"Innovation means creating unrest. I am the balance spring, like in a watch".
Stephan Peyer sheds light on growth and innovation from his wealth of experience as an executive at leading organisations such as Unilever, Compaq and Migros and as a founder of startups. He is co-founder of Vendbridge and has accompanied us for 20 years with his inspirations and ideas.
Dear Stephan, today we are talking about you and your growth successes as a growth architect. But first the question: What is your story?
After my studies at the University of St. Gallen, I started at Unilever, in Zurich. A good experience. But I was already quite impatient back then and wanted an international assignment as quickly as possible - unfortunately, there was no option within Unilever at the time. I then boarded the TGV to Paris with two suitcases to manage a watch and jewelry distributor in France. The move to Paris was an exciting challenge, both personally and professionally.
So you were very young in management. How did you experience that?
I didn't feel that managing the SME in France was an insurmountable task. The problem was rather the fact that it was a turnaround situation and this was not clear beforehand. We were still able to realize a few successes, but the problems were already too great. And I therefore made the recommendation to close the company. That's what the parent company then did.
That wasn't necessarily growth.
No, not really (laughs). However, you also have to be able to let go of things again and again in order to make room for something new and ultimately to be able to grow. The path then led me to the North American Watch Corporation. There I took on international responsibility for the Movado brand and from then on was on the road in many countries. In the watch industry at that time, a lot of things were based on gut feeling. Professional marketing as I knew it from Unilever did not exist. After 4 years of intensive traveling, I changed industries and accepted an offer from Knorr Nährmittel AG. My boss at Knorr was extremely innovative and also gave the teams - I was in sales at the time - the opportunity to come up with innovative approaches. That was an exciting time. I stayed for four years before I got the opportunity to work as Marketing Director for Compaq Computer AG. Compaq, at that time, was a highly innovative brand in the hardware environment. That appealed to me. The culture at Compaq was great. A can-do mentality at all times. The business knew only one direction with growth rates of 20-30%. Compaq to me was a brand like Coca-Cola. A brand with a nimbus, a lighthouse brand. I liked that very much.
What did you do there?
I started as Marketing Director and then took over the PC Products division and was responsible for the business unit. A year after I started, Compaq bought DEC Digital Equipment and we grew overnight from 165 employees to over 1200. The merger was definitely a big challenge. After the merger, I took on the role of Sales Director as a member of the executive team. However, what I felt was missing in the new organization was dynamism and agility. Decisions were now made at headquarters. That wasn't really my thing.
Wasn't that 1999/2000, the pioneering days of the Internet?
Yes, exactly. That's when my time as an entrepreneur started. I came across software that could link retailers and manufacturers and distributed real-time product updates and information like a breaking news feed. I knew from my experience at Compaq that this represented great potential. I then met John Tu from Kingston Technology. He was excited about our concept and said, "You guys really need to come to LA to develop the solution." So we moved to Los Angeles to build the whole thing together.
The company was called PingPong.com. It was a real hype. We got on TV, CNN was covering us. We were in touch with the best companies and had the smartest mathematicians on the team. All funded by John Tu. One day the phone rang, "Hi, here is Michael Dell from Dell, could we get to know each other?". It was incredibly fascinating. Unfortunately, we never got out of product development. I always said we should finally build release 1.0 and go to market. We can develop more features later. The CEO was against it. He was from Intel, a smart guy, but just from the corporate world and not in start-up mode. I then decided that it couldn't go on like that for me, sold my shares and moved back to Switzerland.
But the Internet virus had infected me. So I joined a start-up called Internetpartners and was responsible for business development. We were eight people at the beginning, and within a year we expanded from Zurich to Munich and Vienna and grew from 8 to 65 employees. We were moving at the speed of light, preparing for the IPO. Top-class board of directors, aggressive business plan and so on. Then the bubble burst in 2001. We had to restructure. I got out.
Growth at the speed of light. We're now 12 years into your career, aren't we?
If you haven't experienced that, you can't imagine what it was like to ramp up a startup like that in a year. It just wasn't sustainable.
In 2001, I had a three-digit amount in my bank account. No headhunter wanted me - I failed twice, which is unheard of by Swiss standards. What do I do now? Then, by chance, I met a former, very good customer from my Compaq days, who had just sold his company. We exchanged ideas about the future and discussed what we could do together and came to the conclusion to offer our sales skills to the market. The marketplace had completely changed: Up to this point in my career, I had always been active in a supply market; suddenly it became a demand market. The products could no longer be sold just like that. The customers of our new company were facing exactly this upheaval - we wanted to help them get over it. "Sales Bridge" - that was the name of the company. We build bridges between companies and customers. But the name was already taken. So I looked it up in the dictionary and came up with the phrase "to vend." And that's how the company Vendbridge was born. A designer created a logo for us for free, which Vendbridge still uses today. At some point, my partner at the time had other ambitions and ideas, and I came across an old acquaintance whom I had also known for a long time. He had a company called "The Growth Architects". That was you, Beat Walther.
