Solving problems has never been more comfortable if you have the perfect solution that would crack every trial. David Komlos, the CEO of Syntegrity and author of Cracking Complexity, reveals the breakthrough formula that would quickly eliminate the roadblocks in business, entertainment, and society. Learn the difference between complex and complicated challenges and the only way to deal with multidimensional problems at pace and at scale. On top of that, find out about David’s N*N-1 one component and iteration.
People have health adversities that limit them from operating in their full potential. Christian Erfurt was diagnosed with cancer at the age of thirteen, but that did not stop him from doing his passion which is innovation. CEO of Be My Eye, a free app that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers and company representatives for visual assistance through a live video call, Christian tells us about his user-driven innovation and how they were able to attract investors and gather people all over the world for a cause.
I’m glad you joined us because we have David Komlos and Christian Erfurt. David is the CEO of Syntegrity. He’s also the author of Cracking Complexity. Christian Erfurt is the CEO of Be My Eyes. He’s also a cancer survivor. He’s got quite a compelling story. We’re going to talk to both of them.
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Cracking Complexity with David Komlos
I am here with David Komlos, who is the CEO of Syntegrity. He is an entrepreneur and an early stage investor who after his second exit became intent on applying the complexity formula to some of the most interesting and high stakes situations in the world. He’s also the co-author of Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast. I’m excited to have you here, David. Welcome.
It’s great to be here with you, Diane.
I was very interested in the complexity issue because there are many things that are complex. One thing that I learned from teaching many classes is how challenging it is to keep track of everything now that technology has given us so many options. At least in marketing and in some other areas, everybody’s trying to do things at scale. Everybody’s trying to grow faster. A lot of it requires dealing with a lot of diversity. You talk about a lot of this in your work. I want to talk about your book. I want to get a little background on you. I gave a little bit of a hint about your background. Can you give us your history of what led to this point?
I did my MBA several years ago. Soon after a few jobs at large and small companies, I started to start companies. I exited a couple and looking for my next opportunity, I took a year to find what I was going to do with my life next. About six months into that year, I discovered this IP for what we built out of the complexity formula. I saw many ways in which to apply the formula in business, entertainment and society. I was intent on getting after some of those applications. I have been working with some of the largest organizations with CEOs, chief commercial officers, all the way through large Fortune 15, Fortune 500 companies, government organization, national ones, regional ones, NGOs, startups, innovation funds and private equity firms. I’m always applying the complexity formula to the top defining challenges. Complexity is the defining challenge, whether it manifests as a growth challenge, a talent challenge, taking out costs challenge, or innovation challenge. These are all complexity. What’s been exciting for me is to see how if you can get after complexity in a good way, you can solve any big challenge fast.
There’s never been a time that has been more complex than now. You differentiate between complexity and complicated. How would they be different?
Dave Snowden has informed our thinking on this with his Cynefin framework. He differentiates between complicated and complex challenges. He mentioned both simple and chaotic challenges too. We focus on complicated and complex. Every leader and every contributor encounters these two types of challenges regularly. They’re different from one another. It’s important to know the difference between complicated and complex. Just as form follows function and structure follows strategy, the approach you take to solving a problem has to follow the kind of problem it is.
When you’re dealing with a complicated challenge, you’re dealing with a challenge that is new to you. It may be difficult for you, but it’s been solved many times before. Once the challenge is solved, it’s solved forever. For example, you’re in need of fixing your car. That’s a complicated challenge. If you’re putting in a new accounting system, a new order management system, or HR system, those are all complicated challenges. Perhaps it’s new to you and your organization. You’re not an expert in it, but there are many experts available to you. This is what they do 24/7. They implement these things. They’ve got a checklist. They know what success looks like. Your best approach is to hire them to do for you what they’ve done for others.
Complex challenges are in a different league. “How do I grow faster? How do I take out costs sustainably? How do I realize the full benefits of the merger? How do I take this product global?” Those are all multidimensional and multifaceted challenges that don’t come with a checklist. They don’t have a recipe. There are no experts who know exactly what success looks like in your exact situation. They require fresh solutions. They require full buy-in from large groups of people if you’re going to see sustained behavior change. Those are the head scratches. Those are the ones that tend to persist over a long period of time.
You talk about the Law of Requisite Variety or Ashby’s Law. I thought that was interesting because you say variety can destroy variety. What do you mean by that?
