Episode 24 - Nik VeniosUsing innovation to solve household challenges to help his poorly mother. Making Conversations about Ideas Count!
Nik Venios, The Ideas Agency
Making Conversations about Ideas Count!
We couldn’t think of a nicer guy to help us with our goal of making conversations about ideas count.
Did you know that NASA has a genius test?
During this episode, you’ll find out all about this, and the fascinating stats surrounding it.
Not least fascinating is the surprising revelation about the age group that tops the score board!
There’s also something called a conversation safari.
That’s a new one on our very own ‘Conversation Queen’ Wendy Harris!
Yet, it makes perfect sense to get people in your team to have a purposeful conversation to solve the problems that are in actual fact, great gifts.
With references to luminaires like Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Edison this episode is loaded with really interesting insights and valuable conversations surrounding ideas.
We learn how we need creatives to navigate the opportunities waiting for us.
Nik also talks about the Ideas Academy.
Let us know if you find it interesting!
Nik’s Mum was poorly when he was 6 years old and he would figure out ways to help her, which leads us to Nik’s conversation that counts.
NASA, it seems you missed a trick with our Nik!
Listen to other episodes on your favourite platform…
Full Episode Transcript
Making Conversations Count – Episode Twenty-Four
6th April 2021
Wendy Harris & Nik Venios, The Ideas Academy
00:01:22: Unlock new market opportunities
00:04:28: Creativity is a process
00:06:36: I wish I’d done that
00:08:13: Childlike not childishness
00:10:02: A conversation safari.
00:14:20: How do I wake up my creativity?
00:18:01: The ONE big idea
00:19:01: You’ve got this
00:21:25: A way out to the stars
00:23:07: Nik’s pivotal moment
00:26:57: Final thoughts
Wendy Harris: Have you ever had an idea and as soon as it’s popped into your head you’ve lost it again. Yeah? Happens to me too. In today’s conversation I will be introducing you to a guy who can help you hold onto that idea. He is THE ideas guy so grab a brew, put your feet up and listen for the next half hour. We’re going to make conversations about ideas count.
What’s new Wendy? Well coming soon you’ll be able to find everything you need to know about the show on its own shiny new website; we’ll be keeping you posted. Now let’s crack on with the show.
It’s an absolute pleasure to welcome Nik Venios from The Ideas Agency. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Nik Venios: That’s all right. No worries, good intro.
Wendy Harris: Thank you. We met through a mutual podcast guest, tell everybody about our mutual friend.
Nik Venios: Yeah, through Henny who runs a digital marketing agency and she’s awesome because she didn’t start in that vein, she wasn’t a digital marketer, she learned it by herself really and now she’s incredible. She’s won lots of awards, yeah, she’s a brilliant digital marketer so that’s how we met.
Wendy Harris: She clearly underplayed it because she never mentioned the awards once so I’m going go and kick her about that. This is the thing isn’t it, when you want to just be helpful because she is a very helpful lady. You only have to ask her something and she’ll come forward and she said, “I think you need to speak to Nik”, and we’ve had a chat previously and from that chat I just felt your wisdom and your ideas would be really useful for our listeners on the show. Nik, tell everybody what you do, what is The Ideas Agency?
Nik Venios: So, what we do is we work with ambitious brands to unlock new market opportunities. What I mean when I say that is we help them solve customer challenges and develop new product services and marketing strategies. So, we’ve been doing that, or I’ve been doing that I should say, since 2013 and my aim was always to make a living off idea creation and that’s what I’m doing.
Wendy Harris: So what does that look like? Say I’m a customer and I have a customer journey challenge. What sorts of solutions would you be putting in place because I am sure along with lots of other business owners that digital marketing is a bit of a minefield and if you do not know how can you ask?
Nik Venios: To start right back at the beginning, it always starts with a customer challenge and when I say, “Customer challenge”, actually what I mean is they’ll come to me with an outcome. Let’s say a car manufacturer comes to me and says, “Right we want to sell more product”, it tends to be, “We want to sell more product”, or, “We want to market ourselves more effectively to our current customer audience or we need to develop a new service”. The problem with that is that they’re limiting the amount of ideas they can generate because the question they are asking themselves is actually an outcome.
