BW Businessworld

Book Extract: Nomad No More

How Sukhmani Singh and Dhruv Raj Gupta arrived at the idea of offering micro-tours to travellers, guided by locals

The Bekal Fort in Kasargod, the northernmost district of Kerala, is the best preserved fort in the state and stands on a thirty-five-acre headland, facing the Arabian Sea. Standing at the edge of the fort, one can watch the waves from the sea crash into the rocks below. For those seeking to get away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, the tranquil beaches and backwaters offer the best spots for some relaxation and silent reflection. Millennial serial entrepreneur Deepak Ravindran hails from the beautiful town of Kasaragod. His past ventures include text-based search engine Innoz and Q&A platform Quest.

The Economic Times’ Panache magazine reported how, on one occasion, when Deepak was visiting his mother in his home town, he observed her chatting with the local grocer over WhatsApp to place an order. This was the inspiration to create Lookup, a messaging service that effectively connects customers to local merchants.

The service also addresses privacy and other issues associated with existing messaging platforms: users may be uncomfortable with sharing their numbers, displaying pictures, and chatting with strangers on popular messaging apps.

In creating Lookup, notice how Deepak intuitively connected the dots to identify a latent need: his past expertise in creating a messaging platform (Innoz), users’ growing affinity to book orders through messaging apps, and overcoming privacy, quality and other challenges associated with existing platforms. Lookup lets customers chat with local merchants, check availability for products, place orders, book appointments and do much more.

In line with Steve Jobs’s definition of creativity, Deepak Ravindran allowed himself to ‘see something’, ‘connect experiences’ and ‘synthesize new things’.

Millennials and Innovation
Every year, global consulting firm Deloitte polls millennials from all over the world. Detailed findings and highlights from the fourth edition of the Deloitte Millennial Survey were made available by the firm in 2015.

Around 7800 millennials from all over the globe responded to a range of queries. It is particularly interesting to note the views of the Indian demographic, especially on the subject of innovation. In one question, respondents were asked to select from among a range of words and phrases on what businesses should try to achieve—i.e., what the purpose of business should be. A full 31 per cent of Indian respondents chose ‘driving innovation’ (against a global average of 26 per cent). Also, 45 per cent Indian millennials felt that one of the most important characteristics for an organization to be considered a leader was ‘creating innovative products or services’ (compared to a global average of 35 per cent). In addition, 86 per cent of the respondents felt that their company has a culture that promotes idea sharing, risk- taking and innovation (with a global average of 64 per cent).

Millennials already make up a majority of the workforce in many workplaces across the country, especially in the services sector. Qualities such as creativity and taking initiative are no longer only the onus of entrepreneurs. As organizations continue to invest in setting up cultures that encourage risk-taking and innovation across levels, millennials would likely need to equip themselves with the right mindset and tools needed to bring forward their creative abilities, i.e., become ‘intrapreneurs’ within their respective work units. Indeed, as management expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out in an insightful essay for the Wall Street Journal, highly educated millennials who are products of the digital age could be the ‘C-suite’s secret weapon for innovation’. Millennials could well become agents of transformational change for organizations.

Through this chapter, we will look at some conceptual frameworks for innovation that have been put forth by thinkers and leading researchers over the last many years, and also learn from millennials who are applying such models in their own work. The frameworks point to pertinent skills that can be imbibed by curious souls willing to occasionally step out of their comfort zones, and teams looking to kick-start their innovation agendas.

Without further ado, let’s jump straight in.

The Skills You Need

Professor Clayton M. Christensen at the Harvard Business School, Jeffrey H. Dyer, Professor of Strategy at the Marriott School, Brigham Young University, and Hal Gregersen, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Leadership Center, got together a few years ago to study the behavioural characteristics of leading innovative entrepreneurs and global executives. They published their findings in a book called The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. The five characteristics or ‘discovery skills’ that distinguished the most creative executives from the rest were—associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking. These skills are analysed briefly below, by expanding on an example from the start-up space:

Associating: The single most important trait for an innovator is to be able to make associations or connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. The more diverse your experiences and the more knowledge you gain, the more connections your brain can make between contrasting notions. Consider how Sukhmani Singh and Dhruv Raj Gupta, millennial founders of leading digital travel marketplace ‘Seek Sherpa’, arrived at the idea of offering micro-tours to travellers, guided by locals. (Sherpas are the local guides empanelled on the Seek Sherpa platform, who conduct the tours.) Sukhmani and Dhruv are both avid travellers. While they were on a trek to Triund near Dharamsala, they were accompanied by a stray dog that guided them to the very top. The trekking route was haphazard and navigating their way to the top was a tricky proposition. If it hadn’t been for the dog that came along and guided them, they would have got completely lost. This led to a key insight: locals have a better understanding of the territory they operate in. Could the duo build a platform that connected travelers to locals? The experience allowed them to connect seemingly disparate ideas:

• Locals offering specialized knowledge and unique experiences.