Ashby’s Law says only a variety can destroy a variety, as you said about diverse challenges, diverse talents. When you’re dealing with a growth challenge, how do we grow faster, how do we triple EBITDA over the next five years, or how do we merge better? Those are multidimensional and multifaceted challenges. In other words, they’re high-variety challenges. There are lots of variety, lots of moving parts, and lots of unobvious interdependencies. The only way to deal with all those dimensions successfully is to bring an equal amount of variety to bear on those challenges. The way you do that is by bringing together a diversity of talents, specifically to bear on the specific challenge. We talk about special purpose groups that have been created to take on a special purpose. When you can bring the right diversity of talent to bear on a challenge to look at it from every angle, a group of people who have the combined knowledge, experience, expertise and influence to make sense of what’s going on and arrive at a shared understanding, they can get to wise judgment and good creative outcomes. That’s the only way to deal with multidimensional challenges at pace and at scale.
I’ve worked with a lot of teams where we found that the more diverse the team, the more creative the outcome. When you get a lot of people together, you have more conflict. How challenging is that? We have to bring all these different people together to come up with what we want. What problems do you experience with that variety?
It’s between a rock and a hard place. You need to throw a lot of people at certain challenges. You need to bring diverse groups of people together. Diverse groups of people don’t work well together. They certainly don’t work fast. You don’t have a lot of time to bring them together because people aren’t going to put off their day jobs to help you solve something. It’s not just about bringing the right group of people together. It’s about equipping them with a way that allows them to combine their data information and knowledge into higher levels of understanding and good outcomes. You have to be focused on how you put those people in touch with one another, to make sure that they are interacting, each person with each other person that you’ve brought together. If you brought together a group of ten people or for any of your readers, if they’re running meetings of 5, 6, 8, 20, 30, sometimes 50, 60 people, you brought them together because they do represent the variety you need. You have to make sure that you have a productive outcome.Every leader encounters both simple and chaotic challenges regularly. Click To Tweet
Make sure that everyone is in conversation with everyone else. Keep an eye on the interactions. Make sure that those interactions are of high quality. What we tend to do in the complexity formula is we assign speaking roles. We assign certain people as members of a discussion. Other people, we assign as official critics of a discussion. We even use the observer role from time to time. When you have a larger group of people, you assign some of them to the observer role where they can only listen. On a given specific topic, let’s say you’re talking about growth, segmentation, talent, or what have you, a few of you are going to be members. It’s your job to advance this topic as far as you possibly can.
We’re going to have a panel of critics listening to you. Their job is to critique what you’re talking about from time to time during your conversation to help you get further in your conversation. We’re also going to assign certain people as observers. They can only listen. It’s a useful role and frustrating role. We’re going to switch up those roles on a variety of different topics we’re addressing so that everyone has a speaking opportunity. When you have people listening to each other in a different way and when you have them contributing in a different way, you get past many of the dysfunctions of large groups, which allows you to benefit from having brought that diversity of talent together in the first place.
It brings to mind some of my experiences in sales, some of the groups I’ve been in, or at least sometimes videotape us and have people critique. You’d have cynics telling you, “This is right,” or “This is wrong.” That was something to help shape us to change how we presented information or how we came across to understand that better. Sometimes in my research on curiosity, I found that one of the main things that keep people back from offering solutions or asking questions is fear or environment. I came up with four things. They are fear, assumptions, which is the voice in your head, technology, and environment. Those are all the things that keep people from being curious and being willing to be put into these situations where they have to give input and all that. With curiosity, people’s past experiences and fear, how much are you seeing this as a problem?
You’ve nailed it on the head. Everyone comes in with those preconditions. Many people are afraid to contribute, etc. What environment do you put them in? What format do you give them to free them up? For example, the introverts contribute all the genius that they have. The loudest voices don’t dominate. People are willing to take chances. If you can engage people in deep dialogue and if you can immerse them in something that matters to them, they bring their full power to bear. We start our meetings, whether they’re short meetings or long meetings, with no agenda, just a question. This gets after at least one technique to pique people’s curiosity.
