Strategists have much to learn from the investor and start-up world because they operate with foresight and imagine what the future could be, says Ayo Fagbemi, strategy director and co-founder, Explorers Club.

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

When I converse with fellow strategists, everyone asks what will happen next. Will AI take all of our jobs? Will we solve the impending problems of climate change? Will Threads take over Twitter? But we need to stop waiting for the next scene to play out. 

This piece outlines two important ways strategists can move from passive spectators to active advisors who help create new futures for companies and cultures.

Lessons from the start-up world: Innovation, imagination, vision

One way that strategists can become active advisors is to learn from the world of investment and start-ups. This community makes bets on the future and has proximity to power (their day-to-day consists of talking to founders), and, most importantly, they reframe opportunities using stories and the power of brand to make companies more valuable. Take what Jonny Bauer (former CSO at Droga5) is doing at Blackstone, the private equity business. As Global Head of Brand Strategy and Transformation at Blackstone, Bauer is charged with identifying new growth and expansion opportunities for companies like Spanx and Bumble. For Spanx, the opportunity lies in transforming it from a shapewear company, to an apparel company, which gives it a larger addressable audience. 

My personal favourite from the start-up world is that of Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield. Butterfield initially launched another video game, Glitch; it was a financial failure, but its messaging platform was not; they had the vision to pivot to launch Slack. In 2020, Slack was acquired by Salesforce for $27.7 billion. 

There are so many more – Twitter starting as a podcast platform called Odeo, or Nintendo as a playing card company or GOAT, the marketplace for sneakers, apparel and accessories, which started off as Grub With Us, which was a site that let members meet local people through group dinners. 

It is this type of innovative thinking and decisive action that strategists must borrow from the start-up world. Taking transformative leaps for companies that are years ahead of consensus. They don’t just look at the here and now, instead, they look at predictive and growth metrics, gathering insights from assessing market growth rates and the rate of technological adoptions. They predict how big a market will be in 10 years, not how big it is today. Of course, just like with any investment, this comes with risk – something strategists exploring unknown horizons need to get comfortable with.

The instructive point about these companies is that today, they make sense. To have this effect on our and clients' businesses, we must operate with foresight – moving companies into the future outside years ahead of consensus and conventional wisdom. To help me better understand the start-up space, I have enrolled in a course at an investment school where I will analyse the ideas and businesses that are not only winning today but also to understand the mindset of predicting what will win big in the future.

Qualitative data gets us closer to people who are shaping the future

This education is proving valuable today, helping us operate and add value to companies from an owner’s mindset – looking at the entirety of a business. This includes its future position in the continuing tectonic plates of culture: the value that can be added today and the value we need to shape for tomorrow. 

Imagining the future requires more than data analysis. We also need qualitative data to get closer to people shaping the future and make predictions. It is the foundation for our view of the future. 

So, where do we find this data? We get close to the people shaping ideas for tomorrow, talk to them, listen to them, and most importantly, offer them real value. 

This is why the Explorers Club has created Open Dialogue, a platform of conversation and practice combined, that focusses on the future. This is a process of strategy that is additive to culture, not subtractive from it. 

One-off reports that focus on interviewing a few people in a space for 30 minutes lack the nuance, unspoken codes, and the struggles and pain points that communities face over time. Our platform helps us keep up with how communities change over time, helping us and our clients create change in an ever-changing world. Taking a pluralistic view of spaces helps us find patterns in the intersectionality of our interests. Only then do you find breakthrough ideas and build the future. 

A sample of our on-going community conversations include:

  • Relationships with a community of creative industry professionals working with AI
  • Investors shaping the future of African businesses
  • Spaces built for people around movement
  • People narrating a path to a greener future. 

What does this look like in practice? It could be a workshop (we held one to help the creative community see the plethora of possibilities and concerns in working with AI). Or it could be an event – we recently held a game night and talk series to spotlight changemakers in African design and connect those from the diaspora and those living back on the continent.  

Our initiative is heavily inspired by the ethos research and design labs like SPACE10, fully funded by IKEA, which unfortunately recently closed after 10 years, to a lot of people’s surprise. 

Space10 was responsible for innovative projects to rethink food production systems, making the famous IKEA meatball out of insects, using AI to create speculative place-based plates made from locally abundant materials and imagining a future in which autonomous vehicles change mobility and allow cars to become hybrid spaces. 

Projects like Space10 explore speculative questions that lead to strategies, investments and ventures that don’t just prepare you for the future; they help you create it. Speculative questions might be: 

  • Can we replicate the taste and texture of meat? (Think Impossible Foods) 
  • Is there a secure way to buy, sell and store cryptocurrency? (Coinbase) 
  • Would people be willing to support creators? (Patreon) 

What will be the next speculative questions you ask? 

We must go towards a positive future that expands our businesses in the right direction, where communities and movements push the world of commerce to a more economically and environmentally sustainable space in all parts of the globe. As strategists, we can help build this better future, not wait for it.