Mark Cowan, co-founder of Happen.

Mark Cowan, co-founder of Happen.

Mark Cowan co-founded insight-led innovation agency Happen ten years ago in the middle of a recession. Working with clients to help them grow their businesses through innovation, he also saw his own agency grow exponentially. He talks to us about building successful businesses.  

Can you tell us about Happen?

We’re on a mission to improve innovation success rates. These are often very poor so we work to move the dial on that, as a goal.

We grew Happen through helping companies innovate and stay relevant to their existing customer base, despite pressure on margins and price. Innovation here is about a protection strategy: protecting what you’ve got and beating the competition with insight.

Why is the success rate for innovation low?

Innovation is about setting an outcome and using resources to grow. It can be unsuccessful if a team is unclear about the outcome it wants and over or under-commits to achieving it.

There are four key areas to get right: understand and decode the problem; unlock or discover customer insight and ensure resources for commercial gain; turn the information or idea into something commercially viable; and energise people to get behind it.

How can Happen help corporates get better at innovation?

Corporates often focus just on the key performance indicators (KPIs) of the organisation. If teams are only incentivised to maintain those, then things will not change. Labs like Happen can be an antidote to that kind of system and to the KPI culture.

The key to unlocking innovation is spotting any kind of dysfunction. When we work with a company to create intellectual property and frameworks to help normalise or work with that dysfunction, then it can become very successful.

Happen helps companies to innovate, grow and remain relevant. 

Happen helps companies to innovate, grow and remain relevant. 

When you founded Happen, what were the challenges for you?

There was a lot of uncertainty and risk. Age was a factor. I was 30, relatively late for starting up a business. I was unmarried but with my now wife. I was a homeowner. If you have fewer responsibilities, that can make a difference.

The rest of the world was in crisis, but a recession or crisis moment can pull into focus whether the future is in your hands or someone else’s. I’m grateful for that. It led to me to make a radical change in my lifestyle. The three of us didn’t take a salary for a year. And in some ways it was one of the happiest times.

What issues did the business face in the early years and did you ever question your decision?

I didn’t question the decision because I knew there was a need in the marketplace and that need remains. My questions were around running the business.

One issue was cash flow. Coming out of a recession, accounts teams are incentivised to pay you late. We understood that and were prepared to live to 90-day terms. Another issue was rapid growth: the need to bring in talent, and having a process for that.

Entrepreneurs are people that recognise their talent for spotting the opportunity. But it’s rare for someone to be really good at that and at running a business. And it’s hard to be a jack-of-all-trades. There comes a point with scale where you have to ask, “Who is going to run the ship?”

So do you need more than one person launching a startup?

It can be helpful. With the Happen founders, we were aligned on our values right from the start. We went to a level of extremity to explore that. If you have alignment you’ll be able to solve problems and deal with the bumps in the road.

It’s also important to have someone within the founder team who is operationally buttoned down, who is going to ensure that the money comes in and out and that people get paid.

Ensuring alignment on values and having complementary skills are key to a team's startup success.

Ensuring alignment on values and having complementary skills are key to a team's startup success.

For those setting or scaling up, especially within digital media, are there any other tips you would pass on?

Advice is key. Look for it and take it if it is offered. But also listen to yourself. There is the tension between empirical data on how your business is doing and your gut. Your gut feeling is generally right so don’t linger: follow it and be decisive.

And have a continuous feedback loop to the market because, especially with digital media, it is changing so rapidly that being attuned is crucial.

Finally, remember that your clients in your first year will define the clients you get for the next two years. Be mindful of the big pay-cheque from a client in a sector where you don’t have real interest – of ending up specialising in an area not right for you.

You also work with students to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. What do you get from that and what does it tell you about our entrepreneurial culture?

You get energy, ideas, and challenge, and it’s unfiltered! A student will ask “Why?” We do a lot of research into generational understanding. With this generation, their take on working practices, working style and engaging with the world is very different. Having access to that is valuable.

I think the notion of an entrepreneur will be reframed in future. Most millennials have a ‘side hustle’ so the lines are becoming blurred. If someone has a day job plus that, is it being an entrepreneur or is it having a portfolio approach to earning?

Looking at content, in your space, is there anything that stands out?

I subscribe to the Harvard Business Review, which is excellent; there are always pieces that make me think differently. Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, also does a great podcast called Masters of Scale. And the FT writer Tim Harford has a podcast called 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy, covering groundbreaking inventions, ideas and innovations. 

Get innovation inspiration from the 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy podcast. 

Get innovation inspiration from the 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy podcast. 

What encapsulates Happen's overall approach?

It’s summarised in our values, which are: take care of everyone you work with; create value in everything you do; keep things simple; and take care to enjoy the adventure.

If you don’t take a step back at key points, you can run the risk of it being an unfulfilling story. An entrepreneur or a founder never gets told how they’re doing, unless they’ve got investors…

Chloe Riess