This has been my experience in observing these sessions. You ask people a question like, “What do we have to do now and over the next two years to double our growth rate? What do we have to do over the next 90 days to benefit from the recent merger? How do we change mental health and behavioral health outcomes in our state over the next year?” Whatever the question is, when you frame the challenge in the form of an inviting and engaging question without biasing the question with answers, people pay attention to that question. It starts to invite their own experience set and their own contribution. When you tell them, “I’m bringing you together with other people. I’m not going to predetermine the agenda. I’m not going to tell you the topics you have to talk about. I’d like you to determine for yourselves as a group what you need to discuss in order to answer the big question,” people wake up. They do get curious. They got even curious about the process, not just the content.
I am curious how you keep the introverts able to get their voice and extroverts from talking all over them. What’s your advice for that?
The official critic, official observer role and switching those roles up is helpful to get the most out of every different person you bring to the table. Some are naturally going to dominate. Some are going to want to contribute a ton. Some are going to want to listen more and contribute just a gem after having listened. When you assign people as members, critics, and observers, critics are told, “You have to listen for the first fifteen minutes before offering your critique.” That person is listening for fifteen minutes. Otherwise, it may have been one of those people who dominate. One of the critics is maybe someone who is introverted or otherwise, not going to be front and center in contributing.
When it’s their turn to critique, and everyone has a turn to critique, they know that they’re going to offer up something important. They’re going to be called on to do that. That switches up behavior patterns. Also, what people will find is they use the member and critic role in their normal course meetings, whether they’re a half hour, an hour and a half, or two hours, it becomes self-managing. Members want to hear from critics. Critics want to help the members. You don’t need to have any facilitation hand in this. It becomes something that people can do regularly on their own.
You brought up some points. When I was working on brand publishing courses and things, the CMOs, for example, had to work with all these different vendors. It was confusing because none of them communicated well together. It was keeping track of things. That was going through my mind as I was looking at some of the stuff you’re working with. You’ve got all these collisions. Everybody’s involved in some respect. These connections between people can be complicated and you have to track them. Can you talk a little bit about the NxN-1 formula that you talk about with this? How do you manage to track all this communication without just spending time planning the plan, where you’re doing nothing but tracking?
I’ll talk about the NxN-1 component as well as iteration, which is an important thing for people to wrap their heads around when they’re in groups. First of all, NxN-1 talks about the number of connection points between a group of N people. Let’s say you have 50 people you’ve brought together to solve something important or you have 30 people. You need to manage and account for 30 times 29 connection points between people. If you have a group of eight people, you have to manage eight times seven connection points, 56 connection points in your meeting. You want to make sure that people are colliding with one another in conversation. You want to make sure there are many back and forth collision points between all those people.
In terms of iteration, when you’re dealing with something complex, you can deconstruct it into its many component parts. If you’re talking about a growth challenge, you can talk about geographical growth, product launches, sales force effectiveness, messaging and segmentation. All those are facets of things that get you to an overall answer to “How do we grow?” You don’t want to give a group of people one kick at the can on each topic. You want to give them several kicks at the can. You want them discussing all the topics several times.
When you combine iteration with a view to as well, keeping track of who’s talking to who and making sure everyone’s coming into contact with one another, you’re able to get far on each of the individual topics that they’re conversing. You’re also able to cross-pollinate via those collisions across topics. You’ve got people moving from one topic conversation to another and back to a previous conversation, back to the other conversation, and back to the previous conversation. When you iterate through your conversations on these topics with a view to making sure everyone’s all pining, hearing, listening and contributing, you get far in a short amount of time using those two techniques.A good question is unbiased and a stretch that is achievable. Click To Tweet
You say, “You.” Are you talking about the leader of the team? Who’s keeping track of all this?
The leader should appoint someone who’s scribing the conversation, somebody who’s keeping notes of what the salient points are, the insights and the recommendations. It’s making sure that they’re documenting them in real time and playing them back to the group that’s participating. You’re playing it back to the group and giving them a shot at each topic several times. People are playing the member role on some topics, the critic role on other topics, and the observer role yet on other topics. You’ve gone through a couple of rounds on each of the different topics that you’re talking about five or six topics of conversation to answer a big question on how to merge better, grow faster, take out costs more sustainably and transform. You’re managing those interactions and you capture everything in real time. You’ve got a complete record of what’s happened in each of the different topics and what’s come out across the topics, which is the golden nuggets, the key insights, the key a-ha, the key strategy and the key tactics.
