Blue Chilli CEO: Innovation isn’t something you can just buy
Six years ago, Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin left a 10-year career in the Australian Navy to pursue his passion for working with start-ups. He is now CEO and founder of one of Australia’s leading innovation centres, Blue Chilli, which helps founders design and build investable and scalable businesses.
Since being named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013, Eckersley-Maslin has been vocal about innovation, and what is means for businesses. “Despite [Blue Chilli’s] best efforts to productise, you can’t,” he wrote in a recent blog. “I believe that innovation is actually an output of culture.”
Sister publication, Third Sector, spoke to Eckersley-Maslin about his career and passions, how to build an innovative culture in business, and what Australia needs to do to become more innovative.
TS: You started your career in the Australian Navy. Why did you make this big change?
The foundations I learnt in the military have definitely been applied to Blue Chilli. It was a fantastic starting point, but yes, it is quite different. We would joke in the military: if you were doing something that wasn’t documented, then you were doing it wrong. Everything from eating dinner to launching a missile was documented. It can go a little far, but when things become difficult you can always rely on this strong structure, which is an important thing business could learn from.
TS: When did you realise you had a passion for this type of work – start-ups and innovation?
I spent 10 years in the military and accomplished everything I wanted to do. I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had ticked all the boxes. It was time for me to move on to another challenge.
It wasn’t just a leap of faith. I had run start-ups before, and my first-ever “business” was selling sunscreen on the beach as an eight-year-old.
I always had this entrepreneurial spirit … I always enjoyed building things and coming up with ideas. It wasn’t just something I suddenly decided to do.
TS: Your approach to business and innovation has been described as unique. Do you find more people are taking on your approach, your business model?
Yes, over the past couple of years we have definitely seen business models that take some or even all the elements of what we do. I think that is fantastic. The more ideas that are generating, the greater the pool of talent will be. People will take elements of our model and adapt it to their own, and that is brilliant.
TS: Innovation is definitely a buzzword now, pushed on by Malcolm Turnbull’s funding announcements. Which areas does Australia need to focus on in order to become a more innovative country?
Innovation isn’t something you can just buy or produce. You have to create a culture that results in innovation. We need to balance the effort by creating more venture capital and increasing the supply of start-ups. This is done by bridging a gap between universities and early VC investors.
We need to make sure we have a balance, and create an environment that will support the accelerators and incubators. We will have 100 companies come through our service, and that’s 100 new companies that would not otherwise be on the market.
Another important focus is future-proofing our economy and ensuring we have the right skill sets in the future, and that starts early, such as in high school students.
We can take a page out of Israel’s book and create an environment where global corporate research centres can be set up, for example. We need to get high-school students excited. One of the things we don’t do too well in Australia is “celebritise” our tech entrepreneurs, making them relevant. We want people to say, “I want to do that when I grow up”.
TS: Are any other countries or people leading in terms of innovation you think we can learn from?
The US is huge in terms of innovation, and one of the things it does is buy innovation – this means going for it and doing it. It also has a strong culture of partnerships. It is a factor of being a macro-economy, whereas in Australia we have a much smaller economy.
Europe has a strong focus on education, which engenders pride in innovation. The UK is doing amazing work to encourage high-networth individuals/groups to invest in start-ups. It also has a strong marketing outreach: they go around the world to attract talent and take it back to London. It is a powerful thing, and we can learn from this once we create a national identity.
TS: You mentioned in a blog post that you believe there are three elements that go into building an innovative culture. Could you please elaborate?
They are: speed of execution, empowerment of people, and tolerance and failure.
Speed of execution is about creating an environment in which an idea can be put into practice very quickly. We are talking weeks or months, not decades. We build technology-based businesses and have reached the point where in 200 hours we can built a business from scratch. Speed is very important because you need to be able to react to market changes.
To empower people, you need to treat them like adults, giving them the tools and the vision to make a change. At Blue Chilli, even if the experiment fails, we encourage it, which brings me to the final point: tolerance and failure. If you think something can be better, then you can tell your peers and try it out. If it doesn’t work, we are not going to punish you.
We also celebrate failure … we even celebrate it and award a trophy. We make failure an event in order to talk about it. We don’t talk about the individual, just the failure. It isn’t about berating the individual – it is about finding how we can remove that failure from our system. We can all learn from it.
TS: You also mentioned that Blue Chilli has unlimited sick days and that nobody works on their birthday…
That’s right. I have never worked on my birthday … I thought that if this was good for me, it was good for everyone.
In putting in place unlimited sick leave, we are ultimately trusting our people. There is no obligation to work. People feel empowered to take care of themselves, which means they are going to be healthier and more productive. If you are sick, stay home. We found it works well. We don’t track it, and we have no idea how many days people are taking off. Yet we really have a very productive and engaged team.
Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin will be speaking at Third Sector’s Innovation for a Stronger Community Conference in Sydney on August 18 and 19. For more information, visit thirdsectorexpo.com.
This interview originally appeared in the March print edition of Third Sector, and was conducted by Third Sector editor, Gali Blacher.