10: Entrepreneur, Kristian Thorbjornsen on Agile Mindset for Business Innovation

Agile Mindset for Business Innovation

In the world of business, innovation and adaptability are keys to survival. When the pandemic took the world by surprise, businesses had to be more innovative and adaptable to stay afloat. An agile mindset then is fundamental because it allows businesses to be responsive to change and thrive in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.

In Episode 10 of Agile Leaders Conversation, hear Kristian Thorbjornsen share his insights and reflections after reading ‘8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility.’ Hear how Paradox 8 – Principled vs Adaptable helped him switch his mindset almost immediately and set up quick experiments to explore new revenue streams and his business model as the landscape changed due to COVID-19.

Connect with Kristian at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kristiantwk/

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Kristian Thorbjornsen: Anything in the sports business, product or service can go subscription because subscription is the way to go. You talk about Netflix, YouTube premium, and Spotify. Everything is subscription based. So my natural reaction was always quite defensive. I’d say, this may not apply, this may not work. That’s the principal part of it, where I always feel that the business model is cast in stone. Then I remember things I read and say, “okay! Before I continue to put down the idea, is there nothing that we can do?”

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Hi everyone. Welcome to agile leaders conversations. Agile leaders conversations is a series of dialogues where we engage industry leaders in conversations of how they see and apply leadership agility and navigate paradoxes as they lead and pivot in the new normal.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: My guest today is Mr. Kristian Thorbjornsen. He’s the founding director of Sports3Sixty Pte Ltd which runs businesses across sports events, sports travel, and sports apparel.

Getting to Know Kristain Thorbjornsen

Kristian Thorbjornsen: My name is Kristian. For those of you who are actually wondering why my surname is so unique?

Kristian Thorbjornsen: My father is Norwegian. My mom is Singaporean Chinese. And one of our flagship brands THORB, which is our apparel brand is actually derived for my surname. So that’s a little background. We’ve been in a business for about 12 years now. It started out with obviously, a passion for sports since university days.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So we’ve developed our own sportswear brand hoping that we can contribute back to Singapore sports. At the same time, to create a local brand that can go out of Singapore- become what Nike is to the US, what ADIDAS is to Germany. Hopefully THORB can be that brand for Singapore.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. I’m very excited. It is the first time I meet somebody up-close and personal from this industry. It’s very exciting, and I think, that desire to bring a Singapore brand outside, is something that both you and I are aligned as well. Coaching is something that started from other parts of the world. You don’t hear a lot of it from the Asian side. So personally, that’s also an area that I wanna break into. There are coaches in Singapore who are actually doing well, and I think that’s where we are aligned. Bring the Singapore brand to another level.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yes, for sure.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s great. Kristian got my book from his business partner, so I also want to thank Justin for his support.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: And I think all the affirmation has been very encouraging. For me, the intention of writing the book is really to help leaders contextualize, apply. Right now, especially with the COVID situation. We do need to pivot, push our businesses in a different direction, so that we can continue not only to stay afloat, but continue to thrive.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So Kristian, what are your general thoughts after reading it?

General Thoughts on Eight Paradoxes of Leadership Agility

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Okay. Throughout the course of my business, over the past few of years. I’ve been actually quite bound down with the daily grind. Running your own business, especially a business that is heavy in terms of the amount of work that I have. Keeping track of inventory for example, marketing, selling. Basically, I was all rolled up into one, doing everything from start to finish of a product.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: There were a lot of times that I was interested to read up more. I did go to the library, but the hindrance was always number one, how thick the book was. And then secondly, how wordy the book would be. And how easy was the language being used in the book?

Kristian Thorbjornsen: There were a couple of books that I read, but honestly there were not many that could hold my interest level and at the same time make it easy for me to complete. So, when Justin gave me the book. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive. He told me, ” take this book, have a read.” And of course, as a partner, I couldn’t disappoint him.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So he gave me the book and had a moral obligation as a partner to “I think this book will help you. Have a read and tell me what you think.” There was a lot of apprehension at that time. But surprisingly, when I started reading, I realized that actually it’s very easy to read.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: The language was kept simple. That was what made it flow. And of course, case studies have real life stories to share that makes things a lot more relatable. So then it’s easier to digest.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So, after I finished the book, I told my wife, “this is actually a pretty decent book. It’s the first time that I actually finished reading a book in a very long time. Yeah, I think those were a few key factors. The fact that you broke it up into case studies. And the fact that the language used was very simple and very straight to the point.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So that was my general thought. Very well written. Very simple.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you. It’s so nice to hear. The intention behind my book. How I designed it. Every decision I made to structure in a certain way was actually a very intentional one.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: And for you to say it in your own words, it reflects exactly my intention

Chuen Chuen Yeo: that’s awesome. I’m wondering, was there a paradox in the book that resonates very strongly with you?

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Okay. The thing is, we are a very lean SME to be very honest. We don’t have a huge workforce.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Myself, partners, couple of colleagues that we have, 4, 5, 6 of us. If you include the freelancers that help us out during events or during sports travel, the most we hit maybe 10, 12 max. Some of the paradoxes don’t apply to me, especially those that talk about working in the team and all that.