“We want more customers”, is an outcome, it’s not a problem. That is actually because when we were children, we were taught in school what does five plus five equal and it has one answer. When brands come to me and they’re adults that are coming to me, they’re telling me, “What does five plus five equal ten, we want ten”. Whereas actually what I have to do is to reverse engineer that and rewrite the question to, “What two numbers add up to ten?” Because as soon you reframe the question suddenly you can get tons of ideas.
It can be anything really, you can solve anything by just reframing and really understanding the question because the key to great ideas is a great question. Some people say, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea”, and that is true but there are such things as weak ideas and weak ideas are the result of poorly defined questions, that’s where you should always begin. There’s stuff like Einstein always said that he if an hour to solve a problem he’d spend 55 minutes on the problem and 5minutes thinking of solutions, because as soon as you got the problem the ideas are the easy part. It is the problem that is the tough part to understand.
We start there usually a workshop with a team, so a lot of the workshops that I do with teams really help unlock the creativity held within the team. So, they come to me with an outcome, we change that into a problem worth solving and then I take them through various ideation techniques and processes and the reason for that is I often get teams will come to me and say, “Yeah, but you know we’re not really creative, so I don’t really know what we’re going to get out of the session”, but actually even creative luminaries, take for example David Bowie, he sold 140 million albums using a process.
A lot of creative luminaries have this process just inbuilt into their brains and they think they’re special because they can just come up with incredible ideas just like — it seems like magic, but actually they —
Wendy Harris: Now, you’re talking Freddie Mercury.
Nik Venios: Yeah, yeah, exactly, some kind of magic, but what they’re doing — they’ve already got this preprogramed in their brains. I used to think I was a special creative genius, and I can come up with ideas like that but actually my brain is wired in such a way as to combine lots of different things, come up with a question, come up with a solution like that. I am not unique in that sense, which I subsequently discovered so going back to Bowie, he was obviously very talented to start with, but he would take things like newspaper stories that he’d seen, and he would take poems and advertisements and all this kind of stuff, all this material, all these inputs, cut it all up, throw it to the floor and rearrange it to start forming the basis of his songs. When you force different things together you can create some fractured but quite interesting relationships between them which then spark ideas.
I take the teams through this process and as they go through, they start to see, “Oh yeah, we are going solve this, we are going to solve this”, and I’ve done it in as little as an hour and a half, but you can spend a day, two days, taking them through the process.
Wendy Harris: Nik, there is a new product and service for you, because what you’re describing there is something that I struggle with and it’s usually something that stops me from falling to sleep or something that wakes me up because I’m thinking about trying to solve something. It’s that absorption and sponging of ideas and trying to get all the pieces of the puzzle to sort of formulate themselves. If you could put that into a workshop process that I could access for an hour and a half to help me unpack that, I would happily pay you for a good night’s sleep.
Nik Venios: There is a really good book called Big Magic and she talks about ideas as actually entities that visit and will stay with you and just gnaw at you for ages saying, “Come on, come on, make me real, make me real, make me real”. If you ignore them, they will go off to someone else and then someone else makes it real and you’re like, “I had that idea ages ago, I wish I’d done that”. There’s some amazing, amazing coincidences that she talks about; just remarkable really but creativity is something that I’ve always been interested in and the psychology of creativity, which is why I’m reading Big Magic.
Once you start to show the teams, “Oh right ,yeah, I can do this”, then suddenly they’re like, “This is awesome”, because you can start applying the same techniques to loads of different areas of your business or your life. That whole thing around thinking like a child is something that we do miss as we progress through life.
Wendy Harris: We’re kind of taught to ignore some of those mannerisms are childish, I think.
