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Elevator Pitch: Makeshi Thappen (watch)

We gave Makeshi + Thappen founder and former Blunt Umbrellas managing director Scott Kington a little longer than an elevator ride to pitch his new business, a design-led innovation agency and product incubator.

There once was a man called Makeshi, a Japanese industrialist. While exploring the Pacific, he met a Finnish designer called Thappen and, together, as Makeshi + Thappen, they made “ingenious and beautiful things”.

It’s an evocative origin story. But it’s all an elaborate, entertaining lie and the man responsible for it is Scott Kington, the ex-managing director of Blunt, who, together with a bunch of clever clogs he has met on his travels through the world of business, has created a new, quite-hard-to-define company called Makeshi + Thappen that’s somewhere between an innovation agency, a corporate skunkworks and a business incubator.

“The company name was initially Make Shit Happen,” he says. “Then it was MSH, and that's just a little bit boring, and then it just sort of dawned on me that we should spell it out and hyphenate it and have some fun with it.”

As the old line goes, whoever tells the stories rules the world. And a good brand needs a good story. Blunt’s success was based on an innovative product and a brand story well told across a range of different platforms. Kington loved that ride and thrived on coming up with ideas to keep the momentum going but, after almost ten years in the role ­­– and after considerable growth ­– the types of challenges changed, and he was keen to put his and his collaborators’ skills across design, manufacturing, marketing and investment to use in other categories.

“Branding is all storytelling, really, but it needs to be linked to something quite genuine. Obviously Makeshi + Thappen as a name is not genuine, but the sentiment is, because it comes from a gut feel that we've just got to get up and go and make stuff happen.”

So how does the business work? And how is it different? Kington says it’s not like an incubator in the traditional sense because it’s not necessarily asking anyone to invest in their businesses. It’s all their risk. He says this isn’t an entirely new concept, with companies like the Icehouse and corporates like Vodafone running innovation programmes and investing in the most promising companies. There are also a number of corporate innovation models where multiple brands operate under one banner, sometimes in a setting separate from the main business. But creating and growing the businesses themselves, Kington says, means they will be more invested in those ideas.
 

“What I've found being a business owner myself is that there's always a reluctance with other people’s ideas. You might get a good idea but you're busy doing other stuff, so you don't implement it. I find it's harder to take someone else's idea and try and infuse it with all your ways of doing it because there's always going to be what they think and what we think. So, we decided to get rid of that side of it and just do our own ideas, between a big group of us.”

And, in Kington’s mind, this will also increase the cadence of the business, something that’s becoming increasingly crucial.

“If you're ready you can just decide what you want to do with it and just keep going. So you're just speeding up the process, and that's the whole point about this idea, is that there's no one, at any point, to slow us down. It's entirely up to us how fast we can take this.”

And the first cab off the rank is the pet accessory market.

“The market for accessories with dogs is eight times bigger than umbrellas. So, I mean, the whole pet care industry is huge, and that's a growing market. It seems a little bit underserved for really nice, well-designed, well-thought-out, well-made products that are also good for the animal, so that's one whole side. You've got the feeding, sleeping, walking, grooming. There's a whole big segment and you could be designing for ages there … Everything can be done probably a little bit better.” 

As such, they will be looking at what products are made from, how they function and, at the end of the product's life, how to deal with disposal.

Kington is a true ideas man. And to keep the enthusiasm flowing with Makeshi + Thappen, he says there will be plenty of variety, across a range of industries. In addition to pets, it’s also planning on becoming a mini publishing house and will be starting with architectural content; it’s getting into the brewing sector; it’s looking at commercial lighting; and it’s looking at the packaging industry, both for consumers and commercial use.

He says the areas it will move into won’t solely be the fastest-growing, just the ones that can be improved by tapping into the varied skills of the partners. When Greig Brebner, Blunt’s design director and inventor of the product, showed Kington the prototype, it was based on a gut feel. It was a market that didn't have much innovation, and it was an innovative product, so that’s the sweet spot.

“There are lots of industries that haven’t had a lot of thought put into them. It's just taking an outside perspective and just looking at it. It’s also looking at the skillsets in the context of the wider group because, again, it's all about people you know.”

He says the biggest risk with any new business is always cash flow. But there’s also a risk being slow, “so we want to get it to market quick”.

“You've got to make decisions as you're designing… And that’s the whole nimble approach. That's probably where the bigger companies struggle because they need to know the whole pathway.”

Big companies want to be nimble, and the future's getting to the point where you have to be to survive, he says, “but the way bigger companies are set up is all about the de-risking things, and if you're de-risking things to the point of making no mistakes, you're going to miss out on a whole lot of really interesting directions you could have gone”.

He expects it will be able to have a lot of early stage ideas running. But as they grow, they’re going to take up more time.

“We’ve got to work out if we have the resource to keep them going. Or do we need to get the resource? So those decisions will be made in six months, 12 months, 18 months. That's when you might say, ‘We have incubated the idea to a point that we're happy with how it's come into the world, but we can't be bothered with the rest of the processes.”

Another area he can’t be bothered with is the conventional approach to work. He read a book, Maverick by Ricardo Semler, recently and thought there had to be a better way to do business.

“I don't want to just make it for myself. I want the whole company to have that same feeling. It's not like, ‘Ugh, I've got to go to work.’ In my first jobs, I always hated that feeling on a Sunday afternoon where you’d start getting that feeling of Monday. Now we've got all these tools to do business in a different way, so why force people into the peak hour traffic? Why force people to miss out on picking up their kids after school? The flip side is you get way better retention. You get people willing to work in the weekends or at night if urgent things need to happen, and when things have to happen, people really step up, but when they don't need to, great.”

Makeshi + Thappen, who were both standing with Amelia Earhart in her last known photograph, wouldn’t have it any other way.

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