The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Alexandra Carmen Buza
The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview recorded in June 2020, Julia Skupchenko speaks with Massimo Mercuri, the co-founder of Global Think Tank for Sustainable Development AlterContacts. He uncovers what a think tank actually does and how its experts transformed what they were doing in-person into the online service to keep visibility, keep producing, and keep the momentum. Massimo shares the journey of a one-year-old non-profit from the moment “What do we do now?” to building collaboration with international organizations and universities. He also talks about the importance of a shorter transaction and keeping the long view in mind while taking care of the day-to-day.
What is a Think Thank? I think many people have this question.
Massimo: To give you a bit of background, I have worked in so many different companies in so many different places and different sizes that has allowed me to observe a general problem. The general problem is that the organizations or companies or anything that is supposed to produce something is organized in a way that people cannot think together. They have to think independently, we all have a very silo way of working by design unless they are really a Think-Tank precisely or they are a very experimental organization, very normative.
What happens then is that you have managers and the managers are managing budgets instead of really managing people. Again, I’m generalizing here. Then you have, of course, the executives and they are so busy taking care of the shareholders and stakeholders outside and compliance, public relations and so on. When it comes down to strategy it’s really just filling up templates like doing a PowerPoint slide. And that’s the strategy. But very rarely people explore not only what are the direct consequences of their decision but also what could be the further impact or the repercussions of that impact.
With that in mind, I was always thinking that we need people who help others in thinking better and I think Think Tank does exactly that. The Think Tank basically has the capability to connect these people that normally wouldn’t have many things in common and based on the theory that you know something that I don’t know and I know something that you don’t know, together we know more. Aligned these to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and what you have is a group of people that whatever they do, they see how it contributes to fulfil and to reach those goals by 2030 as they are quite ambitious and we participate in several different areas.
To summarize that, it’s a group of people that comes in before the decision is made by some other entity and helps them to assess all of the consequences indirectly, directly and help them align to specific values such as Sustainable Development Goals. Is that correct?
Massimo: What you just described is the ultimate product of a Think Tank. When it’s a group of experts that they’re called on demand. The reality is that the market is very diversified and it has a need for much simpler things like, for example, we had a couple of webinars during the lockdown that had lots of people participating. I gave a webinar and there were more than 170 people and we only lost like 10 until the end and it was about 45 minutes which I consider too long.
To make the long story short, we move in any kind of activity and we have initiatives that contribute to these goals. At the same time, you have to consider that each one of the experts is a volunteer and has his own business, his own professional activity or works somewhere. Some are academics and some independent professionals. Assuming each one works independently but thanks to the fact that we have the common brand, we automatically can reach customers that before we wouldn’t be able to address. So that’s one part of the business, another part is the publications and how we contribute in general. Some of the axes are written books even but it goes down to simplest things sometimes, a talk, a lecture, a workshop.
That brings us to the next part which is: what has happened to the business model or to Think Tank during the lockdown?
Massimo: I have to say that there was a moment of “What do we do now?” Because it looked like many jobs were cancelled or they were put in an indefinite pause but at the same time. I think each one of the experts that composed the think tank was very active in their own way. Just like you are now doing this interview, for example. But we had others who translated into offers for the people that were locked down. Others were trying to transform what was before a group dynamics in person into an online type of activity. I did that myself with one of the different types of workshops. We have people everywhere: Italy, Latin America, Northern Europe and even in Thailand, transforming what they were doing previously and seeing how it can be applied in online life.
How is that working out? Many people, especially who were offering group sessions, tried doing it Online and the response is somewhat dubious. What is your case?
Massimo: We tested very different things, you were also part of some tests. We’ve had big initiatives that we participated with, like the Pan-European initiative or the #EUvsVirus that ended up being in a mega hackathon for more than 20,000 people worldwide for 48 hours. All the way down to the one-on-one sessions just to help each other. I think everything contributes but if we try to stick to what we see in the long run like “be capable to think better”, that is always valid, not just in a crisis. So we started doing the webinars with the University in Mexico with Dr. Alejandro Kantun who is in charge of a group of PhD students and it became a series of webinars instead where multiple experts from AlterContacts have been invited to give webinars to these guys, to help them. They are strategy students, they are studying business and strategy so it was just perfect.