Is there a maximum number of people that you should have in a conversation and still have good interaction?
I wouldn’t do these techniques in groups that are smaller than eight people. It’s too much. We tend to limit groups to 60 people. We do it anywhere from 8 to 60 people, ranging in time frames of two hours to three days.
As you’re talking about some of the things you can start off with in the meetings to start a good question, you have a chapter titled Construct A Really, Really Good Question. How do you do that? To tie into my curiosity, a lot of people would want to know how to do a good question.
Once you bucket your challenges as complicated or complex. When you’re getting after the complex challenges, the ones that need a fresh solution and need buy-in, frame the challenge in the form of a question. A good question is unbiased. It doesn’t suggest answers embedded in the question. It’s a what or a how question. It has a time frame that’s been thought through. It calls for action. It specifies goals as clearly as possible. A good question is a stretch that is achievable. It’s not something that’s not achievable because then it deters interest and curiosity. It turns people off. For example, a good question would be, “What must we do now and over the next two years to become number one in North America profitably in whatever industry you’re in?” Another example of a question might be, “What must we do starting now and over the next 90 days to fully integrate the two new businesses without undermining the customer experience if you’re just coming out of a merger?” They have timeframes. They talk about specific goals. They are fairly aggressive in terms of the outcomes they’re looking for, in the timeframe they’re looking for, and their what and how questions.
I’ve seen in some organizations where they don’t want people to ask questions. They almost see it as insubordination. I don’t know if you see any of that. I’m curious about how you can get leaders to recognize that curiosity could be important?
I don’t know the answer to that. That’s a tough one on how to change people’s mindsets around being curious in organizations that aren’t interested in having questions. That’s a big challenge. The organizations that I work with or that we work with tend to be organizations that want to take the lead or as a leader that has a big mandate to change behavioral health outcomes, reform healthcare, or make important changes at a product level, a business unit level or an enterprise level. They are open-minded individuals looking for ways in which to do things differently and get after results faster. If you’re not programmed that way, if you’re resistant to having people question, I do acknowledge that those people do exist and also in leadership positions. I don’t have a lot of experience working with them to talk intelligently about how to shift their thinking.
It’s such a challenge because if the CEO doesn’t buy into the need for the change, it’s almost impossible to get that change. You’ve probably seen a lot of the literature out there. The emotional intelligence drops off at the CEO level. They stop having that interaction with people that they had at that lower level. That particularly interests me because I study emotional intelligence and curiosity. What’s the big payoff that people are looking for with what they’re going to get from this book? You end with a chapter called The Payoff. Can you give me a little bit of what you cover in that?
The payoff is to have a regular way to power up in the face of big challenges. Complex challenges are the defining challenges for any big contributor or anyone who’s aspiring to be a leader or is a leader. We’re conditioned to feel that anytime we’re up against the big challenge, it’s going to be a long haul. It’s going to take a long time. We’re conditioned to believe that. We operate that way. We operate in these slow and steady wins of the race. Even though we know and we hear that complexity and different forces that you spoke of are compounding and making life even more difficult. The opportunity is huge as well to seize. The payoff for people is to have a way in which to view the world through complexity. What it means to be dealing with the challenges that you’re banging your head against, why and how to get after it. That solving and change in contrast to what we’ve been conditioned to believe can be achieved quickly in days and weeks, rather than months or years.
It’s quite straightforward to get after it once you wrap your head around this new logic around requisite variety, the difference between complicated and complex, and how to collide people in high volume with a high-quality conversation. When you have all the right people together, they are deeply engaged. You haven’t biased their conversations. You equipped them to have good candid issues, focused, and transparent conversation. As easy as that sounds or as simple as that sounds, most organizations don’t do that. It’s a blind spot of leadership, getting all the right people together and having them engage with each other in an engineered way. When you know how to do that, it takes a couple of days to get after these big challenges that companies and government leaders wrestle with for years. It doesn’t have to be that way.
How do you know if you’ve biased the conversation?How simple it is to design when you have an actual problem to solve. Click To Tweet
You biased the conversation if you haven’t involved all the right voices that need to be at the table deliberately. You’ve biased the outcomes if you’ve embedded unnecessary adjectives and outcomes in the question itself. If the question was, “What must we do now and over the next two years to double our growth rate,” it’s great. If the question is, “What must we do now and over the next two years to double our growth rate by divesting a business unit A and moving to SaaS,” you’re already answering the question.