To be clear, you founded Vendbridge in 2001 and in 2002 we merged Vendbridge and my company, The Growth Architects AG. How do you remember that?
We both had very similar ideas. And decided over dinner that we would call the new company Vendbridge - The Growth Architects. After that, we successfully supported companies in business development, sales and strategy for almost seven years. Big, good companies like UBS for example. It worked well and was a lot of fun.
We were constantly thinking about strategy and at some point we came to a fork in the road. I wanted to develop a method so we could scale. You, Beat, said, "No, I like to keep reinventing and evolving." I was more into the trip of dynamizing and scaling. I wanted to launch a recurring revenue machine. We had this discussion intensively over six months and realized that we no longer had the same ideas. It went on in a good friendly way. And I still appreciate that I stayed on board with Vendbridge on the board of directors. It's exciting because now Vendbridge has a scalable process for aligning innovation with customers. You guys have built that over the last few years. Great!
And what happened next?
By chance, the MCH Group - a Vendbridge client at the time - was looking for a Business Unit Head. I was then responsible for the exhibition business in Switzerland for eight years and became Chief Development/Innovation Officer. For example, we developed a fully digital model for Basel World back in 2013/2014. We had completed an end-to-end solution for the entire watch universe, from manufacturer to consumer.
Unfortunately, the industry was not yet ready to take this step and challenge the established. For me, innovation means having the courage to question what already exists. Is it right to do things the way we do them today? Can't we do it even better? Can't we do it differently? Can it be done more cost-effectively, more efficiently, more spectacularly? I have also written a book on this topic (The 5C Model) and developed a model for structuring and digitizing the trade show business. Innovation is and remains my driver, in whatever form.
And you say innovation is questioning?
Yes, questioning existing things and putting them together in a new way. Unfortunately, you can also make two basic mistakes: Being too early or being too late. Looking back, I was unfortunately often too early with my ideas - Gartner's hype cycle sends its regards. In 2017, for example, I worked with IBM to develop a blockchain solution for the art market. Again, my insight: behavioral change takes time. You can't fly through orbit at the speed of light; you have to give new things time, let them develop.
That's how I often experience you. Sometimes we come up with ideas and you make it bigger and bigger. Every time we talk to you, that's what happens.
Absolutely. That positive spin, it's like gas in the tank for me. The discussion, the intellectual challenge and the spinning of thoughts and ideas. That fascinates me. That's where I blossom. For me, there's nothing more tedious than having someone say, "But then that could be problematic, or have you already thought of this and that issue?" Challenges and problems will come, but let's not drown the thought in hypothetical problems.
Is that part of the mindset of a growth architect?
It's difficult if you don't give space to innovative ideas. It's important to think wildly at the beginning. Most people find that enormously difficult. I'm fascinated by that. Innovations need an open mind. For me that starts with choosing a meeting room. You can't go into a room that's boxed in. That's not where the spirit can flourish. So, ideally you go to a room with vision. Innovation means you start with something, you think big, and then you start "grassroots management." What do I mean by that? Innovative ideas are tender plants, which means you can't walk around with your rough boots on the grass. You have to be patient. You have to watch the ideas grow. You make an MVP and see how it works. And importantly, you need sponsors in an organization to have your back.
Don't crush the idea too early. How do you prevent that?
Exactly, grassroots management! Few innovations become big quickly. The Nespresso capsule is the best example of the stamina and protection that's needed. There was always someone there who said, I believe in this. And now it's a billion-dollar business. In the beginning, there was nothing and the statistical probability of success was bordering on zero.
It's important to have a sponsor and to have certain KPIs against which you can measure progress. Unfortunately, I know enough examples where the innovation went down the drain for whatever reason. Often because too much was expected of the innovation too quickly. Sometimes it just needs more time. But of course, if you're there and you're already have a financial model that's only out for results, no innovation survives.
Grassroots management versus the greed of finance, versus the naysayers, versus the "don't need it" thinkers. There is a lot of that.
Something always strikes me about you. The use of symbols. What do you use them for?
Visual symbols provide orientation. At the MCH Group, I gave everyone a little yellow tin bus. Every team leader had a bus like that on their desk. That meant: "You have to drive your own bus and you are the driver". I always try to use pictures to convey my thoughts. I find that pictures or objects have much more impact.
