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What we learned from Andy Howard, one of Australia’s most adventurous entrepreneurs

Techly's Business Success Series

Some people wait and see where life will take them. Others grab life by the scruff of the neck and tell it how things are going to go down.

It would be fair to say Andy Howard falls into the latter category.

Blessed with a majestic, flowing mane and a beard the envy of most men, Andy exudes an air of confidence, capability and good nature.

It’s clear from the outset that he makes the most out of every minute he has: after I reached out to him for an interview, he said he’d be happy to chat between moving house, looking after a new bub, setting up an Airbnb venture and studying Corporate Innovation at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

And to think I can barely remember to buy groceries before the fridge is empty.

Andy’s bread and butter is customer experience, technology and innovation as director and co-founder of The Village of Useful, an advertising and technology agency turned innovation consultancy.

His talent in the field has seen him speak at national events, consult around the world and win a prestigious UX Award, which is only offered to 10 projects on the planet annually.

Andy also co-owns Screamin’ Veemis, a Vietnamese-inspired restaurant offering sandwiches and coffee in a fast and casual environment, and is a founding board member of Awesome Newcastle, an initiative created to give local minds with big ideas a chance to flourish.

Headshot of young man in suit with long hair and beard.

Would you just look at those locks?

What’s more, he boasts degrees in Law and Information Science, and will soon be adding Corporate Innovation to that list after completing his studies at Stanford.

As it turns out, Andy (aka ‘The Wolf’) was the first-ever hire of Zac and Zolton Zavos, the brothers who launched Conversant Media – the company behind Techly. Naturally, Zac and Zolton take all credit for Andy’s incredible success since his days at Conversant Media.

We wanted to pick Andy’s brain, so we had an excellent chat with him about his many ventures (and adventures) to see if we could learn a thing or two.

Since 2011, you have become co-founder of The Village of Useful, founding board member of Awesome Newcastle and co-owner of Screamin’ Veemis. Take a breath – how’s life with all this on your plate?

“Life’s fun! You can add a few other things to the ‘since 2011’ list – married, two kids, adventurous family trips, six rugged surf trips, studying remotely at Stanford business school and launching a full-time Airbnb venture. Life’s short. You only get one shot.

“I like to take a ‘portfolio approach’ to life. To me, this means a number of related ventures, diverse investments, and plenty of fun and travel. I don’t like ‘putting it all on red’. I’ve got a variety of interests and ambitions and to me, spinning a few different plates is fun.”

One of these is not like the other. How did Screamin’ Veemis come into your life? Are you just a really hungry guy who dreams of a perfect world filled with sandwiches and coffee?

“You’re spot on. Like many ventures before us, Screamin’ Veemis (Vee-meeze) was conceived to solve our own problem. When the clock struck lunch we wanted flavour. We wanted generosity. We wanted fresh. We wanted value. So we decided to build it ourselves. I’ve written before about the back-story and brand purpose.

“We opened in May last year and six months later were voted Newcastle’s Best Sandwich. We have great staff and loyal customers. I’m really proud of the product, the brand, and the social impact we’ve had via our Banh Mi Banh You loyalty program.

“That’s the fast-casual restaurant story. Screamin’ also serves as an ‘always in beta’ innovation space for testing new ideas and technology with real customers. The entire team at The Village of Useful works on the business. It provides our staff with the unique insight that comes from running a business and helps us be better consultants.

“When we’re consulting to ASX200 companies we’re not just speaking from our consulting experience. We’ve also tested and commercialised ideas in our own space, with our own budget, with real customers.”

The Village of Useful seems to be your crown jewel. As someone who is passionate about being innovative and “useful”, what’s the most common mistake you see brands making in terms of customer experience?

“Not understanding the customer. Customers choose to hire brands for a specific purpose, and the purpose usually varies a lot. Customers’ lives are different. Everyone has their own circumstances, personal struggles and unique characteristics. Retail customers choose to buy or not buy for thousands of different reasons.

Colourful cartoon graphics used on The Village of Useful website.

The Village of Useful’s branding epitomises the company’s unique approach to corporate innovation.

“Capturing gigabytes of data on every customer and simply looking for correlations between them often misses the real reasons for customers using or not using a brand. A common mistake is brands not really understanding their customer.

“What was their specific circumstance, what was going on in their life at the time? A pile of sales data probably won’t answer this, but I bet someone can make up a correlation and justify the behaviour somehow.

“A recent McKinsey poll found 94% of executives were dissatisfied with their organisations’ innovation performance. The desire to correlate and put customers into a few neat boxes is a big reason why.

“Here’s a simple example. You know Reece’s peanut butter cups, the popular Hershey-owned product? They’re foil wrapped. They’re hard to eat driving, because you need two hands to unwrap them. They’re not ideal when playing a video game or standing on a crowded subway either.

“Customers who loved the product abandoned it in certain circumstances. Reece’s also has the issue of leaving a telltale trail of foil wrapping – did I really eat that many?

“After understanding the hundreds of customer circumstances and reasons for not eating Reece’s, Hershey created Reece’s Minis. There’s no foil wrapping and they come in a resealable flat-bottom bag. They’re single-hand compatible. Reece’s Minis sold US$235m in product in the first two years and was a standout Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation winner.

“That’s a simple example, but seemed appropriate for this time of year! It’s a category extension worth over US$100m per year and came from deeply understanding customer circumstances.”

Through Awesome Newcastle, you no doubt see a lot of incredible ideas pitched. If you could give one piece of advice to an innovator hoping to see their big idea come to fruition, what would it be?

“Awesome Newcastle is one of the highlights of my month! We’ve met so many talented people and have seen countless awesome ideas.

“My advice to all early-stage innovators is to get to market as quickly as you can. Plan your venture and analyse the market, but don’t burn all of your time and energy on research. Get out there, see what works, and iterate. Even if you just have a prototype, get paying customers fast and listen to their feedback.

The brains behind Awesome Newcastle.

The brains behind Awesome Newcastle (Andy sitting second from the right).

“For example, real-time customer feedback is part of the point-of-sale experience at Screamin’ Veemis. Ongoing feedback, particularly in the early days, helps shape the product and service to best solve the customer problem.”

You’ve been lucky enough to work overseas and do a bit of travelling. What’s your single favourite place outside Australia and why?

“Very lucky. I always struggle with this question. Right now, it’s Lake Como in Italy. My wife and I talk about our time there a lot. We rented a tiny Airbnb for a week in Nesso, a sleepy part of the lake that tour buses don’t stop at.

“We drank espresso, hung out at our Airbnb host’s fruit farm and swam in the lake. There was one walkable restaurant for dinner and barely anyone around. Many of the buildings there hadn’t changed in a century and we felt like we’d turned back time.

“I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from travel. The energy here was different. I left Lake Como with a changed perspective and a new appreciation for simple living and slowing down.

“Life’s only gotten busier since, but ironically I think I can keep it up by knowing when to take time out and slow things down.”

Feature image: Andy soaking up the vibes at his Newcastle restaurant, Screamin’ Veemis.

About the author

Andrew is Techly’s Editor. Loves: weird gadgets and the Collingwood Football Club. Hates: olives and cardboard boxes.

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