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If you come to Silicon Valley for business there’s no reason you can’t mix in a little pleasure.  That was exactly the agenda for Vodafone in March, as it sent a group of its top retailers from across Europe to the world’s startup capital for a look at the latest developments in retail and telecoms innovation. But the group wasn’t just there to work; Vodafone also wanted them to enjoy themselves, with the trip something of a reward for a job well done. That’s why they made sure to find time for a little “tech tourism” in the form of test drives at Tesla and virtual reality experiences with the Facebook Oculus Rift and Microsoft Hololens.

Vodafone sent its top retailers to Silicon Valley so they could learn about the latest innovations in the mobile telecoms space.

But before the fun began the retailers took an immersive dive into the world of innovation, seeking solutions to key business challenges they face today.

Firstly, they were concerned with improving the user experience in their stores. As sellers, they rely on Google, Apple and other phone and software manufacturers to satisfy customers who are becoming increasingly demanding of the features and capabilities of smartphones. They have little influence on that front but where they can add value is through building the best possible user experience of shopping for a phone in a retail environment.

Coupled with that is the challenge of e-commerce, with many customers bypassing shops altogether and opting to buy online. For these retailers that is another pressure point, a threat to their established businesses. Could Silicon Valley provide the answers?

Mobile majors

In Silicon Valley answers abound but they are rarely of the simple cut and paste variety.

The initial groundwork for solutions was laid at a presentation from Silicon Valley Innovation Centre CEO Andrey Kunov, who provided an overview of Silicon Valley and its culture. Based in Europe as they are, for many of the group members this was their first time in Silicon Valley and even in the U.S. Kunov’s presentation, therefore, provided an essential grounding in the ways and why’s of tech innovation in the telecoms space.

The group then had a chance to see that innovation in practice with a trip to Google headquarters. The Q&A session here with a Google engineering director and a member of the company’s hardware partnership division provided valuable insights into the internet’ giant’s engagement with the telecom sector.

Google’s telecoms activity is centered on its Android smartphone operating system, a system which, as mobile phone sellers, the group members know extremely well. The meeting at Google gave them a rare chance to ask those who actually represent the company all about Android, how it works and what it will look like in the future. This was valuable information for the retailers and a real takeaway they could then use at home to enhance their engagement with customers.

At the same time they were introduced to Google’s innovative corporate culture. As men and women themselves engaged in running companies, hearing from Google on how it handles operations stimulated new thoughts and ideas on how their own practices might be in need of change.

Vodafone’s retailers on a trip to Google HQ. The meeting with the internet giant was a chance to find out about the future of the Android smartphone operating system.

A trip to Apple provided a further chance to “connect the dots”, as the group – many of them sellers of iPhones – were able to see where the technology is conceived and designed. A trip to the Apple visitor centre and presentation from Apple gave them a window onto the company: its products, its culture and its future.

Fun, yet fascinating

Having heard direct from the source about where the iPhone and Android smartphones will take us in the future, the Vodafone retailers made a tech-style pivot into the world of autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. Not directly connected to their business of mobile phone retail, trips to Tesla and the Santa Clara Startup Hub nonetheless opened up new worlds to explore. Apart from being incredibly fun and novel experiences, getting behind the wheel of a Tesla or putting on the HoloLens provided a practical example of the kinds of breakthroughs which can be achieved in Silicon Valley.

No trip to Silicon Valley would be complete without a little virtual reality.

That was perhaps the biggest takeaway for the group: innovative thinking combined with new technologies leads to powerful outcomes, no matter what industry you work in. The members of the tour saw that mobile telecoms and retail are no exceptions. They came away not only with new insights into the present and future of the products they sell on a daily basis, but also with a deeper sense of how transformative practices and business models are not just desirable but essential, especially when it comes to keeping the competition at bay.

Did they find answers to their biggest business challenges? More than that, they discovered the “secret” of Silicon Valley: innovation isn’t the latest smartphone in the palm of your hand; it’s a state of mind.


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