Nik Venios: When NASA created something called the Genius Test and one of the things within the Genius Test was how many ways can you improve a fork. They gave this test to 300,000 people and it was something like 6% got to the genius level. They had a sliding scale of how many things you can do to improve a fork and then they were like, “I wonder if we took this from 30 plus year olds to 25-year-olds and it slightly went higher and then they took it to 15-year-olds and the percentage went higher. Then they took it to five-year-olds, what percentage of five years old do you think could attain Genius Level through NASA’s test?
Wendy Harris: If you’re starting at an average of 6%, I would slide that up to about — I don’t know, I am going throw out 22%.
Nik Venios: It’s 98%.
Wendy Harris: 98% of five-year-olds?
Nik Venios: Yes.
Wendy Harris: Seriously, we really need these kids running the Country.
Nik Venios: We lose that as we go through our life, because we’re not taught to think in that way. We’re not taught to think what two numbers add up to ten, we’re taught to think what does five plus five equal. That is something that is really important, is just being able to think — I don’t want to say laterally but just think more expansively.
Wendy Harris: That whole process of drawing out your customer’s creativity has got to come through conversation, right. By asking questions and getting them to think hard and to be able to verbalise their own thought processes to be able to apply some kind of solution and direction.
Nik Venios: I guess when I get an outcome I’d always go and do something called a safari and that’s where the conversation happens with the front end and when I say “front end” I mean with store staff or with customers or whatever it may be, and I say “store staff” because I do one for Co-op. You’d be surprised at the brands that I’ve worked on considering this is the office, it’s like global monster brand come to me and ask me about outcomes. It does start with conversation; really, it’s just to understand where the friction points are and that’s super obvious right?
It’s funny because I got a car recently and the car company said, after I’d purchased my car, they were like, “Oh can you tell us about your experience?” Which is what every single car company —
Wendy Harris: Get the review in quick before something bad happens or they forget how wonderful we are.
Nik Venios: Yes, so I went in and I was like, “I remember going in to pick it up”, there was a woman in reception and she was working on her laptop, in a comfortable chair but she was really sunk down and so I was like, “You guys need to provide some kind of coffee bar where people can get a free coffee and do their work, because everyone needs to work remotely now. You don’t have time to sit in your waiting area for an hour, right. You need to do that because what you’re doing is basically priming the customer so you’re saying to them — you’re going to deliver them, “There’s some good news and some bad news”, but they’re going to be in a better frame of mind if you go up to them and say, “Enjoy some coffee, you can work at our coffee bar, here’s the wi-fi code”.
Some of the sales staff shoes weren’t clean or bright or they hadn’t been polished and stuff and for me, this might just be me, it sets like the tone of our cars are as polished as we are. I know that’s like a tiny thing, but I was like you need to get to corporate or corporate marketing whatever and they need to be furnishing you with your own uniform including shoes. Because they’re so close to being a brilliant, brilliant brand, they’re not as polished as Audi they’re just below it and I just think they’d smash Audi out of the water if they just did these certain things. They’re only little tweaks but they make a big difference to the customer.
Wendy Harris: It’s the difference of perception isn’t it and expectation. Now, I find this like you say and about going on safari I find this when I’m talking to the head of department and they’ll say, “This is happening and that’s happening, and this is what I think is happening in the team”. Then you get to the team and you say, “Tell me how things are happening?” In actual fact it’s nowhere near the story that I’ve been led to believe. It’s way out of whack and that’s what is going to make the difference, I think, between getting everybody talking the same and on the same page. It’s like values, a culture, the company culture has to be the same, doesn’t it? No matter whether you’re the cleaner emptying the bins and wiping down the tables to the CEO that is on hands free conference in the boardroom. It doesn’t matter so long as you are all aiming for the same thing.
