See opportunity where others see risk

Indefatigable entrepreneur Charlie Thuillier on why knowing the rules limits true innovation – and defying conventional wisdom to create healthy ice cream

True innovation is easy to preach but usually uncomfortable, and hard, to action. Founder of Oppo ice cream Charlie Thuillier (pictured above left with brother Harry), explains how intelligent naivety, when embraced, allows you to break through the constraints of convention.

Rules, by their very nature, are constraining. It was not knowing the rules, what we like to call intelligent naivety (sounds more convincing!) that allowed my brother, Harry, and I to achieve two feats that experts had told us weren’t possible. It’s a theme I picked up when I delivered a TEDx talk last year, which you can watch in full below.

Essentially though, there were two big moments when breaking the mould didn’t sound enough – we were intent on smashing it!

#1 Breaking an unofficial world-record.

We weren’t in Brazil to go kite buggying. In fact, we simply wanted to go windsurfing. However, the nearest airport was 1,000km away from the windsurfing destination and since we were there for an adventure, kite buggying the 1,000km seemed the obvious choice. If we had listened to the rules though, then we would never even have made it to the beach.

When we called the first kite manufacturer they asked us some simple questions:

“Had we kite buggied before?”

“Did we have a support vehicle or medic?”

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“Did we speak Portuguese?”

A nervous voice responded on the other end of the line. They said they weren’t going to help us kill ourselves and likened what we were trying to do to swimming the channel, having never swum before!

Before putting the phone down though the manufacturer did let one crucial detail slip though… “if anyone was stupid enough to do it then it would be a world record”.

Ah ha. A world record. Right, now we were definitely going to do it!

If we could teach ourselves to kite buggy 1km then we could surely do 1,000km. So, when we picked up the phone to another manufacturer and they started to reel off the questions we responded with a confident yes.

The result? Two weeks later we were on a beach in Brazil with 150kg of kit, zero maps, and still unsure of the Portuguese word for ‘hello’.

Crucially we did go on to break the world record and it was from this trip that the idea for Oppo was born. Read all about it in our Inspired by Travel series here.

#2 Making ice cream healthy.

Healthy ice cream. Everyone said it was impossible. It couldn’t be done. One industry giant even confessed to ploughing millions into research only to abandon ship after declaring it impossible.

They had all the equipment, lab coats and money any hopeful could wish for. They had everything that I didn’t. In fact, I had just £1.20 left in the bank account (still have the screenshot to prove it!) after my final trial run burst a factory pipe, spilling all hope on the floor in front of my eyes.

What I did have however was blissful ignorance, intelligent naivety, absolutely no idea… call it what you want. Essentially I didn’t know the rules. And rules are easier to break when you don’t know they exist. Direct experience is not always your friend. Experts are experts of things that have happened. Not necessarily those that will happen, i.e. innovations.

No one says breaking the rules is easy. Oppo took 25 months of research and development to actually get on shelves. Since then there have been over 1,000 recipe modifications! I believe if any of the founders behind today’s landmark innovations knew just how hard it would be they probably wouldn’t have done it.

Where we are now

12 months into creating Oppo we had the team in place and had secured 1,300 stores. We’d stopped being disruptive though. Why? We’d learnt the rules and the rules were preventing us from innovating. We were a little David trying to act like a big Goliath.

We needed to go back to laymen’s terms, applying idealistic free-thinking to our daily work-streams. Turning major challenges into epic opportunities.

Rules are there for a reason. To set boundaries. But innovation is not bred within the confines of boundaries. They must be broken down. Idealistic, child-like free-thinking is the key to doing this, whether it’s a ground-breaking business idea or simply adopted as an approach to everyday working life.

Where there’s a risk or unknown, there’s always opportunity. Enjoy the ride!