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3 Things We Learned From Tony Fernandes And Eric Ries

What do an irreverent AirAsia CEO and a Lean Startup guru have in common? More than you’d think. The Working Capitol was lucky enough to host Tony Fernandes (in person) and Eric Ries (via Skype) for their respective book launches – Flying High and The Startup Way. Here are three things we learned from these exceptional entrepreneurs.

1. You’re only as good as the people in your company

Forget about detailed employee handbooks or fancy slogans: the key to building a good company culture is authenticity. As Tony Fernandes puts it, “you need to keep it real”. Even though AirAsia now boasts a huge number of employees, Fernandes still insists on maintaining a flat organization. All of the staff know him, and know that they can reach him on Whatsapp at any time.

Fernandes is also quick to seek out his team’s opinions on all important issues. When AirAsia was first launched, he told his employees that they should be the ones to design their uniforms. “They’re the ones wearing it – why should some French guy design it? I want everyone to be happy when they come to work. If you look at most airlines, they’ve lost their sense of identity; but we just want people to be themselves.”

This idea of an authentic company culture also resonated with Eric Ries, who discussed what larger, more traditional organizations could do to attract innovative talent. His solution? It’s not about marketing, PR or posters. “If you want to convince people that you have an innovative culture, you have to actually do the work of creating that culture.”

2. Innovation happens in the unlikeliest of places

If you’re working at a staid, bureaucratic organization and you think that there’s no hope for innovation – think again. Eric Ries managed to introduce the Lean Startup philosophy into the most unlikely place: the National Security Agency in the United States.

The NSA is responsible for generating nuclear codes, so you can imagine “all the security and bureaucracy and fear that surrounds this process.” Despite their rigid bureaucratic structure, they succeeded in implementing a few simple innovations to make life a bit easier for the people generating the codes. As Eric Ries says, “If you can do that type of innovation in that environment, you can do it anywhere.”

So how does this apply to Tony Fernandes? Well, way before he became the CEO of AirAsia, he worked as an accountant for Warner Music. Fernandes recalls working on a series of pointless financial reports; when he asked his boss if he could make some changes, he received a resounding “no”. Undeterred, he bought his own software and completely redid the report. “I told my girlfriend that I was probably going to be fired tomorrow, but I just couldn’t continue doing something I didn’t believe in.”

Instead of being fired, Fernandes saw his initiative rewarded with a new opportunity. His boss was so impressed by his report that he recommended Fernandes for a position on the creative side of the business. It’s proof that innovation can really happen anywhere – from the finance department at Warner to the hallways of the NSA.

3. Be bold

Embracing experimentation and not being afraid of failure are essential tenets of the Lean Startup approach. When you’re developing a new product, this method allows you to quickly figure out whether your product is viable or not, and adjust accordingly. But before you launch into dozens of experiments, you need a vision.

According to Eric Ries, “the reason we need Lean Startup is because our vision is larger than we can accomplish in one iteration. The bigger and bolder the vision, the easier it is to create experiments in order to learn from each of them.” If you’re thinking small before you even begin to test out your product, then what’s the point?

It’s safe to say that Tony Fernandes, who bought AirAsia for 1 ringgit and turned it into one of the world’s most successful low-budget airlines, is the epitome of boldness. But not all of his projects worked out: for instance, his brief stint owning a Formula 1 team was, in his words, “a spectacular disaster.”

Still, he has absolutely no regrets. As he concluded in his talk: “It’s alright to dream. It’s okay to fail. Because you don’t want to sit there at age 55 and say ‘I wish I’d done this’. You can’t press the rewind button on life – so live it to the fullest.”

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