In this context, Nassim Taleb's book "The Black Swan" comes to mind. This one has put me under its spell. I have brought his idea to my environment again and again. The key point is: "Expect the unexpected". This is also a driver of innovation. And once again, I was looking for an image for it. By chance, I came across a likeable cartoonist, Mr. Spirig, who is well known. I picked up the phone and called him, saying: "Hello, Mr. Spirig. I have an idea. Maybe you've heard of it, the book by Nassim Taleb - Black Swan." He went: "I can't believe you're asking me this. I've been wanting to do a cartoon about the Black Swan for a long time. But I've never had the bright idea to do it!". Then I told him my idea: The black swan waiting behind the corner with the baseball bat until the two jerks come along who think they are now set for eternity with their strategy. He thought it was ingenious and implemented it. Because I gave the idea, we are now both in copyright [See picture on the right, click to enlarge].
Super! Someday the Black Swan will come around the corner?
The Black Swan is guaranteed to come around the corner. Today, so many people are actively implementing new ideas. The probability that the Black Swan will come is increasing. That your business model will be overtaken tomorrow because someone with a crisper idea enters the market. It's better to take yourself out of your comfort zone already. For me, innovation means not resting. Creating unrest in a positive sense. I am the balance spring, like in a watch.
You also bring this restlessness or drive into the organization, don't you?
Sure, I bring it in, but of course I am purified today. I know that restlessness alone is not effective. You have to see how much unrest it can take. It's about maintaining the dynamic. It's a balance between chaos and structure. You have to bring innovation in, but then you have to give it a space to develop. You have to see that the organization can "digest" it as well.
What is growth for you?
We try to address new growth areas through innovation. Approaching new things. In the hope that an innovation can actually generate business. That's how I understand growth. You can orchestrate growth from existing business, with the right customer insight, a sharp value proposition and an effective market strategy.
Sounds like the Vendbridge mindset!
Back at Vendbridge, we proved more than once that this thinking works. Growth can be made at the grassroots level, that is, making the existing better, smarter. Sharpen the value proposition. Innovate the offering. But you can also develop a new business model. The core is always: build customer understanding, use it and then let it grow.
Listening to you, are you looking for the next big thing?
Of course. But as I said before, it's important as a leader to give the organization some stability. Bring in innovation, but to a reasonable degree. Because that challenges people to think in new ways in the projects. That's not given to everybody. The problem is, when you drive new ideas in an organization, you're the driver of the first hour. Unless I find someone I can motivate in such a way that I don't have to be the driving force anymore. However, it often takes me to set the pace. In a large organization, that's exhausting, because every innovation also has its resistances.
How do you perceive Vendbridge?
For me, Vendbridge means positive spinning of ideas. The "spinning", i.e. aligning of ideas with the customer, so that the idea has an impact in the market. That is what distinguishes Vendbridge for me. The crazy thing is that in most organizations, the good ideas are already there. You don't usually come in with a great idea in the bag, you identify it.
But I've also observed Vendbridge itself "spinning on" all the time. Vendbridge is always thinking about itself and is a very different company today than when it started 20 years ago. It has always evolved over those 20 years, questioning itself, perhaps taking one step back, then two steps forward again.
At the moment, we are talking internally about Vendbridge 4.0.
But that's the idea. You are constantly evolving. That's what distinguishes Vendbridge. You always have your ear to the ground, you listen, you take on board, you mix in a lot of know-how, intelligence and brain power and generate something new. But Vendbridge also reaches its limits, of course. Because there, too, the very obstacles to innovation, to change, to renewal that I mentioned earlier come into play.
That is our fate. We need counterparts. We need growth architects on the other side so that we can move forward.
Vendbridge is like a think tank, an amalgam of interests and the passion that's in this company, with a desire for change. I think you guys have met a lot of clients who are also growth architects. But certainly also clients where you were allowed to do sensational analysis and then nothing happened.
Even if you have convinced the board of directors internally, often those who get the implementation order will prove that it doesn't work. They refuse to go along - because leaving the comfort zone takes energy and is also unpleasant. That's why you at Vendbridge need a sponsor on the client side who drives the innovation operationally and strategically. She should get the employees on board from the bottom up so that the momentum is generated and maintained.
Thank you, Stephan, for the inspiring interview. It shows us that we are on the right track and encourages us to keep at it.
Stephan Peyer is an experienced executive with a background in various industries such as consumer goods, luxury watches, IT and services. He has held senior positions at MCH Messe Schweiz, Compaq and Unilever and currently heads melectronics within Migros Fachmarkt AG. In addition, Stephan co-founded and built up several startups, including Vendbridge AG in 2001, which he has since helped shape from the board of directors.
"We were traveling at the speed of light"
Guy 1:"Phew, now I'm really relaxed. With our strategy surprises are basically impossible." Guy 2:"Yes, I mean we worked on it for a long time. What could go wrong now!?!"
"The Black Swan is guaranteed to come around the corner".
"Innovation is and always will be my driver, in whatever way"