The US Vice President Joe Biden opened the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in a tent the size of an aircraft hangar that was purpose-built beside the city walls of Marrakech, Morocco. Three thousand people packed the tent, and hundreds of iPhones were glowing on top of outstretched arms as he spoke. “Aspiring entrepreneurs must do what comes naturally to them,” he said to the crowd. “Dream. Take chances. And in the memorable phrase of Steve Jobs, who – when a young man at Stanford said, ‘Mr Jobs, how can I be more like you?’ – said, ‘I have two words for you. Think different.’”
The White House — believing that the values of entrepreneurship are the same values that promote economic and social stability — backs the Summit, which is now in its fifth year. But it became clear after the vice president’s departure that no government, American or otherwise, needed to impose too heavy a hand to start lively conversations between entrepreneurs.
Hundreds of entrepreneurs met in the tent city outside Marrakech. They came from Senegal, Singapore, the US, Canada, Mexico, France, South Africa, India, and dozens of other places. Many entrepreneurs were unknown and cash-strapped, but they were convinced their product could hit it big. Other entrepreneurs were the bosses of young, wildly successful businesses that had already gone global. Then there were heads of state, government ministers, investors, and executives from global companies.
The Summit was proof that an idea – in this case, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation” – can bring together a huge number of people who did not know how much they had in common. It was proof of how such an event can foster conversations that, however varied, ultimately focus on the same topic. And it showed that far outside the Bay Area or London, entrepreneurs are coming up with great ideas and in many cases are getting funding.
INFUSIVE: KNOWLEDGE PARTNER IN THE BIG TENT
Infusive was honored to be an official knowledge partner of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Will MacNamara, a former journalist who works for Infusive’s Enterprise unit, took to the stage in the plenary hall where Joe Biden had spoken the day before. He moderated an in-depth panel discussion on innovation in the consumer sector.
Joining him were Fokke de Jong, CEO and founder of SuitSupply, the luxury men’s fashion retailer; Cathy Han, founder and CEO of 42 Technologies, the retail data analytics company; Kunmi Otitoju, founder of Minku, the Barcelona-based handbag maker; and Mohammed Touhami Ouazzani, managing director of Visa in Francophone Africa.
The topic was the digitization of the retail experience. They agreed that the online and offline worlds have converged, creating opportunities to target their customers better through smart use of data. Innovation in the consumer sector often – but not always – means digitization.
“The consumer is not thinking, ‘I live my life offline or online, so that’s it,’” said
Mr Otitoju. “No. They browse the internet, get a link, see a handbag or a suit they like, find the store address, and think, ‘On the way home from work I will stop and try on a suit or buy a bag.’ We have to think the way the consumer thinks, which is an integrated approach to online and offline shopping.”
Mr de Jong of SuitSupply stressed that going online was only the first step of building a good twenty-first-century brand. “We’re talking about online as if it’s like, ‘As soon as you throw something online it’s going to work.’ But for it to be successful you have to add something that’s disruptive, something that has great personality.” He gestured to Mr Otitoju, who hand-makes Nigerian leather handbags in Barcelona, reflecting an unusually international upbringing. “Your handbags have a great personality,” Mr de Jong said, “and that’s why they’ll be successful.”
As retail businesses migrate to e-commerce, they (sometimes unconsciously) build mountains of data about their consumers. Few companies know how to read the data intelligently, said Ms Han. “For retail businesses, being able to understand data and what it’s saying about sales is as important as being able to read and communicate,” Ms Han said. “But it’s a lot more common for people to be able to read and write memos than to look at all their data and understand what’s going on with their business. Big retailers like Target and Tesco have succeeded in large part because they’ve done really well at understanding and leveraging their data.”
Retail is a four trillion dollar industry. Surprisingly little of that, however, is ecommerce. 92 per cent of retail transactions are still traditional, ‘offline’ transactions, according to 42 Technologies. E-commerce generates valuable data, but the most valuable data comes from physical retail transactions — all the more so because it is seldom mined as intelligently as e-commerce data, Cathy said. “To 2018 we’re seeing a 60 per cent growth rate for online transactions, and that will result in around $500 billion in online sales. We’re seeing a 12 per cent growth rate for online. So that’s much slower growth, but it will result in $5 trillion for offline sales in 2018.”
As the discussion moved to the power of big data analytics, Ms Otitoju cautioned that “digitization is only one part of innovation. Going digital is cool, but I find that lots of luxury companies are now looking to the old and traditional ways of doing things – and for them that is innovation. If you go to the Prada website, you see someone who is making a bag by hand. That’s what they think the consumer wants to see.” Ms Han said, “What we used to look at as commodity products [like handbags] have turned into more “statement” products. I buy an iPhone from Apple not because it’s a phone made by Apple but because the Apple brand represents what I stand for – who I am. It’s a lot more about that, and having a product in my hands that I can customize to my personal preferences.”
Mr de Jong talked about how digital technology had allowed SuitSupply to personalize its services. For example, the company can use its data to predict their customers’ tastes with such granularity that they can send customers variety boxes of suits and accessories they are likely to accept.
“You want to have a personal relationship with customers. That is how retail was a hundred years ago. It was the guy at the grocery store [not an algorithm] who would figure out that someone was pregnant and suggest items, because he knew his customers. Then we had the era of mass distribution, and that’s a great thing because it helped us get products for a better price. But we lost the personal touch. Now technology helps us bring the personal touch there again.”
Most of the conversation was about higher-end retail is sophisticated markets. Mr Ouazzani from Visa, however, took a different perspective, describing changing consumption patterns of hundreds of millions of upwardly mobile consumers in countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast, and the DR Congo. “We look at behaviors in Francophone Africa,” he said, “and there is a big switch from offline, traditional, face-to-face transactions to more innovative ones based on e-commerce networks.
“My friends here,” he said, gesturing to the panel, “have the ability to grow in these markets, because consumers are no longer blocked by barriers linked to customs and so on.
The online network infrastructure helps break those barriers. It gives you advanced possibilities to interact with and facilitate this new consumer behavior and growth.”
“You want to have a personal relationship with customers. That is how retail was a hundred years ago.”
THE GREEK YOGURT KING OF AMERICA
Hamdi Ulukaya, the Greek yogurt king of America, was among the most interesting entrepreneurs present. Mr Ulukaya is a Kurd who was born on a farm by the Euphrates River. He later immigrated to the US, where he was bothered by the lack of feta cheese and thick yogurt of the quality he knew as a boy. This was the genesis of Chobani, now the biggest Greek-style yogurt company in the US by sales. In a keynote address, Mr Ulukaya said, “An entrepreneur is someone who has issues in terms of accepting things the way they are. They want to change things. I started because I didn’t like the yogurt out there and I wanted to make it better. When I talk to my young ones, I say, “If you want to be an entrepreneur, first try not to be one. Try to kill the idea. And if you can’t help it, only then do it. Because this journey is not an easy one – especially if you start from nothing.”
His story was a reminder of how – especially in the consumer sector – successful entrepreneurs do not all need to be Steve Jobs, creating entirely new product categories. Greek yogurt has grown from 4 per cent of the US yogurt market in 2010 to 35 percent in 2013, according to Mintel. Chobani and Danone have facilitated this phenomenal growth “not by inventing a new market but by reinventing an old product,” Mintel noted.