• Travellers who would want to connect to and be guided by locals.

• A technology-driven marketplace that connects the two (this was realized much later).

The service wasn’t implemented all at once, and the solution as it exists today unfolded over time. Association is the first ‘discovery skill’—as innovators hone the remaining skills, their ability to recombine existing knowledge in new ways only grows stronger.

Questioning: Innovators challenge the status quo. They ask uncomfortable questions, and try to provoke change by questioning the way things are done. ‘If, then’, ‘what if’, ‘why’ and ‘why not’ are all triggers that allow them to challenge and make their way through long-held assumptions. They work with constraints, and are comfortable holding opposing thoughts in their head. Sukhmani Singh and Dhruv Raj Gupta did not launch Seek Sherpa overnight. The initial three months were long and arduous, spent mulling over details. Powerful questions like ‘Why would anybody want to use our service?’, ‘Why not offer micro-tours arranged by locals?’ and ‘What if we offered diverse experiences, going beyond traditional heritage tours?’ helped build a differentiated offering that customers now value.

Other equally important considerations included ‘What kind of tours could we operate?’, ‘What sort of unique experiences could we provide?’, ‘How would we grow our “Sherpa base”?’ and ‘Where would we list the tours?’ During this time, the founders also played devil’s advocate and continuously challenged each other.

Observing: The founders of Seek Sherpa experienced first-hand the benefits of seeking the assistance of locals. They occasionally hop on to Seek Sherpa tours themselves to observe their customers and gain insights while the travellers are being guided by the Sherpas.

Additionally, they frequently reach out to their wide customer base through social media platforms like Facebook and ask their users what kind of tours they might want to experience in the future. For instance, in May 2015, while developing the Seek Sherpa mobile app, the founders invited their users to join a community of beta testers who would live-test the app as it was being developed. This gave the founders the opportunity to observe user behaviour, seek feedback and live-test the platform through the process of app development. Much like anthropologists, innovators routinely observe their current and potential customers while they are interacting with products or using their services.

Experimenting: Early on, the founders created a Facebook page to test the waters and learn more about what kind of tours worked and filter out those that weren’t working.

‘We did mess up (in thinking and implementation) a few times, but didn’t consider them as mistakes. We took them as learnings,’ admitted Dhruv in an interview with Mint. Innovators consciously seek out knowledge from outside their area of expertise and work with a hypothesis-testing mindset. Creating a safe space for frequent, small experiments, testing multiple hypotheses, failing quickly, learning from those mistakes and then repeating the cycle of experimentation all over again is how they iteratively build amazing products and services.

Networking: Innovators actively create wide networks that allow them to reach much beyond their immediate circle of influence. This is done not just ‘to access resources, to sell themselves or their companies, or to boost their careers’, but to expand their knowledge base by incorporating diverse views and perspectives. When they were starting up, Dhruv and Sukhmani proactively reached out to networking bodies like NASSCOM’s 10,000 Start-ups, co-working spaces like 91springboard, and were mentored by accelerator VentureNursery. They took advice from experts to understand how the travel ecosystem in India works. They also got in touch with people with varied expertise and sought help to put together specific pieces of the travel puzzle. As of this writing, Seek Sherpa organizes a variety of tours and experiences across ten cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Hyderabad, and is fast expanding to other cities both within and outside the country.

Christensen et al. point out that the continued application of these five skills has inspired innovators like Ratan Tata, Pierre Omidyar and Peter Thiel among others to take action. The skills can be practised by anyone, irrespective of the domain or sector of operation. In summary, remember to seek out new experiences, observe your customers (or stakeholders) in action, be curious, don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions, experiment continuously and network, not just to advance your own agenda, but also to learn new and different things.

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