Fast Company Interview with Alfons Cornella Founder and President, Infonomia, Barcelona (Spain)
Tell me about your background as a scientist/physicist I was trained as a physicist, more specifically in theoretical physics. I was that lucky: I was given the gift to grasp the beauty of the understanding of matter and energy. To anyone who has been into physics, there is nothing as great as feeling the powerful simplicity of the “grand” equations, those of Maxwell, Schrodinger, Dirac, Einstein, etc. I think it was back there that my mind was structured, so that, afterwards, I had been able to build complex models in my consulting tasks. From my university times onwards, I have always been involved in the same thing: explaining difficult things in the easiest way. I started doing this by writing hundreds of articles about science and technology for an encyclopedia. After that, I designed and managed a technological information center at Barcelona’s Technology Park. After that, explaining the potential of information systems in a Business School. And so on. When I was student on physics, I wrote the first mathemical manual on Relativity in my own language, Catalan. It was great to realize that I was able to explain the most inspiring ideas of the 20th century in a book. And I then understood that my mission from then on would be to pick ideas, understand them, and diffuse them to society by any available means. Tell me about what Infonomia is and what Infonomia does. How do you create an incubator for ideas? How do you get people talking and sharing information? Infonomia is an editor of ideas. More exactly, we define ourselves as an “edge space”, a “place” (not necessarily real) where people from smart businesses can get the ideas that they should be aware of. The way we do it is through editing experiences and ideas, by means of a community of innovators. For instance, we have documented more than 600 examples of companies that do innovate in Spain. From their experiences (what they do, why they do it, how they do it) we learned key points that we explain either on our website, on our paper magazine (its title is “if...”), or our events. So, people that come to any of our “products” (web, community, magazine, seminars, events, etc, have an opportunity to see what’s coming. This means that we read a lot in order to help our readership to have to read less. We put our criteria to determine what might be the most promising idea leads in the next months. It is not a matter of trend watching... since some times trends are just fancy and fashionable. We have the honour to have skiped several very hot things that we thought were just bullshit. And, on the contrary, we have said things that actually did happen. So we are not a formal incubator for ideas, but by showing the most innovative ideas and experiences we foster innovation. So that’s why we use the term “innovation by example” as our value proposition. We think that our deal is “connecting ideas through people”. We connect people mainly through our “unique” events, and, actually, by matching people that we think should know each other. Actually, I invest a lot of time having people meet each other. I am a “connector”,
and our whole project is based on the idea that having the best people in our community is the best way to get even better people. So, brilliant people (that means brilliant ideas and experiences) bring brilliant people. How did you decide to start Infonomia? What inspired you? How did you build the company? What were your first steps? The very beginning goes back to 1992. At that time, I got to Barcelona after an stay of almost two years in the USA, where I attended an MS program on Information Resources Management at Syracuse University (upstate NewYork). When in Barcelona, I was hired by a well knows business school, ESADE, to start a business information center, aiming at helping companies to look and find business opportunities based on the use of technology. I was then quite knowledgeable about promising networks such as Bitnet. In fact, that was the very beginning of Internet in Spain. I was one of the first people to start a electronic newsletter (what would now be deemed as a blog) about the foreseeable impact of Internet on businesses (that was in 1995). When I realized that thousands of people were reading my newsletter, I thought of starting a company with that very mission: understanding how technology was going to change companies, and explaining it through any available means. As sources of inspiration I had many things. Among them some publications, like yours, or some events that I closely watch at a distance like the TED event in California. But probably the most inspiring force was that I felt like it was impossible to achieve my “mission” at the Business School were I worked, so that I had to find my own way to get it done. And, on top of that, I was extremely lucky at having hundreds of people that told me (through the newsletter) that our challenge was worth taking. And that i have always been very risk oriented. I can’t stand not doing what my mind requires me to do. I just can’t help. I started the company with very few money. After that, I got two friends that entered as shareholders, and some months after that, I got money from a venture capital firm in Spain. Are you successful? What part of Infonomia is most successful? The main problem with that question is how you define “success”. For instance, in personal terms, I think the project has been very successful: we have learned a lot, we have had a tremendous impact on thousands of people in Spain, and we pushed many people to start their own innovative companies. In business terms, the business is actually earning money, although we are still very much oriented towards investing in new products and services. And now we are starting a new era, with a strong team, very motivated, and a huge opportunity to get the sudden thirst for innovation that is arising in the Spanish speaking market. The most successful part of Infonomia is the impact that we are having now on large businesses (for instance, in banks) because of our previous record of innovation. This impact is largely bigger than the one that would correspond to a company of our size. I think we can say that innovation=infonomia to a lot of business people in Spain. This has not been a bullshit sort of company. We have been very serious at focusing on providing good stuff rather than on just selling for the sake of it. Been serious actually ends up by paying off. And the most interesting lead for the future is that we are building a very powerful team of professionals that are able to deal with very challenging endeavors. There is no future without a very motivated team, and that we do have.
