Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next: picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

Innovation. According to one Mads Thimmer, it's a word that held a great deal of mystery some 10-plus years ago, but today, "it's thrown around as a cliché." When you really get down to it, though, the art of innovating is a hugely delicate and complex one, fraught with frustration and a curious passion for never settling on the here and now. In covering the world of consumer technology, I've come to form my own understanding of what innovation is, what it isn't and how companies are embracing (or outright shunning) the idea. After an evening with the cofounder of Innovation Lab, however, I was rightfully ready to toss my own preconceived notions aside.

Mad beginnings
Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

According to Thimmer himself -- a man that created a "404" beer that only true internet nerds would appreciate -- the corporate world took its toll on him early on. Specifically, it was the seemingly endless bureaucracy that tends to sulk around and adhere to corporations with minimal friction. Prior to seeking sanity in his own company, he was crafting games for Games Workshop, working in press relations at Danish telecom TDC and "translating Virginia Woolf to Danish." His view of cubes and hierarchy is one shared by plenty of those who have been buried in the enterprise at one point or another -- myself included. I spent two years at DuPont pushing Excel sheets around, and another two at Nortel as its CEO drove a sinking ship directly into an iceberg. It's quite possible that I'll never get back the portions of my soul that I lost at each place, but if anything, those experiences have made me exceptionally grateful for everything that has come after.

Rather than seeking solace in a different profession as I did, Thimmer decided to devote his life to rescuing the lost. The exaggeration is my own, but Thimmer himself confesses that his work at Innovation Lab "isn't a career, but a lifestyle." Indeed, what he has built is difficult to explain if you've only time to hear an elevator pitch. It's not a consulting firm -- he's fairly turned off by the term -- and it's not just a coworking space. Innovation Lab, a non-profit entity based in Denmark but with tentacles in countless locales around the globe, was founded to do a couple of things. One: to attract corporate clientele seeking a more unchained way of thinking to solve problems. And two: to enable its own employees to curate events in order to deliver its message and have it spread in the outside world. He's certainly okay with working with startups, but perhaps surprisingly, he prefers to target corporate minds that have already been polluted by rules and stipulations.

Purpose and presence
Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

In an effort to have Thimmer explain precisely what Innovation Lab is, I ask him how he'd describe his life's work to others. After a bit of pondering, he confesses that simply describing a portfolio of successes and failures wouldn't do much good. At the Lab, you see, past performance has little bearing on the future. After all, incredible ideas that were relevant in the world of technological innovation just five years ago probably aren't so much today. That said, he does fondly recall working with a local Danish group that eventually went on to launch PLAY -- one of the planet's first music-streaming services to mobile. In fact, that project launched in March of 2008, well before stars like Spotify and Pandora were known outside of their own closets.

I ask Thimmer what motivates his efforts, and what drives the machine at Innovation Lab. He chuckles a bit, and first confesses that even he doesn't exactly have a "role." He adds, "Rules inevitably lead to restrictions.... I don't like systems. I don't like rules." You may assume that's a rebel's voice, but it's assuredly not. It's delivered with a sense of urgency that perhaps only he can truly understand -- after all, he's spent the last 10 years trying to preach openness, respect and curiosity to companies that are being backed into a wall by shareholders who seek little more than short-term gains on playful stock maneuvers.

He fully understands the reality of the situation -- in fact, part of every conversation involves the balancing of curiosity with reality, and then relentlessly pursuing methods that would enable sheer curiosity to create a new reality. Effectively, the goal at Innovation Lab is to use its myriad coworking spaces to let new ideas flow freely, outside of the conventional rulebook. As Thimmer puts it, there's no rulebook to succeeding in today's market. Says Thimmer: "From 1998 to 2008, most of these companies could just throw anything to market, and it'd succeed. Management today is using a rulebook based on a decade of tactics that no longer work in a demand-driven market. In the years before, we were living in debt-driven times, so there's no real benchmark on how or why something was successful." In other words, it's easy to succeed when money flows freely; when consumers are forced to clamp down and get picky, the real challenges begin to surface.

Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

I should also point out that Thimmer is relatively opposed to "goals." The point is brought up after I ask him about any overriding goals he has for Innovation Lab. To him, the mere act of setting a goal is the act of placing blinders upon one's eyes -- if you're only aiming for a specific finish, you're missing out on opportunities to see what no other is seeing. And once you cross that line, what next? Complacency? A lifetime of using the same approaches to cross different finish lines? At some point, the rinse-repeat methodology renders an idea or company behind the curve, and once that's recognized, it's likely too late to alter one's tactics. To him, the extended success of Innovation Lab will be the perpetual impact of positivity in the people and companies he comes into contact with.

To that, I inquire how he feels about frustrations. "Surely," I ask, "companies you meet with have obstacles and frustrations. You speak freely of new and open approaches to solving technological issues, but how do you handle the inevitable setbacks?" Thimmer admits that he typically refuses projects that involve things like IT security and privacy, knowing full well that the requirements there are so burdensome that it makes it nearly impossible to rethink how these issues must be approached. "But for every one of me," he adds, "there are hundreds of negative thinkers." It's a statement that resonates with me -- there are far too many instances of negativity, even in the realm of technology, and finding those devoted to instilling a new kind of culture into companies is rare.

On Microsoft, Nokia and the art of self-cannibalization
Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

"I can't think of a single company that has chosen to cannibalize itself and then failed specifically because of that," says Thimmer. "But look at the list of companies that have attempted to halt industry-wide innovation in an effort to prolong profits by maintaining a status quo." It's true. RIM, for years, continued to produce handsets that looked exactly like the model it announced a year before -- surely people would continue to adore its legendary keyboard, right? Wrong. Regarding an idea put forth by myself in our conversation, Thimmer concurs that RIM was a classic case of a company shying away from self-cannibalization, only to have other companies swoop in and do the deed for it. Nokia, similarly, faced "managerial issues" that kept it from spotting the writing on the wall.