At the same time, we moved ahead with the conversations because you don’t want to lose sight. We had a very nice encounter with the United Nations and also with UNICEF. With UNICEF it was a nice conversation which basically boils down to now the ball is in our court to propose something on how we want to contribute to eradicating ignorance, which is one of our bigger initiatives.
How does it translate into your future plans? Do you see online has been a sustainable market for your services? Do you see the collaboration with any of the international organizations becoming somewhat part of your business? Because, of course, as entrepreneurs, we all have to make a living and I hear that in many great things that you and the experts have done, a lot of it has been non-profit. So what does the future look like?
Massimo: Considering that AlterContacts is only one year old — and in the first year you just establish a name or the second year even — we were capable of having returning customers so it was already pretty good. But things have to change. We cannot rely on what we know, that’s why we keep the high-level goal still there inside as the planet still needs to be cleaned, the planet still needs to function better, otherwise we are irrelevant for the planet. Nature will continue without us. On an individual level, on a professional level, we have to maintain visibility and I know some that are doing it extremely well, through online events, maintaining a conversation with their customers and so on, we need to keep producing, not to lose the habit. It’s like sports training for an athlete. You need to keep doing it, otherwise, you lose the momentum.
At the same time, I would definitely suggest learning something collateral or updating the skills I would suggest to anyone and doing that myself. I see, for example, in the future of AlterContacts to be more credible as a Think Tank and to have more “meat on the bone”, when we propose something or when we share something, to have also numbers, visuals, information that supports whatever we are working with, whatever topic we are exploring. So it’s not just the opinions of the expert, not just relying on what people know but also validating with real data.
And this boils down to one thing: I think what is coming is the time when it’s important to do something tangible, something that customers will feel that they are getting something real.
The immediate benefit, similar to apps like Netflix where you pay the subscription and you immediately get the benefit of the movies?
Massimo: I don’t know about that market really because I’m not an expert in that market. Right now I think they are booming anyway and people will be using them indeed. To your point, a shorter interaction, yes. Instead of making it very long before they get to deliverable, the transaction has to be shorter, less ping-pong.
That applies to all of the consulting business. When before a consultant had to call up somebody and explain the services and why it’s important to have it, do you see that fading away slowly as it has to be so crystal clear that it can be just purchased on the spot?
Massimo: Probably we have the opportunity for organizations like ours to really become experts on-demand as a spin-off. In that case, it’s not anymore a Think Tank but it becomes almost a consulting type of thing. I wouldn’t like to call it like that but it depends. If the market changes, you have to adapt, so you have two roots: you either become more like a business still being a Think Tank private or you go fully into the non-profit and then you start looking for grants and funding. Those are the two roads.
From what I hear from you, the course is on self-development, on adaptation, trying to figure out what is happening and how it’s still in process, there is no final answer.
Massimo: Yes, not only that, but it was also proven in these last couple of months. We have seen that whatever we knew was wrong. All the predictions were wrong so far, we are just controlling something. The pandemic is still going on, just in a quiet way so it’s very real, it’s almost a dystopia that we are living. I think the best is to keep the long view in mind but take care of the day-to-day by making sure that if there is any business opportunity, you take it. Improve your skills, maintain visibility with the potential market that you have and, in some cases, depending on how the savings are, start thinking if you need a plan B, have a CV and get a job somewhere. Maybe a temporary thing, maybe a part-time job just to make sure. As free professionals or independent professionals, one of the liabilities we have is that we rely on our savings in these cases when everything else stops.
That is something we’re gonna find out in the series in the more videos and more interviews to come but I’d like to thank you for your advice, for sharing with us the story of the Think Tank and your ideas of what’s happening and how you’re adapting to it
About the Guest
Massimo Mercuri has 30+ years of experience, including 15 years as an executive for Fortune 100 companies, with projects up to 120 mln in Europe, North & Latin America, and Asia. 100% fluent in English, Spanish and Italian. The companies he worked with include brands like Apple, IBM, AkzoNobel, DSM, Carnival Corporation, ABB and Stoneridge. His positions ranged from system integration to project management to the executive director and startups or new builds. Massimo is a Stanford Alumni, a co-founder of the AlterContacts global Think-Tank for Sustainable Development and the Scimpulse Foundation, a collaborator at CERN in Switzerland, lecturer and technical architect at the University of Baja California, Mexico.