How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
George Kolovos' fusions:
- cosmetics & restaurants with the Internet
- US-based sports camps with global markets
- people & ideas: The Quad Cafe
"Great to see you! I'm glad you stopped by after our talk. Salmon sandwich with cream cheese and veggies? We've got multi-grain bread just out of the oven."
"Wow—my favourite—yes. How did you know?"
"How about coffee? Fresh-brewed. No need for cream & sugar."
"Super. That's how I take it, too. How would you know?"
I still remember my visit to The Quad Café almost a year and a half ago. I had a chance to see the owner-server-superconnector, George Kolovos, in a place that so beautifully exemplifies him—a hyper-aware, intuitive host who connects people and ideas, while delighting them with just the food & drink they'd like to have. I still have no idea how he guessed what order I'd like, and I'm thankful for his introduction to another customer who had common business interests to mine.
"When I'm here, I'm conscious of everything. I see everything around me, the space around me, the way things are. When I'm in the café, I empty my head of everything else, and I know what's going where, who's ordered what, what they're waiting on, what needs to go, how that person's being served. Is there money in the till? Do we have enough coffee over there? Can you please clean the table over here? Spatial awareness of my environment takes over. I'm open to seeing everything around me. Everything. My staff has noticed there's no time lapse between something happening and my responding."
That state of responsive awareness is part of his horse-jumping, too—dressage. He's noticed that if he considers a jump, calculates, and plans what to do, he and the horse may not make it. If they've practiced well, are in a state of responsive awareness, and jump without conscious thought, they almost certainly will.
"At the café you can see a high degree of efficiency and effectiveness, but you can see that everyone is relaxed enough to talk to a customer. If someone actually came in and quantified the goodwill, I think it would be scaringly high…It doesn't matter who comes in. He knows every customer's name, and most of his staff knows all the customers' names."
- Dr. Kenneth Graham, friend, customer, and Principal Scientist at the nearby New South Wales Institute of Sport
So there's a relaxed yet efficient flow that goes along with (or is enabled by?) the responsive-awareness, and the team (who are all good friends) take part.
If I didn't know better, I'd have just given him a tip and thanked him for his perceptiveness.
But I did know better. When I interviewed him, I found he'd also been an early dot-commer, a visionary leader in MenuLog's founding team (USD 850+ million IPO), and was expanding Nike Sport Camps outside the USA (with SCA—Sport Camps Australia), to potentially reach not just 80,000 kids, but 800,000 worldwide.
Why does he spend his days running a café? Why do customers like to work in cafés (a common pursuit in every innovation hub I've visited)? What happens in a café that's connected to startups and innovation?
George's serving days started with family business. His parents migrated from Greece to Australia in the 50's/60's. His father had no formal higher education and was the child of two wars—WWII and the Greek Civil War. His entire village had been wiped out by the German army in WWII, and he lost his mother and sister. He considered emigrating to the US, where he had family, but decided instead—with no business experience—to help his brother do business in Australia.
"He has that innate ability to learn. He wanted to learn and wasn't afraid of criticism, of failure, of disappointment, of people laughing at him. He was just thinking of family. And when you think of family, everything just gets brushed aside. He was driven by that, and as a consequence was very successful. I think a large part of that probably brushed off onto to us kids. My sister and I both worked in my parents' shop from the age of 5. My dad taught us—we were serving customers at age 5—and we learned very quickly. I spent a lot of my childhood growing up in family business. My dad was never a big believer in formal education. He thought you should be actively involved in community."
George's first job out of secondary school was in a cinema, as a projectionist. About 6 months later, he and a friend took over another cinema, and they ran a twin cinema together. Eventually he did pursue higher education, and learned something about himself in the process.
"I went to university to try my luck to see whether the education system would work for me. I wanted to do an arts and law degree, but it was too regimental—too many boxes, not enough freedom. My head just wanted to be out in the open space, the open field. I didn't want to be boxed in."
A new field opened up a little while later, one that paradoxically operated on boxes—servers and desktops, modems and routers. The Internet was a seemingly-limitless virtual space, open for new uses.
George saw everything around him as an opportunity. He looked, he thought, and then ideas and connections formed. He watched his girlfriend, a beauty therapist, serving clients and observed that not only did women spend a significant amount of money on salons, but they were also short of time. With an interest in all things new (including technology) and adept at joining things together, he married the ideas of beauty products, time-scarce women, and the Internet.
George had limited knowledge of computers at that time but joined forces with others around him. There was no funding for such ventures, especially in Australia, which surfed the eCommerce wave later than the US. His designer joined the venture purely out of interest, producing graphic designs for the website (and more) for free. Others in the cosmetics industry (and beyond) gave advice freely.
"He's very good at identifying the team he needs to get something done, enlisting people to his idea, and getting them motivated and focused on the end result."
- Frances Dart, Graphic Designer
The end result was one of the Internet's earliest eCommerce plays in cosmetics, a global business operating out of Sydney that even sold Parisian cosmetics to women in nearby Monaco. The business operated for a number of years but ultimately closed because of difficulties building the brand and building enough customer base. The timing was a little early.
It's always time to learn, however, and he carried his learnings with him into the next eVenture. The original concept was to put restaurant menus online, handle order-taking and payments, pass the orders to the restaurants via computer, and let them cook and deliver.