You co-wrote this book. David Benjamin is your co-author. I noticed that the foreword was by Marshall Goldsmith, who’s been on my show. I’m curious about how you and David Benjamin got together to write this.
When I took the year off to decide what organization I was going to start and what I wanted to get after, I discovered this intellectual property quickly. I went and shared this with David Benjamin, the intellectual property that was available and the different ways in which to apply it that I was envisioning. Over a weekend, he decided that he was going to join me and we were going to bring this to market. We’ve been doing this for several years together.
You have an important message in this book. It’s called Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast. It couldn’t come at a better time. Everybody’s trying to be innovative and grow at an unusual pace. There’s a lot to be learned. A lot of people could utilize this knowledge. How would they find you or find the book? Are there some links or information you’d like to share?
The best place to look is at www.CrackingComplexity.com.
Thank you so much for being on the show. This was so much fun, David.
It was a lot of fun. Thank you for your great questions and great conversation.
Creating Passionate Innovations with Christian Erfurt
I am here with Christian Erfurt, who is the CEO of Be My Eyes. He’s an entrepreneur and speaker. His passion is innovation. At the age of thirteen, he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time and had his ordinary childhood stopped. He has a unique story. I’m anxious to chat with him. Welcome, Christian.
Thank you for having me.
You’re welcome. I first didn’t know about your childhood story. I had looked up your company originally because I had Erik Weihenmayer on the show who is the first blind person to do all the peaks in the world. He hiked and he also did the Grand Canyon river rafting. When he was on my show, he was talking about some of the technology that people can use to help them if they’re blind. My father was born legally blind. He had 2% vision. That interested me. I was looking a little bit at the Be My Eyes thing that you guys work on. I found that fascinating. I started to look into your background a little bit. I watched one of your talks about what you went through. My husband’s a plastic surgeon so I was interested in the reconstruction and things that you had to do. You’ve got an unusual story. I wanted to give a little background on you. Can you tell people more about you? I gave a touch of what you’ve gone through but can you give us your story?
I was diagnosed as a young teenager with cancer in my sinuses. I was in no pain at all but I was snoring so much that my parents thought we needed to have it checked out. It was a quick surgery. I was in and out of the hospital more or less. Fast forward to over the next ten years and twenty plus surgeries, I had a second fight with cancer. It’s shaped me and formed me a lot to who I am. It sounds strange when you say it’s a gift you have to figure out how to unwrap, but if you want to go back to before because there’s also a lot of learning and perspectives to take with you.Getting all the right people together and having them engage with each other in an engineered way is a blind spot of leadership. Click To Tweet
I’ve been in and out of the hospital during my youth. I also had bleeding in my brainstem in 2012 as a result of the radiation I went through. I had surgery in the US. It paralyzed me in my left side. I’ve been to a couple of years of rehab after that, just before we launched Be My Eyes. I’m originally Danish. I’ve had a wonderful and ordinary childhood up until the point where cancer came into my life. Beyond surviving it, it’s still one of the best things that happened to me, to shape me into who I am, and to appreciate the time we have.
Often, you need pain to experience pleasure. The bad things help you appreciate the good things in life. Did you go to Arizona? I’m in Arizona. I thought I saw that’s where you went for your surgery. Where did you go?
I should remember that right off, but the name of it was Mohammad Ali. It was a special doctor, a German doctor, named Dr. Spetzler, who operates out of Arizona who saved my life.
I don’t think I know that doctor, but Mohammad Ali lived two doors down from me, which is an interesting story. Your story’s an interesting one to me, from different perspectives, everything you went through. I like your outlook on everything. I saw how you said you asked for George Clooney’s nose when they had to reconstruct your nose.
I thought they’d give me the option. You start looking at movies when you’re about to go into plastic surgery. “What kind of nose do you want?” I tell them I’m not joking. You can’t do that much at this stage I was in bed. I did ask for George Clooney, pretty weird. In terms of particularly what you’re working with, what was very interesting for me coming out of my teens, having gone in and out of the hospital. All of a sudden, I was introduced to entrepreneurship. It was encouraged, I was introduced to it as a course. What convinced me were the positive attitude and the curiosity about, “What happens if we do this?” You always force to look at the solution rather than the problem and figure out, “How do we fix this?” It’s a mentality that no matter what hand we were dealt from my many surgeries, it was always the same for my family and me. We had to focus intensely on, “How do we get through this?” It’s overcoming those challenges. It’s a mindset alignment that got me when I jumped into starting my first company, which was also in healthcare back then. It was very different to what I do now. There are a lot of things correlating between having that challenges at a young age and what the journey of entrepreneurship has to offer you.
