For the winners of the 2017 Talent Unleashed Awards, a trip to Silicon Valley was the most fitting of prizes. As a diverse group of entrepreneurs and business leaders, the eight honorees were right at home in the California tech hub. They hailed from across the globe: Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, the UK and the US were all represented.
Each one of them had come through several rounds of competition. Nominated in categories like “best startup” or “most disruptive digital leader”, their challenge had been to impress a panel of judges which included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.
The Talent Unleashed Awards are an annual event held by recruitment agency Talent. As the agency puts it, the aim of the competition is to “recognise and reward bold ideas and great leaders who are unleashing technology in the workplace and the community.”
For those who triumphed, the reward was an all-expenses-paid excursion to Silicon Valley May 21-22, 2018. More than just a chance to connect with the tech world’s leading thinkers, the two-day, SVIC-curated program was also a study in innovation. It brought the award winners into contact with a host of organizations, each one at a different stage of the digital transformation lifecycle.
Silicon Valley is home to companies of all shapes and sizes. Each one of them has had to respond to the impact of disruptive tech in recent years. Among those hardest hit by the changes have been the big, well-established firms.
Adobe is a prime example. Founded by two partners in 1982 in a California garage, today it is a multinational with more than 15,000 employees worldwide.
These days, Adobe is helping its customers realize their own digital transformation goals. But reaching that stage has been a long journey. Known in the late 1990s and early 2000s chiefly as a software developer, the company has reinvented itself a cloud-based service provider. Offerings to its clients include artificial intelligence and machine learning platforms.
A presentation at Adobe headquarters revealed the organization’s story to the Talent Unleashed award winners. They saw how even in Silicon Valley, where “the new” is often elevated at the expense of the old, legacy players are still relevant.
While big corporations have been trying to adapt, another type of Silicon Valley business has been on the rise. Far from being disrupted, these companies have been among the prime disruptors. Founded in the last decade or later, they are sharing economy platforms and marketplaces. In tandem with the rapid spread of smartphones, they have revolutionized entire industries.
Airbnb and Uber are among the most famous examples of this phenomenon. Yet in spite of being digital since day one, they still constantly strive to use new technologies and business models to stay ahead of competitors.
At Uber, the Talent Unleashed competition winners learnt how the company is expanding into the healthcare sector. Through a dedicated API and dashboard, the ridesharing platform now allows healthcare professionals to order rides for patients. Uber Health, as the initiative is known, went live in the U.S. in March. It is just one of several new directions Uber is pursuing to expand on its core ridesharing business.
A presentation at Airbnb, meanwhile, put a strong focus on company culture. For Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, staying true to core values is the key to an organization’s longevity. In a blog post on the subject he wrote, “culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.”
For tour member Darren Wells, the COO at Talent International, getting such behind-the-scenes insights into Airbnb was a highlight of the trip.
“It was really inspiring to see the way they work together as an organization on their culture and how that underpins their overall model,” he said.
Today Airbnb is pushing to become more than a website for booking places to stay. The platform has recently diversified into offering customers “experiences.” These are activities in various locations, like photography or cooking classes, hosted by locals. Company chief Chesky describes them not just as a new line of business, but as part of Airbnb’s mission to build “a global travel community”.
In spite of their great success, even digital-first companies like Uber and Airbnb need to stay on their guard. In Silicon Valley, new market entrants are never far away. And though they may be disruptive, startups are a vital part of the tech ecosystem.
On the second day of their tour the Talent Unleashed award winners were treated to a startup showcase at Menlo Ventures. They were exposed to a range of early-stage companies. Far from needing to go through a process of digital transformation, these ventures are already at the cutting edge of technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain and internet of things.
Among those on show was Clarifai, which is using computer vision and machine learning to provide image recognition tools. Usernmind, meanwhile, is a software-as-a-service platform deploying marketing and sales automation to improve customer experience. The company has to date received $45.6 million in funding, more than half of which came via a Series C round last January.
The pace of change
Over their two days in Silicon Valley, the Talent Unleashed competition winners took in a huge range of new ideas. Visits to Docusign, Amazon and Stanford’s Blockchain Collective added to a trip already full of thought-provoking impressions.
The group saw how enterprises at all stages of development are today grappling with disruptive technologies. As founders and executives themselves, the lessons they learned are sure to serve them well on their own entrepreneurial journeys.
They would perhaps do well to note that the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company is today about 15 years, compared to 70 years a century ago. What’s more, tech observers believe the era of transformation is only just beginning, with the biggest share of disruption still to come.