George crafted the vision, assembled a team he thought could best deliver in their respective areas, focused them, created content, and integrated them, driving towards creation of a service customers and restaurants both wanted. Building something new was hard, and it became increasingly hard to keep the team focused on the vision, operating with synergy. Ultimately, the founding team realized the cohesive days of early building were over.
So, they IPO'ed at over USD 850 million (Initial Public Offering of company stock to the public).
George still loves new, open fields and describes himself as a creative free spirit. He's most productive as an idea generator and connector, not the final decision maker. He needs to remain open to possibilities, watching them evolve. If they don't work as originally intended, they're still of value. They open up new pathways and learning, like eCosmetics and MenuLog.
"We're probably conditioned from the way we grow up to make judgments without seeing the possibilities. So we pass judgment built around past experience. But every situation is unique. Everything has a potential. You can't close it off until you've made your attempt. One situation is very different to another because the environment is different, the timing is different, the location may be different, and the occasion is different. Stay open to possibilities."
"George is always thinking. He's uniquely good at coming up with ideas. When he has one, he's very good at extrapolating—thinking about where it could go. He'll get help bringing it to fruition—he just comes up with the idea. He has a very creative mind."
- Frances Dart
Friends describe him as a larrikin (or maverick), smart, quick to catch on, very upbeat, trusting and trusted, a good listener (and talker), highly observant in great detail, and empathetic, without losing sight of his vision and goal. He likes interacting with people, is a driver and driven, with high standards for himself and his staff.
He's "case sensitive" in his interactions (not the same person to everyone) and has built his café as a connection point for people. He collects experiences, ideas, and people, not only receiving business cards and handing out his own, but even handing them out for trusted friends.
"He's a connector and a driver, and you know—that's where he's most happy. What happens after that is up to the people he connects. But he does drive to make connections happen. He's created an integrated network and puts energy into keeping that network active."
- Dr. Kenneth Graham
The network is not only for action-connections but also learning-connections—people to learn from.
"He wants to be challenged. He surrounds himself with intelligent people who like to talk about ideas and learns from them. He's widely read—like a sponge—interested in philosophy, politics, biography. He's open and interested, asks intelligent questions, and you can talk to him about virtually anything. He's quite unique."
- Frances Dart
When he's not learning and connecting, swimming, running, biking, and equestrian show jumping, he' hearing ideas from his network and helping them connect, be it mobile heart monitors or something else. When asked how he decides what to work on, he says it "just comes to him."
Something "came to him" one day in a catering job that evolved into much more:
"I provided catering to Tennis New South Wales. The CEO came up with the idea that he wanted to do sport camps, and he went online and started researching youth camps. He kept running into NIKE sport camps in the US. So, he rang these guys and asked. "Would you be interested in giving us the rights to run the NIKE Sports Camps in Australia?" And they said, "Well, we haven't really thought about it because we're not really interested in leaving the US, but if you're interested, we'll fly you here, and we can have a meeting and discuss it." So they paid for him to go over, and he ended up getting the license for the whole of Australasia—Australia, southeast Asia, all of India—plus all of the Ukraine, Russia, and a lot more."
He put out "feelers" in his tennis network, asking who'd be interested in hosting camps, what model they could operate on, gauging interest, and understanding what relationships and collaboration could grow. Again, George watched how the new idea evolved, collaborated, and as a partner, asked what works, what doesn't, and how to drive it forward with passion.
"You have to have passion and drive. With passion and drive, you can make an idea work, because people will connect with it and contribute to what you're doing, and then you get quality. Once you get the quality, it generates even more interest. Even at the café, it's the quality of the food, the quality of the service, the small things—the water in the glasses going out as the customer's sitting down. Then the real stuff happens."
- Dr. Kenneth Graham
The oldest child (and an only-son in a Greek family with three daughters), George walks a path that isn't the norm in Australia and isn't the norm in Greece. He hasn't started his own family but has started businesses and community. He doesn't have to own each initiative, noting that, "It's better to have 1 % of something than 100% of nothing."
George challenged my ideas of Fusion, just by being who he is. I recognized immediately his thinking style that puts together ideas and/or people that aren't normally combined, but are generative. He's not always the boss but is always the free spirit, the generator, the connector who surrounds himself with others who feed into new ideas and connections, with George and each other.
His responsive-awareness is notable in the café, on horseback, and in every new business idea he's fostered or led. His lesson to me is that if you need to be a free spirit, be one. Be the most extreme version of whoever you were designed to be. And there's value in the idea-generator and the connector, just as there's value in the implementer—the CEO. If you build and manage a network, it will continually nourish you, and good things will come to fruition in the community.
Watching him, I see the value in connecting others, not just self with others. They will gravitate towards the connector, and you'll be immersed in a network that's particular to who you are. It doesn't need to be hub-and-spoke—it just needs to be connected. You don't have to sit at the center of your own network.
George spends his days running a café because he's happy, and it helps him innovate, alongside his customers.
The connectedness begins with openness, which is best developed as a server, not a customer. Nowadays, you can find café games on the Internet to develop your awareness and other mental skills, but it's not the same as real life.
So the next time you receive a coffee, why not look around, watch what's evolving or could evolve, put on an apron, and start serving?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
George Kolovos is a founding team member of MenuLog, co-founder of a variety of enterprises, and owner-operator of The Quad Café in the Sydney Olympic Park. He's "from" Australia & Greece (lived 6 months+). For more information on his work, see: MenuLog and Sports Camps Australia.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of George Kolovos.
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