Do you think you focused on healthcare because of what you went through or did it happen to work out that way?
I didn’t know it was called user-driven innovation at the time. I was focused on solving problems that pre-existed rather than trying to invent something and convince consumers or the market to buy it. I later found out that what we tried to do was called user-driven innovation. We did ask nurses and doctors that I’ve been in contact with if they would note some problems, scribble down the problems that would occur throughout the day. There was a ton of them when they came back in. One of them was to hand in stool samples. It was a huge taboo and often an unpleasant journey for the patient. I was in late teens at this point. I was at a school competition. I got on that, “I’ve got to work with this.”
I was in a group with two girls and a friend of mine and they were like, “We can’t do that.” They told us about the problem and that you were given a small cup and a pat on the shoulder and, “Good luck.” You had to figure out how to get poop into the cup so it could be analyzed. We did all the flushable paper products that you can mount to the toilet, do what you needed to do, and flush it afterward. To overcome and understand that there’s a strong need for it, and how simple it is to design when you have an actual problem to solve. Not that we have to jump into Be My Eyes, but there’s definitely a parallel to me. It was user-driven innovation. It’s strongly focusing on users at the core of the company.
As Steve Jobs often said, you start with going to the customer and ask them, rather than doing it the other way. It’s so important. For a young kid to figure out how to create a biodegradable or whatever it is that needs to be able to flush, you don’t have manufacturing systems and things at that age. How did you know how to do that?
We didn’t. It’s an advantage that you’re not tangled into the industry therefore not knowing. The obvious thing to do is to have a flushable paper product that is durable enough to withstand good delivery of the stool sample. It seems like a no brainer when we look back at it. Nobody at the industry has focused on that or has thought of it as a quick fix solution. There are a lot of things we didn’t know. There are still a lot of things we don’t know and I don’t know as an entrepreneur. We surround ourselves with people with more expertise or someone who has been doing something you find inspiring. We mix that up and that becomes your product, your organization, your mission and input for the organization. For us, it was a matter of finding a paper manufacturer to work with and then go through iterations, test and test, and not be afraid of talking about it.
I was at trade fairs with doctors. I would be visual in my presentation of the product because we were a young bootstrapping company. We were at MedTech conferences. They have bars and TVs. What we did was we bought a physical toilet. I’ll make sure to keep the receipt because I couldn’t afford buying toilets. We bought a toilet, got it in the car, we drove to the conference, and put it up on the table. We had a small plastic poop in it and mounted it. That drew people’s attention. They could understand what it was. You would be surprised to see how many of these people in the industry would put down the lid when they walked by saying, “You can’t do that.” I was like, “We need to talk about it because that’s the problem that you need to clear and nobody’s talking about them.”
I was in pharmaceutical sales for a long time and my husband’s a physician. I understand a lot of them don’t think in an entrepreneurial way even though they’re entrepreneurs. They run their own business but they didn’t get trained in that respect. It’s an interesting group to sell to or to talk to.Commitment is what keeps you going when you're solving something for someone else. Click To Tweet
The user-driven element is also strong in terms of commitment. When you’re solving something for someone else and through the dark times, it can keep you going. You’re like, “There is someone who needs this. I need to fulfill this. I need to deliver this. There’s someone waiting on the other side of it.” That’s been a strong drive for me.
You are still dealing with interesting ideas and products. I would like to know more about what you do as a CEO at Be My Eyes. I know a little bit about the product from what Erik said. Can you give everybody a little background?
I co-founded Be My Eyes with Hans Jørgen Wiberg. He’s been losing his sight for many years. Eventually, he will, unfortunately, go completely blind. He could call friends and family via Skype or FaceTime, but he always had to decide who to call with the problem he was facing. He came with a simple hypothesis and saying, “I wonder if there’s a willingness among a group of volunteers to be randomized and take a call from somewhere they don’t know.” That’s the premise of Be My Eyes. We have an app where you download it. You sign up either as a blind or a volunteer. If you’re blind, there’s one big button saying, “Connect to first available volunteer.” We send out a signal, we call them batches. The first available volunteer who speaks the same language as you somewhere in the world, we connect them. The backside camera turns on and you can see what they can’t.
