Byron Reese: Travel Provides a World of Inspiration
Tech exec Byron Reese reflects on travel and creativity.
My job is to head up innovation for Demand Media, an Internet media company. The Internet changes so rapidly that innovating within it is an unrelenting process, and if you are foolish enough to pause to take a breather, you find yourself left way behind. The Internet, after all, changes more in a month than many industries do in a decade. And because of this, I am often asked how I can possibly get a sense of what the future will bring.
A part of the answer is that I travel to the past or, more precisely, to places where the past is still very much alive. This may seem counterintuitive, but I find it quite clarifying; it is always fascinating to see what we hold onto from the past and what we are willing or eager to leave behind. For human nature, unlike the Internet, never changes. But ironically, it is human nature, not technology, that drives change. And human nature can best be seen in environments different from our own.
Where are these places? They cover the planet. Our world is an amazing mosaic of the exotic, the beautiful and the fascinating. I have watched with awe the Mass Games in North Korea, where 100,000 performers put on a spectacle unmatched on the planet. I have danced at the Tropicana in Havana, gasped in wonder at the Blue Grotto in Capri, stood silently before the Taj Mahal in Agra and climbed the pyramids in Egypt. The world is full of wonders beyond description.
Yet inspiration and insights for my business don’t come from the spectacular, but from the ordinary. Take Havana, for instance, where the cars are not the only things frozen in the past. Almost nothing looks like it has been replaced or even painted since 1959. In 1993, however, the Cuban government legalized small, privately owned restaurants, or paladares. In spite of high taxation and crushing regulation, the hunger for the economic opportunity that free markets bring caused a whole host of restaurants to open, offering a cornucopia of dining choices. And although there had been a lack of markets in Cuba for two generations, I found these restaurants to be the embodiment of what comes with free enterprise: high degrees of service, great quality and, most of all, a large variety of choices. It seems that the things that make a business successful can be known almost instinctually. We are wired to compete in business.
Another way travel has inspired my creativity and thinking about business is within the mobile revolution. Mobile phones are basically new, and yet their penetration worldwide is 80 percent. I remember a trip to India, a place where the 21st and 19th centuries coexist. I saw workers hauling immense loads of bricks on their backs, without even the technology of a cart, and yet they had mobile phones. Even in India, where the average income is just $1,500 a year, a staggering 75 percent of the population has a mobile phone. What do we learn from this? Given a range of good things technology can do for us, people universally run toward better communication. Not more comfort, not better transportation, not access to information and not even entertainment. The access to communication that mobile devices offer even the very poorest is overwhelmingly compelling. This tells us something about ourselves and suggests more than a few business ideas.
Then there is my trip to Mount Athos, located on a remote peninsula in a remote corner of Greece and home to more than 2,000 Orthodox monks. Athos resides so far in the past that the date there is literally different from the rest of the world because time is reckoned not with a modern Georgian calendar, but with the ancient Julian calendar. It is off the beaten path in every sense of the word, with very, very little contact with the outside world. They have relatively little technology, but they do have a few battery-operated devices, such as flashlights.
At the Simonopetra monastery, where I stayed, I noticed a small bag in which the monks would dispose of their used batteries. Every now and then, when some matter caused a monk to need to travel to the outside world, he would take that bag so the batteries could be disposed of properly. What thought did this inspire? That if this relatively new concern for green sustainable living has made it to Athos, it must be an extremely powerful and perhaps permanent movement. This suggests no end of product and business ideas.
Finally, there is Büyükada, an island off the coast of Istanbul where the houses were built in Victorian times and cars are banned, so all travel is by horse and buggy. You try not slipping into a bygone era when you are riding in a carriage through a foggy neighborhood of century-old homes. What struck me about this place were the stores. The grocery stores are like the “general stores’ of our own heritage, where all the goods are behind the counter and you ask a salesperson to get them for you. The interesting thing is how beautifully they were arranged. Because the staff knew where everything was, they didn’t have to arrange it functionally, and so they chose to arrange it beautifully. The way that color and size were grouped, the symmetry of the wares, all worked together to be an impressive sight. This reminded me of a basic element of human nature, which is therefore a basic principle of business: We love beautiful things. We like the iPhone for its technological wonder, but we love it because it is beautiful. It was a reminder to me to try to make everything, even the most mundane, beautiful.
These travels to the places of times past continue to inspire my innovation. Dive into the past, and the future becomes a bit less murky. It makes the choices we have made collectively over the last few decades jump off the page and even provides a glimpse of what is yet to come.
Byron Reese is executive vice president of innovation at Demand Media, where he and his team are responsible for the creation of new technologies.