Nik Venios: It’s really important to be able to experiment and stuff in a business and a lot of businesses do allow it. Certainly, in Western culture failure is seen as a bit of bad thing and this is like super cliché to say it, but I think a lot of the businesses that I work with are okay with it. They’re okay with failure, it’s down to the people to be okay with it and the culture enables that, but fundamentally if you’re afraid of it internally you’re afraid of taking a risk and making something happen be that a new idea or a new process you want to implement then your company is going to be stilted. So, the more you can imbue your culture with risk taking and being intrapreneurial and encouraging that within your business and encouraging your staff to do that and encouraging them to just go and play and fail and test and all that kind of stuff and it’s going to be hard for you to progress, but I think overall a lot of companies do encourage it.
Wendy Harris: Unpacking the conversation whether it’s positive, negative, whether it’s going to sit well or not. At the end of the day to me conversation is currency and if that’s what your business is built up on.
Nik, you touched on our education and how the five-year-olds that tested for NASA really should be running the Country. What would your advice to be to anybody wanting to try and tap into that sort of creative process if they feel disconnected from their five-year-old self.
Nik Venios: There’s loads of stuff online that you can you look at in terms of idea gen processes. Firstly, there’s loads of tools online. I’ve got something called The Ideas Academy which we will put in the notes and stuff and you can use some of the tools there, it’s free to use if you want to use it, there’s a paid version as well, but some people Edison for example, what he used to do was close all the windows and doors of his office and close the door to his office so that the ideas wouldn’t escape. All he was really doing was just priming his brain to say, “Right, now we’re going to think of something or we’re going to solve something”.
A lot of people say, “Oh yeah, I think of ideas when I’m in the shower”, because your brain’s relaxed and you’re just freely associating stuff. If you try and force it nine times out of ten it won’t come because you’re trying to make something happen that invariably won’t. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this writer and it’s a really famous writer from back in the day, and what he would do is if he got writer’s block, he would get himself dressed in his finery, just to change his state and then he’d sit down, and he was like — and it’s like the words just come to me. There’s another woman who’s a really famous American poet. She used to say that she’d be out in the field or something like that and she could literally feel the words running towards her, and she knew this was a start of an idea so she’d run back to her house as fast she could trying to get there, get to a pen before the words hit her. She was like, “It’s like it just used to come through me”. I think you do get that, that kind of exoteric experience of when you get an idea and you know it’s an absolute winner, it can leave you shaking.
I’ve experienced that from a client brief, and I knew it was going to win, absolutely, I was like, “This is a winner, this is an absolute winner, and it did win and the client I it did for won £40 million out of it”, that one idea. I think you can feel the power in it when you know you are there. It doesn’t happen every day but when you know you’ve got a good idea it’s like, “Yes!” It starts with get into a space where you’re comfortable and where your mind can start to just wander a bit. That’s the key really is being relaxed, being comfortable and just being just allowing your mind to just melt. I know that sounds really —
Wendy Harris: Yes, some of my best ideas have always come with swimming because instead of concentrating on breathing because I’m an accomplished swimmer I don’t have to worry about swallowing the water, I would literally just swim solid for 45 – 60 minutes. Whilst I was in the water the only thing, I had to keep me company was to just think about different random things and let different random things come in.
These days I have to rely on ironing but it’s that same repetition that I’ve gotten into to allow the brain to go, and I think sometimes you need to percolate an idea. You’ve got a seed of something but you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go or how best to nurture it, so I would say don’t be afraid to have a few different things going on. I’ve had a coach say, “One thing at a time”, and I’ve gone, “No, I can’t because if I get stuck on that I’ve got something else to distract me which usually helps me fix what I’m not thinking about”.
Nik Venios: The other thing, of course, is that you can get this thing around, “I’ve come up with a brilliant idea, I’m never going to be able to come up with another as good an idea”. So, that’s why I think you get a lot of musicians who come up with one hit song and they’re kind of like, “Oh my other songs are not going to live up to this”. Like authors who write one absolutely smash hit book and then it’s kind of like, “I’m not going to come up with anything else”.