As a Dane, Thimmer has enjoyed a better view than most US journalists when it comes to the deterioration of Nokia. He describes an era where Nokia's marketing efforts plastered televisions with its "Connecting People" slogan. "People were enamored," he says. "They'd see the ads, flock to stores and pay whatever they had to pay to come away with 'that new Nokia.'" According to Thimmer, it lulled Nokia into a place of comfort and complacency -- a place where it'd be a waste of time and resources to even think about the future being anything but bright. He witnessed a company rake in hundreds of millions in revenue, and rather than spend that internally in an attempt to disrupt itself, it waited until 2007 to have itself disrupted.

Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

"Today, the iPhone possesses Olympic status," says Thimmer. "It wasn't that way in 2007 -- I recall rather lukewarm reactions to it here in Denmark. Nokia laughed it off. But as it was riding the wave of massive cellular adoption, it was ignoring an opportunity to build a mobile operating system more fluid and enjoyable than that on the iPhone. It finally chose a different path some two years too late."

Apple, on the other hand, took a very different approach. On the day the original iPhone was introduced, CEO Steve Jobs actually called out the fact that the iPhone could take the place of an iPod. That it was an iPod. Effectively, he was ensuring that you -- the consumer -- realized that this new device was a more multifaceted version of its hottest-selling product. That, by definition, is self-cannibalization. As if prophetically, Apple has been selling fewer iPods ever since -- the lone sad trombone in every quarterly earnings call is the unsurprising slide in classic iPod sales. But rather than waiting for someone else to come and destroy its iPod market with another creation entirely, it went ahead and did the honors. One could even argue that the iPad is in the earliest stages of also cannibalizing at least a portion of Apple's Mac sales.

Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

In a slight pivot, I bring up the ill-fated Kin that Microsoft launched a number of years ago. "Is that not the atypical outside-of-the-box thinking that you'd never expect a behemoth like Microsoft to muster? Is that not exactly the kind of thing you're encouraging companies to do? How do you respond to a Microsoft executive that uses something like the Kin's failure as leverage to severely throttle the funding of wild new ideas?" Thimmer clearly understands that things like this do indeed happen, but he suggests that Microsoft likely did not do one of the fundamental things his staff implores clients to do: cultural research. "Too many companies look at product launches and expect marketing and timing to do the rest. If a product fails, it's clearly due to failed marketing. It's never due to a failed product."

Brash, but oftentimes true. Hours earlier, I spoke at a Financial Innovation Network session dreamt up and hosted by Innovation Lab. In the building were a few dozen players from all sides of the banking industry, each struggling with ways to handle the new realities facing banks in an ever-digital world. Effectively, they view brick-and-mortar banks as becoming less important, and in turn, less necessary. To combat that sort of grim reality requires a renewed sense of thinking -- a problem-solving solution that won't come from any rulebook. On the topic of mobile payments, Thimmer notes that banks cannot simply form a bond, agree on a technology and launch a product into a global market without first studying cultural norms in the regions they hope to penetrate. "In some areas, the physical exchange of cash is culturally significant," he says. "To make mobile payments work there, for example, you would need to create a process that very closely mimics the expression of the presently accepted transaction. Or, at least, educate that market on what the new offering is. Throwing a product into the wild and expecting people to simply adapt to it will not always be successful."

In other words, Microsoft's cultural research department failed to pick up red flags as the Kin was being engineered. It's as if they expected tweens in 2010 to be completely receptive to a socially minded featurephone with full-blown data rates. Somehow, inexplicably, Microsoft's research team missed the fact that tweens in 2010 were demanding iPhones.

Great people, great places and great projects
Dreams, curiosity and a passion for what's next picking the brain of Innovation Lab's Mads Thimmer

If there are three pillars to Innovation Lab, it would be these: great people, great places and great projects. To date, the company has branded offices in Denmark's Copenhagen and Aarhus as well as Nuuk in Greenland. But it has partnered with technologically minded coworking spaces around the globe to bring those in Scandinavia and Greenland closer to those in Silicon Valley, Barcelona, New York and beyond. It's hoping to expand in San Francisco (and will soon be changing its Copenhagen address to an extraordinary new space near Tivoli Gardens), and via partnerships to any nook or cranny available. With a (roughly) 50 / 50 mix of responding to pleas for new approaches and hosting curated sessions like the I one I attended in Denmark's capital, Innovation Lab is aiming not to provide temporary solutions to long-rooted problems, but entirely new approaches to business that remove walls, remove rules and remove the notion of conventional expectations.

Thimmer (and myself, for what it's worth) concurs that failure in technology should be more celebrated than it is. For every rousing success story at Google (Gmail, Android, Maps, etc.) there are rows upon rows of brilliant ideas that didn't go anywhere for one reason or another. But that's okay, says Thimmer. He also believes that specific rules and regulations placed on employees by management eventually act to hinder the overall performance of the company, and that the art of avoiding risk by ignoring the future is in fact more risky than leaping after the unknown. Perhaps it's all a bit utopian, the idea of technology companies having their success viewed at least in part on how positively they impact their own employees and the world around them. But if it's between that or some arbitrary figure of value trading hands 700 times per second on a stock exchange, I'll take the former. No one ever said innovation and crazy couldn't coexist, right?

This article originally appeared in Distro Issue #57.