“Breakthrough innovations are pretty close to the bugs”
2001 is the year of A Space Odyssey, but it is also the inception date of Olivier Mathiot’s PriceMinister. Former CEO of Rakuten France, this passionate and fascinating entrepreneur is now Vice President of France Digitale and President of The Camp. His CV is ideal for deciding whether a breakthrough innovation is necessarily a bug.
Olivier, first question to set the tone: is the entrepreneur the basic entity of the economic bug?
Starting from the observing the existence of an economic bug is a bias, with which I rather agree. Today we are facing a difficult economic transition. The time of the industrial revolution lived the same transition, except that today it is faster and more violent. The entrepreneur is one of the answers to this transition. I am convinced that it is through entrepreneurs that we find new ways to live and consume, to be a worker, a citizen …
What is the importance for France to be this start-up nation that is so much desired and promoted by the government?
Thanks to France Digitale, I was able to work with different ministries and governments. The start-up nation has become a buzz word, which can sometimes distract from other problems, the risk being to become an elitist notion.Digital, entrepreneurship and start-up are not just breakthrough innovations in the technological sense, they should be the symbol of the social ladder.
Across the Atlantic, it is easier to venture, success is valued, and the ladder works well. In France, there is a problem of the relationship with money, and the concept of a start-up nation does not mean the same thing for everyone.Yet entrepreneurs could embody a social model in the same way as hip-hop artists or football players.
You mention the problem of our relationship with money. There is also our relationship to risk taking and failure. But visionary entrepreneurs imagine what does not exist yet. Where is the bug?
A phrase from Oscar Wilde that I love defines innovation as an answer to the question that was not asked. Breaking innovation creates a before and after. The entrepreneur can become a visionary. In entrepreneurship, a fairly strong creative dimension is needed. Being also a business angel, I meet entrepreneurs at the beginning of their project and ask myself the question of breaking innovation. If it’s a bad answer to a good question, the project is in bad shape. The good question is: is there a problem to solve? Engineers can have a great idea starting from the solution, but the solution can solve no problem and not meet its audience.
What makes a good breakthrough innovation? Is it the creativity that comes out of the brain of its creator or its adoption by the public?
I think it’s adoption by the public. There are also unknown geniuses, in music, in cinema, and it is surely unfair. But, as the philosophers would say, it is a form of inherent justice. When we solve a problem, a “pain point”, as we say in the entrepreneurs’ Frenglish, it means that there was a problem or something to unlock. We come back to the question:was there a need? We always quote the same examples of innovation, those that have responded to a need that was first invented. A technological invention, a new breakthrough in the continuity would have allowed to generate a new use.In reality, the need was always present, it was not created tailor-made.
Is a breakthrough innovation necessarily a bug?
Entrepreneurs and investors are obsessively looking for disruptive innovations. There are two ways to respond: the first is to say that there are breakthrough innovations that are actually bugs. But a lot of bugs do not give anything at all.There is no bijection, meaning exact correspondence. Nevertheless, breakthrough innovations are pretty close to what may be a bug. We realise that good entrepreneurs are people who knew how to meet the right people, the talents, the know-how by connecting the dots, the different technological solutions which already existed.
In another interview, the artist Combo Kidnapper told us that the artist's spark of inspiration was a myth. Is it also among entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs ask themselves the question of ideation, that is, how do we find the idea? Techniques exist, such as Design Thinking, an idea entrenched at The Camp. These techniques make it possible to think outside the box and sometimes disruptive. We realise that often when we look for an idea, we do not find it. The Americans defend the idea of serendipity: it is by advancing that we find solutions. Walt Disney said that the best way to start doing is to stop talking and doing. So, we have to start. If you’re looking for an idea for a long time, you may never find it.
But when one is convinced that his innovation is ground-breaking, then isn't jumping into the deep end scarier?
Indeed it is! A study conducted by psychiatrists reveals that entrepreneurs show more neurodepressive disorders and develop more tendencies to bipolarity. But this looks like what one might describe the work of Vincent Van Gogh or Jimmy Hendrix. The truth is that at some point you have to jump into the water, despite what you might hear left and right.
How do we go beyond these "but ..."? When we want to start, should we be mentally shielded, be well advised? Should we be a convicted visionary?
To know how to listen is essential. This humility makes it possible to take advice, to have a sense of responsibility,to have a morality, an ethic. This is important in the face of bankers or investment funds. In Silicon Valley many entrepreneurs openly assume that they want to change the world. This huge ambition creates an attitude that for me is absolutely not humble. Without falling into the skit of the good and bad hunter, a good entrepreneur must know how to be humble and listen while being very ambitious. From this duality, there emerges a form of bipolarity that makes endearing personalities.
Is the definition of breakthrough condemned to the bug of programmed obsolescence?
It’s a good question. We should always ask ourselves this question: what is going to disrupt us? Industries, such as the media or distance selling for example, have not seen the bugs happen. It’s very complicated for business leaders and their shareholders to question themselves and imagine the future when the company is profitable.
GAFA currently has record cash levels. Facebook has also bought Instagram and WhatsApp for 19 billion. According to the UN this sum would solve the hunger and thirst in the world. But the cruel economic reality is that Facebook’s share has grown by more than $ 19 billion thanks to this buyout. And that allowed them to buy the disruptors …
Does a breakthrough innovation present the danger of escaping its creator?
Once the innovation becomes a real success, it is likely to start escaping its creator or creating bugs. Facebook with the movie “The Social Network” is an example of a monster who has emancipated. Success can sometimes be so huge that the creature becomes difficult to control, especially in the digital age. The Fake News example illustrates the phenomenon of network effects and viral marketing.
There are digital giants who have the feet of clay, such as AOL, which was one of the largest digital companies but failed to start the turn of broadband. A breakthrough innovation can be crushed by another breakthrough innovation, without us choosing it.
This is one of the main problems of the political powers and large groups: they are unable to keep pace with the market. This gives entrepreneurs and start-ups a chance to start from scratch and become, in less than a generation, from the highest capitalisations to the largest companies, established for more than 150 years.
Do you manage to understand the general public's misunderstanding of clay-footed giants and their economic logic?
In large digital companies, and unlike the industry, companies have relatively few tangible assets, which makes them unstable. Living in a world where everything goes faster makes it difficult. Companies can adapt and invent new precepts, but we enter a world that is not yet written. Today, the concepts of “coopetition” and “frenemy” have changed everything. In the digital world, GAFAM are all cooperating enemies. We are entering a world that even the law of competition can no longer apply.
To listen to you, the only possible sustainability in the company is to be in constant adaptation. Does it not eventually become a new disruption?
The case study shows that we live in a world where things have accelerated. Today there is a permanent threat of a future bug in the system. This ability to adapt is a state of mind. The arrival of millennials on the job market is changing the game. These young people do not have the same desires or the same relationship with the company as our parents.They prefer to become entrepreneurs themselves rather than being highly paid in a company that does not match their values. How do you give breakthrough innovation back into society? It is important that one is able to give free rein to creativity, to entrepreneurship, even within a large group. The creation of small entities, the “pizza projects”, allows to keep this state of mind, and to go very quickly. Large groups have every interest in working in this way, to prevent start-ups reinvent carpooling, streaming …
We end this interview with two questions dear to Bug Me Tender: for you, Olivier Mathiot, what is the definition of a bug?
For me a bug, it’s a comic book of Enki Bilal.
And in your field, what is the biggest bug that you have been a part of?
At PriceMinister, we have been dealing with server attacks from Southeast Asia. It was necessary to resort to the French intelligence services who had to call Beijing. The bug can, therefore, also be in some cases a threat in an economic war.