Wendy Harris: Yes, it’s got to be difficult to recreate a state unless you enjoy living in that state and then that’s got to come down to mindset. I was listening to a load of stuff, Clubhouse, the new addiction and whether it be taking your small business from being an owner to a CEO or whether it’s to be your own first millionaire or whatever, really the biggest takeaway from listening to so many people puff their chest out and ruffle their feathers was that they don’t allow negative language, it’s as simple as that. That power of positive thinking is what’s got them through, and it might be a bit cliché but —
Nik Venios: The determination is really important, if you’ve got an idea and you want to carry it through, so there is that. I think positive thinking does have its place but then it needs to be married with action because if it’s not then you’re just like it’ll happen, but it’ll happen to you, it won’t happen for you. Definitely remain positive, and also treat obstacles as gifts really, that’s the most important thing that I’ve learned through my life is that if there’s an obstacle or a disadvantage or anything like that’s a gift. Like it can really help you.
Wendy Harris: Serious lessons, aren’t they?
Nik Venios: Yeah, massively, yeah. I think that is certainly in my life, I experienced a lot of hardship when I was younger, mainly it was due to my mum, so she passed away when I was really young and my dad’s from Greece and so English was his second language and all that kind of stuff. I subsequently saw it as like, “It’s a really good thing, because I’ve had to do loads of stuff by myself that I would have been completely shielded from growing up”. It’s remarkable the number of entrepreneurs that have had like major traumatic event in their life or someone’s left them or something, they’ve had a death or something.
There’s always that but actually it’s like an absolute gift because if you didn’t have that then where would you be? You look at people like Chanel, I think she grew up in a convent, didn’t have parents. There’s a litany of really famous people who have come from nothing and I think that’s the best thing. When I talk to students and stuff, I say to them, “Just because you’re not at Harvard or Yale or Brown or Oxford or Cambridge or whatever it may be, you guys have got the most opportunity because you’re not limited. There’s no pressure on you to do extraordinary things that limits you.
Wendy Harris: They also sometimes don’t have the fire in the belly that coming from nothing or coming from adversity gives you. One of our previous guests Nicky Pattinson she actually applauds dancing with the devil and says that had she have not had those really, really dark days, she wouldn’t be where she is now because that’s kind of what forced her ambition if you like to do better.
Nik Venios: The whole fire in the belly thing I do think that in terms of it gives you drive but I think some — especially like younger children who’ve been through stuff, just think it’s hopeless and they can’t see that there’s a way out to the stars.
Wendy Harris: Is it that we don’t see it the way that they see it?
Nik Venios: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Wendy Harris: I’m being quite profound, people moan about our children being on screens and how they don’t communicate but in actual fact they’re the best at connecting now, socially connected, just not traditionally how we’ve done it. They’re just doing it in a different way.
Nik Venios: Every generation advances on the last generation and things happen quicker and all that kind of stuff, but, yeah, they are completely interconnected. They’re all like digital natives, like my four-year-old can navigate the Internet and stuff like that.
Wendy Harris: How many purchases has she made this week?
Nik Venios: She hasn’t but my mate’s son bought a £300 pram which wasn’t great and then they couldn’t send it back and so they had to pay £300 for this pram. So, yeah, it’s not the greatest that they’re digital natives. I just think you have to tell stories and show them that no matter what background or no matter where you’re from or no matter the circumstances you’re in today it doesn’t mean that in the future things are going to be the same. You just need to show them that there is opportunity out there and once you show them that there is opportunity and if they’re driven by material things or if they’re driven by the want or need to be a role model for someone else or anything like that, then that’s the key really. You’ve just got to find what resonates with them.
Wendy Harris: Having something to aim for in life and giving them purpose is really important. I know that as a parent too.
Since we only have a limited amount of time for the listeners, they are probably wondering what on earth is his pivotal moment. Do you want to take centre stage, tell us what happened?
Nik Venios: I think for me I’ve already touched on it; it was definitely the death of my mum that kind of like led to absolutely everything. I was always as a young child, especially when my mum became ill, I was always thinking of ways to help her. I remember once she couldn’t clean the windows, she was trying to clean the windows. I just made this thing that when you push your hands together it would extend. I put a sponge on the end of it and it would clean the windows and when you pulled your hands apart it would descend, so I made that for her.
