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Sunday, 02 February 2014 14:38

Q&A: Seth Starner, NewNorth Center for Design in Business

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Seth Starner Seth Starner MIBIZ FILE PHOTO: Elijah Brumback

When Seth Starner applies design to the innovation process, he attempts to find whole new models of doing business. After serving as Amway’s manager of innovation for over a decade, he’s stepping into the role of president of the NewNorth Center for Design in Business, a Holland-based nonprofit. Starner met with MiBiz to discuss the role of design for companies of all sizes and how NewNorth fits in the West Michigan business ecosystem.


How do you define innovation?

I think for a long time, innovation was strictly around product. I think what has changed over the last 10 years … is that innovation is at the business-model level. You can innovate on product, you can innovate on brand, you can innovate on supply chain.


How will you approach working with different companies on design and innovation as you transition to your new job?

I’m very interested in engaging companies where they need it. What I really want to do is bring design into business and be that bridge. (Businesses) need … creativity to create new products, offerings and approaches in the marketplace. … The marketplace is always looking for unique (things) and if you’re not offering anything (unique), how are you relevant? Otherwise, you wind up competing on price, and competing on price alone is never a good thing.


How does West Michigan rate in terms of being innovative?

(West Michigan has) a long history of innovation. What I’ve seen is that every business in West Michigan that has grown (initially) started with a set of innovations, and out of those innovations, they were able to build a big company. The trick is, at some point, everything ages … and everything needs to be renewed. These companies created this great growth curve on that set of innovations and now they’re needing to find a new set to continue to be relevant and continue to grow.


What can the region do to maintain its relevance?

(West Michigan’s) greatest export right now is college students. We need to keep an educated workforce here and create an environment that they want to engage in. How do we create that environment? Part of it is vibrant collaboration and communication. At the community level, you want companies that are growing, making new jobs and attracting new talent.


What is the role of design in business?

Design to me is when you take something that is, and try to make it better. It’s as simple as that. The tools that have come out of industrial design, graphic design, UX [user experience] design … are basic tools that are very helpful in business when you’re trying to figure out what to make — not how to make it. Companies in West Michigan can make nearly anything. We are very skilled makers. The real question is, what do we make? What does the marketplace and consumers want? That is where the role of design is very powerful and where it can help uncover people’s needs in really holistic ways, figure out how to meet those needs and bring it to the marketplace. That was really my role at Amway and I want to extend that.


Describe NewNorth’s structure and where you would like to take the organization.

(NewNorth’s) main emphasis has been on trying to help businesses of all sizes — from entrepreneurs all the way up to big companies — have the skill sets necessary to create value and growth. It has done that in a whole host of ways, from ‘boot camps’ that are designed to kickstart a project to a yearlong program that is very in-depth and creates a new professional. These are the types of professionals companies are looking for to help them lead new initiatives. My job is to engage and really work with our network of graduates. One of my desires is to get that network really robust.


Where does NewNorth fit into the ecosystem of agencies and other business support groups within West Michigan?

I think (NewNorth’s) main role is really to provide people who want to engage this ecosystem with the models, tools and approaches to really engage fully in it. Our role is not only to educate but also to create experiences and apply tools to those experiences. So if someone wants to create a new business model, our role is to come into the company and help that team with some new approaches — maybe mentor and coach as they go through (the process).


What’s one common mistake companies make about design or innovation?

The one thing I really hate to see is companies outsourcing innovation. It seems like the most dangerous thing you can possibly do. Companies need to own that innovation and NewNorth helps companies (do) that by educating and letting the teams do it. That, I think, is our role. Let’s keep that IP within the company and within the community.


Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes

Read 4370 times Last modified on Sunday, 02 February 2014 14:43

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