Innovation At Ofo

How the tech unicorn has mastered innovation within the Asia-Pacific region


Named after the mythical creature that reflects their absolute singularity, a unicorn is a startup company that's valued at over $1 billion. The Asia-Pacific region has seen a huge boom in the growth of unicorns over the last few years, particularly China. According to InnovationIsEverywhere, US$57 billion have been invested in startups by Chinese unicorns over just the last 5 years. A study issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology reports that China now has 164 unicorns in total, worth a combined US$628.4 billion. Meaning they've now overtaken the US. Most of these investments have been done in online/mobile platforms for commerce - in particular, food delivery services.

Nothing so embodies innovation done 'right' as a unicorn company. So we spoke with Rachel Lee, Head of Talent Acquisition, APAC, ofo. Rachel loves tech unicorns - and they love her back. As the Head of Talent Acquisition covering Asia's core markets for the world's first and largest bicycle sharing unicorn, ofo, Rachel's focus is on helping them leap across early market expansion to reach the next growth stage, fast. Her practice is centered on deepening workplace diversity to gain a competitive edge. This means recognizing talents to create 'teams of teams' who power innovation, growth, and value to inform the future of technology within the shared economy. Rated as one of LinkedIn's Power Profiles in Singapore, Rachel thrives on building authentic connections. She enjoys adventure travel to discover places of savage beauty, where mountains meet seas. Her ultimate career goal is to empower countries (starting with Singapore!) to identify and nurture their unicorn talent, creating initiatives to shape tomorrow's technology. We asked her about innovation practices and how to apply them within a unicorn company.

Can anyone be an innovator?

It’s a no, unfortunately. Many environments today still favor a fixed, often rigid approach as an indicator for success. These conditions stifle innovation and the majority of society in this hierarchy are often conditioned to remain within the status quo.

The conditions in those fixed environments are not conducive to identify and nurture innovators. I believe that the world needs to evolve - and if innovation is viewed as a discipline, then aspiring innovators need to seek a suitable environment for themselves to flourish in their practice (sometimes it is referred to as a ‘sandbox’), a space or place to create, experiment and work on fine-tuning their creations.

Innovators take things they already know and combine them in a new way. Innovators think differently - and while these traits are inborn in some, others can learn how to become innovators. To help these innovators, we have to begin by understanding what elements of the environment shape us to be better creators.

Therein the hard work starts, by attracting and identifying those who are truly willing to test their innovations, and sifting out those who are attracted to innovation for innovation’s sake.

Is innovation better practiced in a centralized team or disseminated throughout the organization? Can innovation be outsourced?

Innovation should always be in a focused group of collaboration within ALL members of the organization. Openness to new ideas should run right through the organization, as great ideas can come from every team member in every company: R&D labs get many ideas from their interns, and only because their interns were allowed to attend leadership meetings and have a voice. In great companies, innovation is everyone’s job.

If innovation is outsourced, then the question to ask is: If someone can make something out of nothing?

The reason as to why you should hire an external team is this: they can think outside the box because they are able to figure out new approaches to problems the internal team may be blindsided by, to escape all-looming legacy thinking which may hinder innovative approaches, and purposefully obtain a second opinion to challenge existing groupthink.

Why is innovation happening at a faster pace than ever before?

In Asia, innovation is increasingly able to traverse at light speed due to the ‘light touch regulation’ approach by governments. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has enabled FinTech companies to innovate faster, by creating a regulatory sandbox environment with a non-intrusive framework that enables sustainable innovation.

This allows innovation to take place, even where it is not possible at the outset to anticipate every risk or meet every regulatory requirement. Innovation is also able to flourish safely within controlled boundaries, without widespread adverse consequences.

We have seen the same for ride-sharing initiatives in Asia - many governments understandably prefer companies like ofo to operate through a collaborative approach and compliance with existing regulatory frameworks. Ride-sharing operators provide direct benefits to communities through the commercial partnerships forged with local businesses and service providers. Service operations and logistics functions create local jobs and inject capital into local companies and the economy.

If governments and countries adopt a light touch regulatory approach, innovation is more likely to occur.

Open communications and positive public-private partnerships (PPP) between governments and bike sharing operators can deliver good outcomes for all – this includes areas such as transport, public health, economic growth, safety, and tourism.

How do you prepare your organization for disruption?

There are a few ways in recent years where global companies (and individuals) have tried to pivot in their innovation practices in order to stay relevant. In my previous company, Grab - a ride hailing unicorn in Southeast Asia - everyone was encouraged to 'Disrupt or be Disrupted'. Grab walked the talk – just last year, it launched 5 new services, expanded the market to two new countries (Myanmar and Cambodia), acquired a company and hit 1 billion rides by October. Those were achievements that required the collective effort of everyone working together with a united disruptive mindset.

ofo is a unique startup that exemplifies disruptive change. We are a Chinese company, with our determined team in Beijing driving global expansion strategy. This differs from the traditional Silicon Valley companies where overly aggressive mandates for Asia, focusing on growth, without knowing the customer’s culture and ethics, may not find longevity - or success.

In the last 3-4 years, ofo leaped from Series A to Series F and is still the world’s largest bicycle sharing unicorn. In our Asia Pacific region covering core markets in Japan, Korea, India, Hong Kong, and Australia, we try to be ‘carefully aggressive’, understanding and pivoting according to each country’s code of ethics, while being determined to win the market in a calibrated and operationally efficient manner.

We are mindful of our Chinese culture at the core of our beliefs and believe in winning that makes sense. To that end we have collaborated with lawmakers, metropolitan governments, transport authorities and the community. This is because we believe in the power of a truly “z first and last mile” solution that enables economic and social mobility. Mobility affects all – from the underserved communities who rely on us as a daily means of transport for the quality of their livelihood, to how people commute in their daily lives – such as a trip home from the train station, stopping by a friend’s place, or making a quick run to the supermarket. As a truly disruptive organization, we are always working to ensure we can provide this trusted service for the long term.

What is the impact of globalization on innovation practices?

Globalization results in companies using global resources for iterating quickly, getting products to market quicker and investing in game-changing businesses to stay ahead of the pack. Companies who scale quickly often look abroad for opportunities in innovation, evaluating regions and countries for their market potential.

In Asia for example, 62 Asia ‘tech unicorns’ have been collectively valued at $283.5B and $106B invested in Asia’s tech startups across deals since 2012, with the anticipated growth of funding increasing this year by 132%!

Huge technology funding all across Asia means that the company who innovates faster, stays in the game. Singapore is ranked 1st in Asia for global innovation and pushes the envelope by recommending forward looking regulations to shape the future economy. Large countries such as the US - who dropped out of the top 10 last year, will have to remain innovative by quickly reinforcing policies to emulate the successes of those countries doing well in innovation. By doing so, everyone benefits.

Hear Rachel speak at our Chief Innovation Officer summit in Singapore July 11-12 in her presentation: 'Find Your Talent, Build Your Team: An Insight Into Our 'Zero to One' Growth Factors in Asia'.

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