Why are you based in Barcelona? We all were born in Barcelona. We love this city. We think is the right place to be to have a nice balance between having a life and making a living. Nice weather, plenty of service companies, good universities, and a powerful “city brand” got after the 1992 Olympics. Close to Europe, close to South America (because of our Spanish language skills), and willing to become one of the 10 capitals of the future of the World. Incidentally, there are many people from around the World that choose to live in Barcelona. This helps us to get a cosmopolitan way of looking at things that we won’t get in other Spanish cities. How old are you? I am 48 years old. I have three kids, that still have the difficulty to explain easily what his father does to their friends at school... What is your passion? What inspires you? (family, money, success, etc.) What drives you to be successful with Infonomia? Keith said you had a broader mission besides making money, something deeper. So we want to know what the bigger mission is. My main driver is enjoying the beauty of nice new ideas. I am astonished by simple, straightforward ideas that nobody thought before, but that when you have them you wonder why nobody found them before. My passion is understanding. It is no joke, no bullshit. I am not driven by power or money, but by meaning. My best time of the week is when I am able to calmly get a good new book and have the time to dive into it. But, on top of that, it is not a matter of pure fascination for the novelty of the ideas, but for the potential power that lives behind these ideas. I have a great time connecting people among them. I have an interesting story to share. When I was “building” Infonomia, one of the potential investors finally asked me “would we get rich because of your project”; automatically, there was something uncontrollable within my guts that made me respond with the sentence “rich, on what?”. And this is exactly what I think: you may become successful in different ways. For instance, being strongly focused on making money just for the sake of it. I think a business, a company, is a project. There is a large mission component in any business. And it just happens that I am very much oriented towards enjoying participating in the transformation of Spanish companies into a new paradigm: it is by transforming ideas into value that we create worth, and that we can actually become happier. Money must be seen, in my opinion, just as energy to develop new and challenging endeavors. I don’t dream of showing off a new fancy car in front of my neighbors. I dream of having my kids share my dream that by connecting smart people through meaningful projects we can make a better world. I know it may look quite like naive. But I strongly agree with those that see a large business opportunity on multiplying imagination and technology in order to build new businesses. I might well be wrong, but this is exactly how I think, and I have built my team and our common project, around this very belief.
You have created a number of publications for ideas to reach the market. How did you decide to produce these publications? We got to a point that we understood that any different situation of our friends (the members of our community) required a different media. For instance, you can read on the web when you are in the office or at home, but if you are traveling on a train, you need something on paper, as you may need a different media while on a flight. Moreover, we realized that many business people don’t have time to read (a real and dramatic problem in a country like Spain where people work too many hours, without getting the right productivity out of it), so that summarizing the most important ideas that are floating around could be a very valuable proposition. So we decided that we needed a value proposal spread across different readers’ situations: every day, a new idea on the web; every week, a summary of ideas by email; every month, a paper magazine; every month, a seminar summarizing ideas; every quarter a sort of “business show” (a conference that combines ideas with a party); and every summer, a main event that fosters networking (connections among people) and summarizes the best findings that we had published across the year. Our journal has been in the market for four years in a row, and we will be celebrating our 50th issue next February. How do you find the people to be a part of the Infonomia Network? Do you find them, or do they come to you? How does your network grow? They just come to us, basically by word of mouth. But we also spend a lot of energy through conferences and seminars. Several thousands of people read and hear our message, and come to our web site, start exploring our events, etc. But the main way to growth is through our membership: so the strategy is member gets member. We are not focused in growing for the sake of it; but we get some 15-20 members every day. And the most important thing is the quality of this membership: they are “restless” minds that bring innovative energy to our project, every single day. We now have ambition to double our membership every year. Members don’t pay for our web content, but they pay for our seminars or for our magazine. But to get our contents they have to register in our website. What is your distribution strategy? How do you keep it low cost? At some point we realized that growing just by increasing our subscribers could be very costly, as it could also be starting a distribution strategy by being available at newsstands. You have to take into account that, as compared