I was really lucky as a young person like six years old to know that I always wanted to be creative or a designer.
Wendy Harris: Making stuff, yeah.
Nik Venios: Making stuff, yeah, and so that’s kind of like for me what led me on the path to what I’m doing now, but after that which was my pivotal moment and having to, on my father’s behalf, liaise with banks. You imagine like an eight-year-old going in with their dad to a bank and having to translate say, “No, you shouldn’t get this loan secured against the house dad, no. We will get it unsecured; can we get it unsecured”, “Yeah, yeah”. Like an eight-year-old talking to the bank manager.
Wendy Harris: Incredible, yeah.
Nik Venios: So, from there at school I was really good at understanding problems and coming up with ideas and solutions to them. That went into uni, went to product design, came out of product design. At uni I literally didn’t have enough money to buy pens, so I used to borrow pens off my mate. I’m talking like rendering pens not pens like this, rendering pens are like £12 a go, so really expensive and like ones that you basically colour in with. So, coming out of uni, I got a first from doing product design then went and tried to launch my own product out of uni because I was like, “Well, I’ve already been through so much, so like I don’t have any money anyway, so I might as well just try and do my own thing.
Wendy Harris: You had a natural maturity because of what you’d been through.
Nik Venios: Yeah, maybe I just think it was just not being afraid of jumping. A lot of people who are comfortable maybe in business or in their jobs just don’t want to rock the boat and are too scared. They want to find out what’s over the cliff, but they just don’t want to jump into the sea and swim to the island in the distance. Whereas I was just like, “Well, I’m already in the sea now, so I might as well try swimming”, otherwise the only thing that’s going to happen is I’m just going to get washed up, back to the beach so there’s no worries. Did that, I launched a product out of uni which I almost sold to a big corporate, but then I got an opportunity to go to study advertising, at the summer scholarship for Saatchi and Saatchi and I went there and that was an unreal experience.
Wendy Harris: I bet that was an eye opener.
Nik Venios: It was an amazing experience, I love that company, so I had a really good time there and I got offered eight jobs to stay there and I didn’t because I was going to be an account manager and I really wanted to do stuff with ideas. So, I came back to Gloucester and went and worked for a small digital agency as their new business director and built them up and then I started what is now The Ideas Agency in 2013. So, I’ve always had a background in creativity and now I remember way back I was telling my dad, “I just want to come up with ideas for companies because I’m good at it”, and he was like, “Yeah, but, Nik” —
Wendy Harris: Who is going to pay you for that?
Nik Venios: “Who is going to pay for that?” Yeah, exactly. I went, “No, they must do, they do, they will”. Anyway, it didn’t happen straight away but now, yeah, I work with some of the smallest and biggest brands in the world developing solutions for them, yeah.
Wendy Harris: Can I have one of those window cleaning things, please?
Nik Venios: Yeah, right. Yeah, okay, yeah, no worries.
Wendy Harris: Your mum must have been really touched at you being such a small boy being able to help her in that way. So, let’s face it, when we are that small how much can we help? What can we do? It’s a confusing time and it’s just lovely to hear that she’s really encouraged you to do it your way.
Nik Venios: Yeah, she was super creative. Used to make her own clothes and so, yeah, she was really musical. Just recently my dad passed away as well, just really recently and I found all this stuff because my dad hid everything after my mum, because he had two really young kids and he didn’t want to hurt them with — but me and my sister found all these photos and my mum’s handwriting is the same as mine, which is really weird; loads of stuff like that.
Wendy Harris: I would say that these people that leave us physically don’t ever really leave us. There is something either genetically or whatever that’s imprinted even dented on our brain that we don’t forget, we just don’t necessarily acknowledge it, so thank you so much for sharing Nik.
Nik Venios: No worries.
Wendy Harris: Thanks Nik. If anyone wants to pick up the conversation, they can find you at Theideasagency.com.
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