Six things UK businesses can learn from Silicon Valley

The most successful and fastest-growing businesses in the world have a few things in common, says CEO of Kitcatt Nohr Digitas Marc Nohr. After a whirlwind tour of 18 such companies in four days, here are his top six.

by Marc Nohr
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

A higher purpose

The first relates to vision. Specifically, the importance of a company vision which transcends the every day and points towards a higher purpose. For Facebook it’s the creation of 'the largest living map of living connections'. For Twitter, it’s 'instantly connecting people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them'. For AirBnB, the service which allows users to rent each other’s apartment, it’s the sense that 'a world of sharing is a better one'. Get the idea?

‘Always in beta’  

And emerging seamlessly from this sense of vision is a distinct culture and definition of what it is to be 'one of us'. Each one of these cultures is different, but distinct, and characterised variously by ambition, restlessness, contrarianism and being 'always in beta'. In other words, always trying to improve, refine, innovate.

Dogs everywhere

In many instances, these cultures manifest themselves in workplaces which are three dimensional representations of the brand. Google’s campus in Mountain View with its outdoor spaces, colour, sense of fun and exploration (Google it and see for yourself). Zynga’s office with its interactive light-tunnel through which all visitors walk, its room dedicated to life drawing and its bars and restaurants (free food is a recurring theme). IDEO’s cafe, all glass and wood, with a toy workshop hovering above on a mezzanine which makes you want to, well, play. IDEO had no dogs, but plenty of the other offices did, under desks and wandering the halls.

An always-on world

There was also a clear theme around connectedness and scale. First some figures. Some 800 million people on Facebook, 130 million business people on LinkedIn, five billion searches a day on Google, a billion tweets every four days, 230 million people gaming via Zynga, a zettabyte of information being created every year (that’s a million million gigabytes to you and me), five billion mobile users. You get a sense of a world in which we will be increasingly connected, at all times, to whatever we want: games, content, commerce, conversation.

The barriers to collaboration, consumption and creativity are crumbling. And as they fall, the opportunities for trade increase. Warner Bros is now renting out films via Facebook, Disney is teaching English in China, VW launched the new Beetle on Twitter, LinkedIn has become an important business news source.

We're all data miners now

There is also a data revolution. As consumers interact with social platforms, games, information and each other, they are revealing information about their preferences and behaviours like never before. And this is not just opening up opportunities for the digital pureplays like Facebook – which learn more about their users by the second – but also for traditional media brands. Warner Bros, Twentieth Century Fox and Disney now know their customers in ways never possible before.

Test, test, test

And finally, innovation. The same soundbites echo through the corridors wherever we went. 'If you don’t fail you’re not trying hard enough', 'test, test, test', 'hack days', 'launch and learn', 'don’t worry about how you innovate, hire innovators, people who make new ideas happen'. And there were some wonderfully innovative ways of approaching the topic. Top of the list was Albert Savoia, Google’s technology director, with his approach to prototyping. Or rather, Pretendo-typing, which he calls 'Preto-typing'.

Albert’s thesis is this: don’t ask people’s opinions in focus groups or spend millions developing prototypes that have a high chance of falling on their faces. Instead, develop proxies. Cheaply and quickly. And collect real data, not opinions. Want to write a book? Buy a Google Adwords campaign and see if people click on it. Have a promotional idea? Set up a stall in a car park and see if people pre-order. Have an idea for a PDA? Make a model out of wood and ask people to carry it around with them for a few days. Then once you know it can work, spend money on building it. Bonkers, but genius. Like so many other ideas we encountered.

Marc Nohr, CEO of Kitcatt Nohr Digitas, was one of 14 UK advertising and marketing agency chiefs participating in a study tour of the West Coast of the USA last week. It was organised by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising with the support of the UK Government (UK Trade & Investment) and took in visits to Google, Facebook, Twitter, IDEO, LinkedIn, Zynga, Stanford University, Adobe, AirBnB, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros Studios amongst others.

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