If an American asks for assistance in the middle of the night, they wouldn’t wake someone up in the same time zone. We connect to someone living in Australia or in Europe. Instantly, you make a connection. We keep calling until it’s answered. The ones who do take it is someone who’s willing to step in and be the eyes of someone who’s in need. You can do it as much as you want to do it. It’s unlimited. It’s free for both parties. You can use that as much as you want. It’s powerful because we have users in 150 countries. We have 2.3 million volunteers and about 130,000 blind and low vision people using it from all around the world. We match about 180 different languages.
How are you monetizing this?
From the beginning, we said we could be a subscription. We could go in to use a payment. We are not doing the heavy lifting. It’s the volunteers that support. It was like, “It doesn’t feel right.” At the core of what we wanted to do, we didn’t want to monetize on behalf of the blind or behalf of the volunteers. We found the design sentence. We didn’t have any business model for the first two and a half years out of our few years of existence. For the first couple of years, we didn’t have a business model. We had a design sentence saying, “Everybody wins and nobody loses.” With that in mind we thought, “Is there a way for us to develop a business model involving the ecosystem around Be My Eyes?” That was good enough for us to attract some investors who believed that if we grew with a pace we’ve been growing, we are valuable. We could always grab the low hanging fruits as advertising or subscription for that matter. We find it noble that we tried to keep it clean and free at the core of the company.
We made it through accelerators. We were part of Singularity University’s first accelerator batch out of California. We’re still being found by mentors like, “What are you going to do with monetization?” We’re like, “We know a lot of things we’re not going to do.” If we do open for subscriptions, it’s going to turn into a Telco price battle where someone else comes in, then eventually, more and more hours, more and more data and all that. We stayed true to that design sentence. We have now doubled the number of buttons for the blinds. You can call our community or you can ask for specialized help. That came out of the fact that if Windows did an update and it interfered with the accessibility for using the computer, how would volunteers be supporting blind users in updating their computer? We realized, “We could reroute the call to Microsoft and have them do it.”
Specialized help is a Rolodex of companies that we’ve brought on. We bring their own blind customers, their own blind users tune in via live video connection, directly into the customer support center. The companies pay us to be on the platform. We can only do that because we have a critical mass. We can name the largest blind community in the world. We have Google and Microsoft. We have the Lloyds Banking Group, which is one of New York’s largest banks. Procter & Gamble is coming on as well. We have multiple of their products. We are in dialogue with transportation companies, insurance, banking and consumer products. There are a couple of reasons why this is important. They get to solve their blind customer’s problem. For one thing, it’s solving the problem. Secondly, they get a unique insight into where the problems are. Any caller coming in is something that they need to improve. It’s an insight into their own customer journey.
This turned out to be very powerful for them for future products improvements. There’s a big addressable market. There are 253 million blind and low vision people in the world. They are as eager as anybody else to get online and to plan a romantic getaway, buy gifts online or whatever it is. It’s an underserved customer group. For us, it’s been important to balance purpose and profit. Those two can go hand-in-hand if you stay on the path of the company and don’t be tempted to take the first iteration of a business model. We can only do what we’re doing because we stuck to that design sentence that everybody wins and nobody loses. I’m glad you asked that question. It’s an important chapter of our history. We’re onboarding a lot more companies. The answering time is super fast. The companies are so pleased with getting the calls. We managed to build a win-win model.
I’m curious what kind of products Procter & Gamble help with.
They have many products. It’s a lot about instruction like navigating products, finding the right products for you and the instructions about how to use them. As for Google and Microsoft, it’s very much technical problems shooting. If we go up a higher level, we’re going to see a lot more of this as purpose and profit go hand-in-hand. As consumers, we’re aware of many problems in the world that only exist because of our customer behavior. We’re sick and tired of being part of the problem and eager to be a part of the solution. I’m curious to see and I’m sure to see that many more companies will do manage to balance purpose and profit, not only do nice result but have a purpose at the core of the company. I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of them taking strong positions. The consumers will want to go into the direction of being a part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.