to US, few people do subscribe to journals and newspapers in Spain. There is no such a tradition. People prefer to get into a newsstand and flip around publications and enjoy diversity to choose from a larger supply of contents. In order to compete in such a market, the investment necessary for a company like us could be huge. So we found a third way to do it. We thought about other organizations with a “constituency” similar to ours; and we found that some business schools, business associations, and so on, did not have a publication like ours. So we made a deal with some of them. But the most innovative way to address our growth problem came when we found that a low cost airline was having exactly the sort of people we were looking for. That low cost company is also based in Barcelona, and it’s brand is Vueling (www.vueling.com). We talk them into getting an agreement, and in that way we distribute thousands
of our magazine every month to a very “captive” reader, the one that spends some hours in a cheap flight between European cities. Just in that way, we got an average readership of some 2 million people. The company does not pay any money to us, but because of the potential circulation we get better advertising prices in our magazine. What are your results and impact so far? So far we have a relatively small turnover of some 1 million euros per year. We have a readership on our web site of some 30000 unique visitors per month, 13000 people registered, and more than 10000 people attend our conferences every year. But the largest impact comes just now, when big companies come to us in search of insights about “what’s next”. We have an interesting opportunity to help them discover the future. It’s been ten years of hard work that leads to a promising future. What are your future plans and goals? Where will Infonomia be in 5, 10 years? We have the aim of becoming the best network of innovators in the Spanish speaking market and one of the best in the World. We would like to develop unique business experiences, that combine the power of contents with the seduction of events. We would invest on IP-based TV in order to disseminate ideas through new sorts of image-based media. In 5 years we would be a very professional team that help companies detect, understand and act upon new opportunities. In 10 years we would have developed the network of people that will change the business conversations in our country. It would be fantastic that through our dayto-day dream we contribute to modernize the business arena in the Spanish speaking market. People that today might be too young to lead their companies, would be managing them in 10 years time. And they would had learned a new way of doing business just because of us. The future is ours. And we have plenty of energy and motivation to have it come. What is the most difficult part of your job? The hardest thing you have done or plan to do? The most difficult thing is choosing which of the amazingly interesting projects we could involve ourselves in is the right one to choose at a very specific moment. Lots of people come to us with promising ideas, and I have a hard time just realizing that I don’t have money enough to fund them just as experiments. There is a lot of talent around us, but few resources available. I regret that we don’t have around us the sort of venture capital or business angels that I have seen in places like California or New York. It is not that those resources don’t exist in Spain, but, rather, that their dimension is way smaller that those available at the other side of the Atlantic. The hardest thing in the future will be to keep our team small enough not to become just a “normal” company, that is, a burocracy. Making the most of our network of potential partners, learning to work as a networked constellation of specialists, will be critical.
Besides, we have a vocation to become more international. Sooner or later, we will have to engage ourselves in an European venture. “Translating” our activity into worldwide standards will be a real challenge. How has Infonomia changed and evolved since you began? When were you founded? We were founded in 2000, although as I said before, the whole story started in 1995 when I wrote the first issue of my electronic newsletter about business transformation based on Internet usage in corporations. How many employees do you have? We have 12 people in the roll, but we “mobilize” some 20 more as freelancers. Besides, we really work as a network. We engage ourselves in very complicated project because we have deals with companies that are specialists in different fields. So, we have 12 people in the inner core of the company, some 20 in the next shell, and some 120 in the outer shell, in companies that become partners in different sort of projects (for instance, we were involved in a TV program related to “evangelization” of innovation; we are preparing events for large corporations, projects that require the combination of very different know-hows). What has the response international community? been from people in Barcelona and the
I think we have one of the best brands in our country, although we are pretty small. Largely disproportional as compared to our real structure. And any time that I explain what we actually do to an international audience I just get two typical questions: “who is behind you?” (it looks like nobody believes that we are a private small company, when they see all our activities), and “are you making any money?” (rather than the real important question: “are you getting your mission done, and doing money by the way...?”).
