Ian Whitworth, Author of Undisruptable, on Innovation and Business Resilience
Posted 4 weeks ago
Constant innovation is critical to the long-term competitiveness of any organisation.
In the unpredictable world we find ourselves in, how can you ensure your business is resilient and agile enough to weather the storm? And how can you maintain the innovative culture you had as a start-up, when your business matures? We spoke to Ian Whitworth, author of Undisruptable, and asked him to share some of his insights.
This book is incredibly timely given the disruption many organisations have faced recently. Did you begin the process of writing Undisruptable before COVID-19, or was it a response to the pandemic?
I wrote a version of it four years ago. My business partners and I had survived (as employees) a close brush with private equity ownership, and it was pretty grim. So we set up our business with Rule 1: whatever the finance guys would do, we do the opposite. We built a successful national business on that principle.
Hence the book’s original title: Kill All MBAs.
A major publisher really liked it and came close to signing it, but it’s really hard to launch new non-fiction editors who aren’t famous so they passed. So I started a blog early in 2018, writing about the business-owner experience.
COVID-19 was horrendous for our business Scene Change, we’re a national company that does the video, sound and lights for major corporate events. Events were literally made illegal for most of 2020, leaving us with 65 full-time staff, lots of expenses and no revenue.
But the blog readership skyrocketed as I wrote about how to keep your business alive, and Penguin Random House got in touch and asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a book. Good question. Undisruptable is a heavily modified version of Kill All MBAs, taking all the COVID-19 experiences on board.
What are the three skills or personality traits you believe people need to have to start a successful and resilient business?
A deep interest in people and how they behave, essential because your staff and clients don’t follow the logical behaviour they teach you in business school.
Psychotic self-belief, because it’s a long road with plenty of pain along with the great bits. I started my own business because I had a great corporate job and I was bored out of my mind. I realised I needed higher highs and lower lows. That’s what I got and I love it.
Basic P&L, balance sheet and cash flow planning skills. It’s not complex, many worthy people don’t go into business because they believe you need to be a maths wizard. But Year 6 maths is fine, you just need to add, subtract and do basic percentages. If you can’t read basic financial statements your business is doomed.
What is something every organisation and small business can do today to improve their chances of becoming ‘undisruptable’?
Build your personal relationship with your clients. Never forget Hairdresser Syndrome. So many people live with bad hair, thanks to the fear that if they dump their hairdresser, they will run into them in the street one day and have to explain why they don’t go there anymore. Replace your frontline human touch with tech, and from an emotional viewpoint, you’re just a vending machine.
Is now a good time to start a business in Australia?
Yes. It’s incredibly hard to get customers to change their buying habits. ‘Better the devil you know’, they’ll say. We started Scene Change in 2006, and people who encouraged us to start up and said they’d use us, didn’t. Then the GFC came and hit Ctrl/Alt/Delete on everyone’s budgets. The calls started coming in, and our business never looked back. The madness of 2020 means people are open to change right now.
“The madness of 2020 means people are open to change right now..”
– Ian Whitworth, Undisruptable
What industries do you think will thrive most in the next five years, in this period of change and uncertainty?
Health care. Home enhancements now that people realise they’re going to spend a lot more time there. Home delivery logistics. Online retail. Renewable energy. These are obvious areas and big companies are already sending in the troops. If you’re a small business, ask yourself how you can follow along in their trail, in niche areas too small for big companies to do well.
As a business grows larger, the challenges change. How can a growing business avoid becoming stale and keep the innovative energy it started with?
As you grow, there’s a temptation to add more management, particularly in margin-killer areas like HR. Don’t. Our motto is: less management, better frontline staff. Focus on the people who do the work and bring in the revenue. If they’re good, they need much less management than you think.
“Our motto is: less management, better frontline staff. Focus on the people who do the work and bring in the revenue.“
– Ian Whitworth, Undisruptable
What question should someone ask themselves before they commit to starting their own business?
How can I minimise my living expenses for at least a year?
Almost every new business takes off much slower than the founder hoped, and revenue will be tight. If you can live cheaply, that takes so much mental pressure off you.
If a person is a bit freaked out by constant change, how can they learn to be more comfortable with the notion?
Not the hot-tip answer you’re hoping for, but lots of people will always be freaked out by change. All their life they’ve had advice from people who are fine with change, like “Hey just ask yourself – what’s the worst thing that can happen? The reality won’t be so bad!”. This kind of advice boils down to “be more like me!” and it’s not helpful. Personalities are really hard to change. If you find a friend or someone at work who will listen to your fears in a non-judgemental fashion and help you talk through it, I think that can help.
What did you learn in the process of writing this book?
Do the work.
The success industry, like the diet industry, wants you to believe there are genius ‘hacks’ to bypass the need for effort. There is no hack. Yes, you learn, refine your methods and get more efficient, but there’s no sidestepping the work required. Most people stop. Three years of blogging, to a tiny audience for quite a while, made my writing better and taught me to stop caring if people thought I was nuts.
Undisruptable is one of the most enjoyable business books I have read – and I must say, I have been through quite a few. With humour, honesty, and self-deprecating wit, Ian shares some of the timeless truths of business ownership learned over decades of real-life mistakes, triumphs, delights and frustrations. A perfect blend of incredibly useful information and hilarious anecdotes. Highly recommended.
– Genevieve Deaconos, Innovation Strategist at Impact Innovation
You can purchase Ian’s book Undisruptable online here or at any good bookstore.