Principled vs Adaptable

Kristian Thorbjornsen: The closest one I would say was Principled vs Adaptable, but not in that context. More of a business operations, business sales, and mindset. The thing about my business partner Justin is that, he thinks on his feet a lot, and he’s a very quick thinker. He will have a lot of ideas. But a lot of times I would dismiss those ideas as being too frivolous. So basically, he says, “Hey, can we do this for the sports industry?” For example, last night, he said, “is there a way for us to go the subscription model?”

Kristian Thorbjornsen: “Is there anything in the sports business product or service that can go subscription?” Because subscription is the way to go. You talk about Netflix, YouTube premium, and Spotify. Everything is subscription based. But, is there anything that we can offer in the whole sports scene?

Kristian Thorbjornsen: My first reaction was none. I was thinking at that point in time, why would someone wanna pay a monthly subscription for something? I know that there are companies that have done clothing. Like business wear, office wear for ladies. My wife did sign up for something where she can choose clothes, then gets delivered.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So she has a change of wardrobe. She doesn’t have to buy. I told Justin, “I don’t think it will work because with sports products, what can we offer? You wanna give them a new exercise T-shirt every month. They pay a hundred dollars every month, and then you send them something every month.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: What do you send?” So my natural reaction was always quite defensive. Like I’d say, this may not apply. This may not work. No! The printing scene doesn’t work like this. Jerseys are ordered like this. No one wanna do stuff like that.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: That’s the principled part of it, where I always feel that the business model is cast in stone. It’s already like that. Yeah. It’s hard to change. There’s nothing interesting or new that we can explore in the sports arena. Then, I remember things that I read. Then I say, okay! Before I continue to put down the idea. I should explore. Is there nothing that we can do? So then I told him, “okay, maybe we can do some research and send them interesting sports gadgets monthly.” Something that might benefit them from a sports perspective.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: There’s this shoelace clip. You can clip shoes instead of bringing your shoe box. It’s an easy clip kind of thing. So things like that, gadgets that might help them in their sporting daily life, like your unique pouch or whatever. So, I told him like, okay, maybe we can explore that. Then he said, yeah! Good idea. Let’s explore. So, I’m no longer shutting off the ideas that come in, but trying to find a way to adapt.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: In that sense, that particular paradox applied. And that’s the reason why he actually sent me the book. Because he felt that, I wasn’t willing to take a chance with things. I wasn’t willing to explore or move forward and I didn’t have that, “okay, let’s try. Let’s just do it. We learn from doing rather than coming up with all the excuses why it won’t work. Try first. So that’s how our first Facebook live happened. We did a Facebook live sale.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: It’s never been done before for sports products. People do a lot of Facebook live for maybe caps, apparel and stuff, but fashion clothing. So there’s never been one that’s a sports themed one.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So, we just try. That coincidence with me reading your book. And then after that, okay, let’s just do that first Facebook live and get things kicked off. And then we learn along the way. So, we’ve made we made improvements after the first one. We did a second one. To be honest, things in terms of sales is not very good, but in terms of viewerships, we grew a bit.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: And in terms of presence, people are responding. We’re doing a third one next weekend. We’ve improved each time in terms of the timing of the live. Maybe the audio and the visual and finding out feedback from what people want to see or how they made their purchase. So, it’s like one of the coaching the book said, you fly an airplane as you build it. We just learn along the way, and then we just improve from there. And I think, that’s what Justin wanted to see from me. Just do first, and then we adjust accordingly. If it fails, what ‘s the worst thing that can happen.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, it’s very good. Just curious to know. How long after you read the book, then you became open and receptive to this idea?

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Almost immediately. To be honest, when I read the book, I read the case studies. It made a lot of sense. That’s when I just decided, okay! Let’s try to be a bit more open between me and Justin. I will be the first one to shut him down. Then I just told myself after reading, maybe I should not react so fast, digest what he is trying to say and then think about it. And whether there are any ways around what he’s saying to try and compromise. Like this subscription based idea that he came up with last night, my first reaction was, it won’t work.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: There’s nothing we can offer. And why would people wanna pay a monthly subscription for something sports related? But I held in a thought. Then, as he started drawing in more ideas, I gave it a little bit more thought, and then half an hour at the time I said, maybe we can try this.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Let me go and explore. But of course that part of me still gave that final disclaimer that we were trying, but I think it’s a bit challenging. Because it’s really never been done before. And you can be that first wave. Being the first mover. But, I just couldn’t see where this might work. This whole subscription based model for sports product and services.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. Cannot see yet.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yeah.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. You never know until you try.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yes, exactly.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I like the way you were able to describe that the subtle changes in the way you respond.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Cause normally it will be a flat no. But right now, you actually can hold yourself back. Give myself a little bit more time to explore, to think about it before you commit to yes or no, or maybe.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yeah,

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s excellent. That’s quite good. I’m really happy to hear this because I really want to see that it really impacts and changes behavior, and then it improves outcome. Of course, there’s no silver bullet, especially right now in businesses. It’s very hard to find silver bullets and say, oh, just do this then your profit margin will increase by 200%. We have to continuously adapt and change.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, correct.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So right now, how do you see leadership agility then from your perspective? How do you define it?