Specifically, what kind of impact do you have on companies? I need a real example from a real company. What exactly did you do for these businesses? For example, in one of our "power ideas" that we have published, we said that there is a trend towards people generating the energy they would need, rather that actually getting it from the electric utilities. The founder of a large toy company in Spain read it and determined that that was a potential new line of toys for his company: toys developed around the idea of kids generating their own energy, for instance a backpack to charge their mobiles. Another example is that across the seminars we have with banks, we emphasize the need to go beyond the current scheme products-markets (that is, “the products we build to the markets we know”) to start focusing on “what can we do with the knowledge that we have”. Thanks to that change I think that they understood that the future of banking is to become a "service bank", i.e. a collection of services, organized as a bank of resources. This sort of idea at large generated an interesting debate about what the future of banking may be in the next years.
In another case, a bank started a system to get insights from their people as to new products or services that the customers where demanding at their bank offices... it was a system of innovation participation (employees proposing new products, based of actual demands by customers) that changed the established top-down approach of designing products...and some new products are now on the pipeline thanks to this change in perspective It is when we see that our ideas are used by companies to develop new very specific products (such as electricity generating back packs) or to rethink the activity of a company, that we see that we have an impact. You say: I think we can say that innovation=infonomia to a lot of business people in Spain. This has not been a bullshit sort of company. We have been very serious at focussing on providing good stuff rather than just selling for the sake of it. Question: Which companies feel that innovation= infonomia? Can you give me an example of how you have helped a company? And, what challenges have you helped this company face? Hundreds of people from the most important companies in Spain have gone through our seminars. For instance, the top 200 managers of Santander (one of the largest banks in Europe), or the 600 of laCaixa (the largest savings bank in Europe) have attended one of our 1 day seminars about innovation and on how to innovate. We also helped companies like CEPSA (a large oil company in Spain) to start a set of innovation teams to find new strategies and products in the petrol arena. So we help through three different steps: 1) evangelization about why innovation is critical to generate value to customers, and how to do it (this sort of seminar is given to some 5000 business managers every year); 2) developing intelligence services to look for new products and services that other companies are developing; and 3) through workshops to help them see the results of point 3, so that they can act defining new products. Besides, in a country where innovation is starting to catch on on business conversations, publising every day a website with ideas, and every month a magazine with examples, do really matter.... believe me...
Basically, we need to know the main role of Infonomia in making connections that give results? Meaning, where do the connections and the results intersect? At what point do the ideas you have make into concrete results for businesses? The more specific you can be, the better. There are two results of our activity; 1) through our contents we estimulate companies to act, and start innovating (it is important that we focus on publishing examples on who and how innovate: so "innovation by example" is our method; 2) in other cases, we actually help companies develop new ideas through seminars and workshops... How old were you when you were a student in physics and wrote the manual on Relativity? I was 24 years old. I am sending you a photo of the original, which was written by hand... no match text-processor at that time...
Where were you in school at that time? What year was this? Did you write the manual because it was an assignment? Or did you do it for fun, because you wanted to? I was at University of Barcelona, attending an undergraduate program in Physics... it was 1982. I wrote the manual because I always liked to put ideas in clear format... I really did it for fun, no grade fot that... I spent a whole summer on the project, and it was used at the university several years after that... What did you do between university and founding Infonomia? First I worked several years at a publishing company, writing articles about science and technology for a general encyclopedia. Afterwards, I designed, started and managed a technology information center, aimed at providing useful info to innovative companies in the Barcelona technology park. Then, I attended an MS in Information resources management at syracuse university, NY (191-1992). Afterwards I started a business information center at ESADE's business school in barcelona... and finally started a career as a professor of business information systems in that school. Is infonomia the largest business network in Spain? In Barcelona? How many users are registered on the Infonomia site? Yes, I think it is the largest business network of its type. It is based in Barcelona, and we have some 13000 professionales registered, although we have some 30000 unique visitors per month. How many times a year are the conferences? We have the Next event and the reNacer event once a year each, and we have other minor events, some of them every month, and some every quarter How often is "If" published? In 3 languages? Catalan, sp, and en? "if..." is published 10 times a year, in Spanish, although it also has a couple of articles in English, each month. Do you have any specific plans for the future? Develop our team, invent new contents, be the best in our field in the Spanish market.