There’s a need for this. My father was born legally blind. They had nothing in his time. I’ve had three or four people on my show who’d been blind or they originally weren’t and they lost their sight through time. Some of them have said that if you have to be blind, this is probably the best time ever. There are so many things out there that can give you help. Erik was the one who said on my show that he was in a mall. He turned around and couldn’t figure out where he was. He could call and, “Help me get out of here. I can’t remember how to get out.” My dad never even went to a mall or did anything by himself. He was always on somebody’s arm because he couldn’t do that. The autonomy must be incredible now from this.Consumers are sick and tired of being part of the problem and eager to be a part of the solution. Click To Tweet
Another thing that I’m extremely proud about in our product and community is that this is not just in some of us, it’s all of us. We have people of all backgrounds, every religion, and all country codes in the world. People are helping one another because it’s the right thing to do. It minimizes a gap between the us and them feeling, both with the ones with disabilities in form of visual impairment and those who are helping, but also across culture, religion, and everything in a time where we’re often forced to look at the difference between us. An interaction like this is minimizing that gap and bringing us closer together. I feel like this is a good deed waiting to happen.
My daughter had shared a link with me of people or elderly wanting to have somebody to talk to in different languages and different things. I’m starting to see more of that thing where they’re reaching out to people who need someone. The world is becoming flatter as they said in Thomas Friedman’s book. You’re able to connect in so many ways.
We can connect within 10 to 30 seconds anywhere in the world and have a volunteer ready to assist. It’s amazing that this is possible. People are so willing to do it. I’m curious to see if micro-volunteering is going to be a core element of society just like sharing economy is because it feels right. People are so eager to help. Sometimes we’re even in doubt of who is helping the most, is it the volunteer or the blind? It’s a gratifying feeling to be a part of that small interaction.
It’s going to be interesting to see that. I teach a lot of conscious capitalism and servant leadership courses still. I’m working with trying to make the cultures be more curious to see ways to improve in terms of innovation. That’s what my research was. I was curious about what you do and your background. I found your story compelling.
The curiosity is more important in everybody. I’m not sure we could talk on forever about it, but if we grab the low hanging fruits too often, we’re going to try to predict the future based on the past. It’s going to take curiosity to stay on track long enough to come up with something new and relevant for the time being. Be My Eyes is an example of how we managed to stay on the path long enough to come up with a business model that was even stronger than what existed before.
That’s an amazing thing that you are doing. That’s what we do at my company. We teach people to develop curiosity in their cultures through understanding what holds them back from being curious. You are very curious. I was excited to have you on the show. You have an inspirational story. I appreciate that. A lot of people want to know more about how they can contact you or follow Be My Eyes. Are there links you’d like to share?
We have BeMyEyes.com. You can find anything on there. You’re more than welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter as well. It’s Christian Erfurt both on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a big pleasure of mine.
The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
I’d like to thank both David and Christian for being my guests. We get so many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to DrDianeHamiltonRadio.com. That’s also where you can contact me for speaking, consulting and everything else I do. You can also access the Curiosity Code information from there or go straight to CuriosityCode.com. There’s so much information on the site. I hope you check it out. Feel free to contact me with any questions there. I enjoyed this episode. I look forward to the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- Be My Eyes
- Marshall Goldsmith – Previous episode
- Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast
- Erik Weihenmayer – Previous episode
- Christian Erfurt on LinkedIn
- Christian Erfurt – Twitter
About David Komlos
David Komlos is CEO of Syntegrity. He is an entrepreneur and early-stage investor who after his second exit became intent on applying the complexity formula to some of the most interesting and high-stakes situations in the world, from Fortune 15 boardrooms to international aid, content creation in sports and entertainment to improving access to life-saving products. David’s life has been incredibly enriched and shaped by these experiences, and today he enjoys strong personal relationships with top global leaders. He is the author of Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast.
About Christian Erfurt
Christian Erfurt is CEO at Be My Eyes. He is an entrepreneur and speaker whose passion is innovation. At the age 13, he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time and here my ordinary childhood stopped. Fast-forward: 5 years, numerous treatments and surgeries later, he had beaten cancer twice and now consider the cancer being one of the best things that happened to him – besides surviving it. It gave him perspective, a positive approach and a love of life at a very young age.