other important approach is how you communicate your decision with the client: we make sure they understand it is not because of arrogance or superiority but rather out of respect for ourselves that we decided not to work with them.
6. You recently changed your company’s name, was there a reason behind your name change?
We changed our name from Refresh interactive to Refresh Interactions. We believe that change happens not through words, despite the fact that we are communicators and branders, but through actions. And not just isolated actions, but by doing things together.
What we do with the organizations we work with is to create a space where we can define the common principles and then invite to interact with each other to become aware of the shared value. We actively assist a shift from the attrition of what tears us apart to the attract of what makes us walk, with common purpose and stronger emphasis, together.
7. So your co-creation goes beyond the staff that works at Refresh Interactions?
Although we are a growing company sometimes facing issues of liquidity and definitely needing all the cash we can rightly earn, we sometimes decide to share assignments with other companies or individuals. Take the example of a recent client, Altran, where we called in ebbf member Paul Hughes whom we have worked with for the ebbf’s communication, and shared the entire project and its financial results with him: we could have hired him as a consultant and not share the profit but only a fee but instead we decided that we should collaborate fully and fully share the entire journey as opposed to a short term use of his talent for a small part of the project.
8. Do you see this collaborative spirit spreading in other examples?
Indeed we saw how after we fully collaborated with Paul in this project, he reciprocated and when he received another assignment through his network, he right away involved us in the full flow of the project.
Another example of where we love to take this innovative collaborative approach happened recently: a large company invited five agencies to come to their offices to receive the request for a pitch for a large contract. The client and the agencies’ representatives were all sitting around the table when we suggested that instead of going through the usual way where one wins and all the rest lose, we might want to co-tender and have the five of us provide one proposal to the company who would thus get the best from each agency. Right away one agency came up asking “how are we going to split the money?” Our suggestion was that everyone gets paid for what they do.
But to us it was interesting that the first question was not about the shared values, which is what we always try to first of all aim for, but on the individual winners. To prove that we are still in a pioneering stage of this evolution, neither the agencies nor ultimately the client could quite come to grips with this proposal and in the end we all bid against each other. But we are sure that a seed has been planted, at least the possibility of this shared value and of a new way of doing business is present in people’s minds.
9. What other examples of your shared value approach can you tell us about?
A client came to us very recently and confirmed that in 2013 we would be once again their main agency but admitted that their budget in communication and branding was cut in half. So our proposal was the following: let’s use one third of the budget to hold a monthly conversation about your business, your needs and generate ideas that could work. You will be getting the same value with every idea included in that price. We don’t measure our input in terms of how much time nor how many ideas but rather in terms of the value the collaboration creates. If there is a specific assignment on top of this meeting, then we get paid the rest of the budget. We don’t only try to accompany a client when the cash is flowing, but also when the times are harder. Relations are long-term. Not just for one day.
10. I understand that you consider yourself a “learning company” what do you mean by that?
Indeed we see ourselves as a learning company. Learning is the essence, because we are learning we don’t have fixed answers, we have ideas, inspiration, we try to apply what we can and sometimes reality is different, challenging and tough and things don’t work. It is very hard to be rigid as a changing organization. Once in a while we are challenged by the people who work in Refresh who say “sometimes you could be more rigid” but the world is not black and white. Sometimes you need to find your own boundaries and the more you express those boundaries, those principles the more you can be criticized – it is a challenge to be different the line is not just black and white.
We see ourselves as influencers of the future and the soul of the company. There is no pattern of model for the future, it is going to be discovered by trying and creating options for new models to help humanity to work – we now need to experiment and create options but we don’t know if the models are going to be the right ones.
People are trying to break old patterns, old administrations, old models; but as long as people copy old models to try to adapt them to the new world, this won’t work. Experimenting with new models is what is required to achieve what we want to achieve.
11. You don’t seem to be walking the easy traditional path: why aren’t you afraid of failure?
“Learn from losers” we love to say ;-). One of the mistakes the business world often make is that we try to learn only from the winners (the few). We feel that more people should try to look at the vast majority of efforts, at the plentiful opportunities for learning that come from all the people who tried, came to a certain level of success but through their innovative efforts created the foundations for others to learn from and start from. There are so many things to learn from losers and doers.
12. What other examples of collaboration?
Obviously people like Paul Hughes, Stephanie Hughes-Akkaoui, Kathleen Holmlund, Mika Korhonen, Arash AaZami and Alain Noghiu from within the ebbf network. But you can also see in this video about Jelly Fish another interesting concept which is worth viewing and taking the time really watch it. There are many interesting ideas: give the power to people, the more power you hold in your hands, the slower the group can advance. http://www.futureinsights.com/home/the-man-who-turned-his-company-into-a-jellyfish.html
13. What would you suggest to others wishing to walk your same innovative collaborative path?
There are some conditions that we would advise if you want to move in this direction
1.) define your higher purpose and meaning: why you do what you do?
2.) surround yourself with people who are like-minded: I think back at all the people I met at ebbf and who have been supporting us to follow this road; if you surround yourself with people who are cynical it will be harder
3.) have the courage to make decision that are coherent: we can only do this work with clients who have the potential to join us in this journey, because it is not us who are changing the world (it is not dependent on us), it has to be in them; you should be able to say ‘no’ to clients and we have practical examples when we did it and that was HARD (it still is hard often, but also fun). In a conversation with the client we decided to stop working with hem as we have not just different but even conflicting values, so we decided to split up and this was a harsh decision for both – they daid they cannot find an agency in the market who can help them better with design and we could definitely use the money as it was in the January crisis moment (red. described before). A few later they asked us to develop a new identity for a new division of that organization and we decided not to do it after consulting with the team. Developing the courage to say ‘yes’ to the right thing and ‘no’ to the things that are too hard to change.
4.) choose your battles – the ones that are worth fighting for and where you should spend energy on. Create a new awareness in our own clients that by any means are not capable moving to serve a community don’t do the work.
14. So answering your own first point mentioned above: why do you do what you do?
We unlock capacities for positive contributions.
Because we do it for something else than happiness. An ebbf member shared with me an article that about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/). There it was made clear how people are most of the time looking for happiness, but as happiness is usually a fleeting moment, a very temporary status, people seeking happiness have a very short satisfaction period. Instead people aiming for meaningfulness are on a constantly satisfying experience. They are certainly a little bit less happy than that peak that those looking for happiness sometimes reach but they rarely suffer the deep dark moments when happiness is far away. So what we are doing is far from trying to reach instant success, that moment of total fulfillment and satisfaction and instead it is a day to day tough and sometimes harsh task of remaining faithful to what is important to me.
What really drives me comes from a talk I heard at my first ebbf conference, where World Bank director Augusto Lopez-Claros made a strong statement that aligned me with ebbf and then inspired my vision on the future: governments are not able to solve the issues of the world, as their horizon is limited to their four year term, with the first one dedicated to a consultation on what to do, the last one dedicated to their election campaign and in the two years of action it is impossible for them to manage the problems of their country. Entrepreneurs on the other hand, work with people on a daily basis, with an unlimited time frame in mind, the higher the trust and collaboration, the longer the relationship in fact. So from that perspective they can instantly change the world, people can speed up, they can change the world much faster. So the work we do from a communication and branding perspective always starts from the essence: if we are able to change the concept of serving people as opposed “clients” we then make a better world as we don’t have to do it but rather empower others to do it for us.
It is not always easy but one of the few quotes I enjoyed – from Good to great of Jim Collins – stated: know you will prevail at the end and confront yourself with the brutal facts of daily life.
The daily meaning we strive for each day, makes that struggle definitely worth living.