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On Innovation with David Alston

David Alston

“The bottom line is, the world runs on valued relationships between people”, says marketer and innovator David Alston, shown here at Planet Hatch in Fredericton.
Photo: James West, The Daily Gleaner

As published in the Telegraph-Journal Saturday, May 31, 2014

David Alston, chief innovation officer at Introhive, has always bounced back and forth between his three loves – technology, marketing and strategy.

If you look at his career path, he’s been involved in startups – generally tech startups – and marketing agencies.

Then there’s David’s happy place, where technology meets marketing – creating movements via marketing, helping and empowering people. He likes how it all can come together into an overall strategy.

David has been problem-solving since he was a kid. He has always been interested in being creative and building things. This has driven David to become an advocate for coding in schools. He is an advocate of the Brilliant Labs initiative, a non-governmental grassroots movement that is seeking out, and funding, the most passionate schools along with their teachers and students.

Brilliant Labs takes its inspiration from a similar foundation in Estonia – a country that is leading the world in technology education as a key part of a thriving e-society. After a recent visit to meet leaders there, David returned home convinced that New Brunswick could be a leader in North America in this space.

Prior to joining Introhive, David was chief marketing officer for Radian6, later acquired by Salesforce.com. He is a much sought after advisor to a number of startups and speaks regularly on social media, creating movements and building community.

Q: Tell me about your view of marketing.

A: Marketing revolves around being very passionate about an idea, finding birds of a feather around that idea, connecting with them, learning from them and collaborating with them to grow a market or build a movement that lets that idea take shape and flourish. Then it is basically finding ways to fan the flames of the movement and help the idea grow for the sake of more people finding out about it and hopefully doing something good for the world.

Q: You clearly believe change is a good thing, how did you land at Introhive?

A: I love building things, be that companies, markets or visions for what the future can hold. I get excited at the thought of the sheer potential that exists in the early stages of an idea and how key decisions and innovative ideas at that stage can produce giant leaps forward. With Introhive, I really liked the idea and the experience that the team had – they’re A-players. They’re bringing their A-game every day. The culture is very similar to what we built at Radian6.

[Tweet “I love building things, be that companies, markets or visions. – David Alston”]

Q: What does Introhive do?

A: Like most software built today it’s software as a service (SaaS) and designed to map and score the strength of relationships that employees have with people outside their company. By doing that we are able to overlay on top of businesses processes like lead generation or account renewals using the power of typically unknown relationships to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The bottom line is this – the world runs on valued relationships between people. If you can draw on all of those relationships your employees have with prospects, customers and partners your business will run better and be more successful.

Q: Who are your customers?

A: Typically, larger B2B technology, finance and professional services firms. We target larger companies for two reasons – one, the bigger the company the larger the number of connections employees will have, and two, the bigger the company the harder it is for anyone to effectively know who knows who.

Q: You love innovation. What makes for an innovative company culture?

A: Always have A-players and run a company using culture for guideposts versus process. Yes, you need some process, but culture can get rigid quickly and it generally abhors change, which is innovation’s wingman. Everyday you wake up you should be thinking, ‘Is my company operating in the most innovative and optimal way to deliver our best to our customers?’ If you are being honest with yourself the answer each day should be ‘no’ because you can always be doing more to continually improve. For me, having lots of process just means you need an extra step to dismantle before moving to improving and that’s an extra step to slow down innovation. Having a culture that every employee buys into and a vivid grand vision and mission allows employees to have the breathing room to individually improve on how to serve customers on a daily basis.

Q: You are a big advocate for kids learning how to code, where does the passion for this initiative come from?

A: I was exposed to computer programming in school when I was a kid. It literally changed the trajectory of how I thought – it accelerated my love for creativity and problem-solving. I loved coding because I could create something and problem-solve, and if whatever I was working on didn’t work, the only resource I lost was time. Time is a valuable resource, no question, but whether an approach failed or succeeded it taught me that persistence, creativity, patience and hard work pays off.

[Tweet “Being exposed to computer programming changed the trajectory of how I thought. – David Alston”]

Q: Are you saying you would like all of our kids to be coders?

A: No. Similar to me, I suspect most of them may decide that they don’t necessarily want to be coders. However, I would hope this approach to thinking could take hold in them and fuel a whole new generation of entrepreneurs. At the same time, with more kids seeing what coding is all about, more will consider it as a career. As an industry, we have a pretty hot tech-startup space right now in New Brunswick.

Globally, there’s a massive shortage of coders. In fact, I saw a publication saying it’s the hottest job this year. If we can’t fill coding jobs in the Maritimes and here in Canada we are literally going to stifle our economy’s growth. These jobs are some of the highest paying jobs in the country and some of the most rewarding. I want to see us close the gap for the sake of our region’s future and for the kids that could be seriously passionate about something they just might love to do.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

A: What inspires me? Creatively painting a vision for how things could be better and working with passionate people who share that vision to accomplish it. That’s definitely when I’m happiest. The world has no shortage of needs – it’s a non-stop list. I wish I could relax more on occasion but it would seem that my mind always tends to race, constantly thinking about what’s possible. I put up the hammock at the beginning of each summer and remark on how I never used it when I take it down in the fall. Maybe someday …

Q: How would you finish the following sentence? A leader’s job is to …

A: A leader’s job is to listen, to learn, to help, to collaborate and paint a vivid picture of what’s possible and, finally, to inspire and empower people in achieving their goals.

[Tweet “A leader’s job is to…paint a vivid picture of what’s possible. – David Alston”]

Dave VealeDave@VisionCoachingInc.com

A leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John.

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