Leadership Agility- Stay Rooted to Your Business

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Actually at the start when we entered circuit breaker, I told Justin we were pretty much screwed. What’s gonna happen in the next couple of months. So he said, let’s use the time to think, realign, readjust, and restrategize. And we came up with a lot of ideas. Quite a number we’re not in our business. Were not core to our business so to speak.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: So, I told him, okay, I appreciate the ideas that are coming in, but I think we gotta stick to our core business, which is sports. Because we need to figure out how and where are the gaps. And sure enough, during circuit breaker there were windows of opportunity.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: For example, home gym equipment sales rocketed. We’re talking about 3/4 increase. Not big stuff. Of course not full on gym equipment, but things like exercise balls, yoga mats, skipping ropes. Small stuff doesn’t amount to a lot in terms of revenue, but at least volume wise, we see movement.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: And then you know now that everybody’s stuck at home, then this is the direction. And all along, actually our business has been catering to team sports. So it gave us an opportunity to move slightly towards the individuals.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Previously we were available on e-commerce platforms, but due to resource manpower, we paused it for a while. So this gave us an opportunity to reopen that. And then we had sales coming in. During the circuit breaker period, we actually moved away from team to go individual.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: The definition of leadership agility would be that, you’ve gotta stay rooted. I was stubborn also. I just didn’t want to explore anything outside of sports.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: We basically had to adapt, change, pivot, and then we started exploring things. Our landlord is JTC. We are in one of their industrial factories. And then JTC started getting eBay, Amazon onboard. Then Shopee and Lazada grants. So, they hooked us up as well. So we started exploring all these platforms. And then now, today, from zero platforms that we were on, we’re now in four platforms.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Staying true to your roots, your core business, then having the flexibility to adjust according to circumstance, that’s my definition of leadership agility.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s very good. Thanks for sharing how the business is pivoting. As I now work with different clients from different industries, it’s very interesting to hear how they are trying to pivot. What was changing the consumer behavior? How are they buying? Because we need to keep it going. If we say, no! We are not gonna do anything. Then the only thing you can do is close shop, which we don’t want to.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Very good. Right now, I think the COVID situation is going to continue. I don’t know how long this will sustain. What’s your advice to people in your similar field, especially in response to this current challenge?

There’s no One Size Fits All

Kristian Thorbjornsen: It’s, there’s no one size fits all. And you really have to take the consideration of your current situation. What field your business is in, and try to think of unique ways. So my advice is to be a bit more open minded. Personally, I went from close minded to being a bit more open, and I realized that it liberated me. And now, we are pivoting even more. One of the new initiatives that we’re thinking of is, this year we do sports travel. So, at the end of the year, no one’s traveling. Kids are all gonna be stuck at home. And it’s the school holidays. So things like camps, we are pivoting. Because we do apparel, we do footwear. So we say, can we do art classes? Can kids come in and spray paint their own shoes? Creating classes and giving kids an experience. And hopefully parents would appreciate a new skillset.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: As a parent, I think I will.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yeah! Probably join once we finalized the program.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah! I’ll be the first to sign up. I have three boys. I’ll send them to your place.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: You really gonna constantly keep thinking about, what is unique to your field, and then be a little bit more open to what possibilities there are. And how you can work from there. In this challenging times, if you remain close minded, then it’s really the end. You gotta be a bit more open minded. Think about what is possible and then make your adjustments from there. It could be small adjustments. It could be big adjustments, but as long as you remain true to your core, you can always come back to your core eventually, but you might open up new channels. And this is one example. This art thing that we are trying to do.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, this is good. Make adjustments some maybe big, some may be small. The key is to adjust.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Your outcomes are fixed already. It’s just gonna go down that same route, and it’s not things are not gonna change.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. I like this Einstein quote very much. To repeat the same action again, and to expect different outcome is insanity.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yeah. True. Yes.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. Not to change is a choice. So this is exactly the time to be agile and we are tested. But I’m sure those leaders, business leaders, corporate leaders with the right mindset, they will rise up to the challenge.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yes.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Okay good. Now, I’m looking forward to December holidays. I need to think of ways to occupy my kids.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Yeah. That’s why we got this. So we are doing sports and art camp together. So that is a full day.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Awesome.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: You just hand them over to us. Just drop off. And then they get a workout. They get their mind. They get their stress relieved. They can go and play sports a bit. And then do some art.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Wow! Very good.

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Exercise the left brain. Is it a left brain?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Left brain. Left brain is a logical one, right?

Kristian Thorbjornsen: Oh, so it’s right brain for arts.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Right brain is a creative one. Good. Let me know. Thanks so much Kristian for being here and sharing your viewpoints. I think the advice you give is very useful, even for me as a business owner, I see a lot of value. So I also learned from what you’ve shared. Thank you so much for being here.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Right now, some of you may be very interested to learn more about Kristian. Perhaps personally, you can connect with him on LinkedIn. I have his LinkedIn URL in the post.

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