Meet The Disruptors: Chris Lord Of Mustard Kick On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
… Question question question. It’s at the heart of every disruption, every innovation. It’s my north star and it can unlock your company’s idea, vision, mission, values and culture.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Lord.
One of the most prolific disruptors of the past decade, Chris Lord is the dictionary definition of a disruptor. Not even halfway through his career, he has already built and sold two disruptive health tech startups for $200m. And he did that in less than an eight year span. Today one of his all-consuming passions is helping the younger generation to disruptively innovate.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I practically grew up in the workshop of ELAP Engineering, a company that my dad and uncle formed to create mobility products for vehicles, and was the first company in the world to develop the rotating car seat concept. It’s still going to this day and even making electric vehicles.
My uncle had the business mind and ability of a thicker-than-average ape but the ideation and inventive skills of a genius. Ha! My father on the other hand was quite different and, although not the great inventor or engineer, was accomplished in his own field of metallurgy. In their workshop, I inherited their combined inventiveness and technical prowess, but I added to that extreme ambition and strong business acumen.
In their workshop I was obsessed with innovating. Before starting university, I had worked out a way to produce in a weekend what three men had been taking a week to accomplish, simply by thinking through and iterating the methods used to make them more efficiently. This ability to question methods and think through better ways of doing things, it turned out, were to become my most important strengths.
Later, I met my chief ‘partner in crime’, David Newns and together we formed CN Creative, then hot on its heels, our second company, Nerudia. Within eight years we had sold these two disruptive health tech startups for $200m. More recently, I co-founded Prevayl with David and another partner, and established a family office for angel investments, to support the next generation of young entrepreneurs.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
True Innovation which is well employed is usually disruptive. Most people confuse innovation with the unrelated ‘variation’ which will usually have relatively negligible effect. The fire truck was an innovation that disrupted the incumbent method, the horse, but a horse that could be yoked faster in emergencies was a variation. The firetruck, of course, saved more lives.
However, innovation doesn’t only relate to ‘inventions’ as such but to new and better methods of doing things. Usually these methods are the results of someone innovating! Or put another way, someone thinking!
Take collection lockers like ‘Amazon Lockers’ that’s a new way of delivering. Rather than being tied to being home to receive a parcel it can be collected when convenient. Funnily enough I discussed this very idea with my business partner back in 2006. We had a quick 10 minute ideation on opportunities expected from the increase in courier use due to increasing online sales.
To me disruption can be implicit or explicit. An example of explicit innovation would be to pick a sector such as couriers and ideate on better ways of delivering it (excuse the pun). An implicit disruption would be to think of say an Amazon locker as an invention and then to choose a sector where it could fit, or not fit more precisely, in order to disrupt it.
I applied this thinking to one of my current companies, Prevayl which I co-founded. It’s an implicit innovation that disrupts smart watches. Instead of the technology being limited to a wrist watch, it’s embedded into clothing. At the moment, it’s sportswear, though is set to expand to sleepwear and more. Smart watches are limited in the data they can capture, but clothing, with clinical-grade sensors woven into the actual fabric (‘smart fabrics’) generates substantially more data points with far greater accuracy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My business partner David and I had developed CN Creative, a company which disrupted the nicotine replacement industry, in order to stop a billion people from smoking cigarettes. It remains the only vaping company ever awarded a medical license for a vaping product to combat addiction. Before being granted that endorsement, we were working around the clock on e-liquid formulations producing the first e-cigarette liquid outside of China. Like many engineer-innovators, I wanted to work on solving problems wherever I was, so I had turned my kitchen into a sort of nicotine e-liquid laboratory.
Late one night, at around 22:00, suddenly I felt very dizzy, nauseous and was fast developing a headache. I knew from my previous research of a then quite limited library what the first signs of nicotine poisoning were. I immediately called David, my business partner, fully expecting to need him to get me an ambulance — or an undertaker.
I explained to him that, without any ventilation in my kitchen, I had compensated by taking precautions at each stage when handling the highly toxic nicotine: by going to the back door and opening it, taking two deep breaths as a practice, followed by one big real one, before returning to the hob and adding the nicotine. To add the chemical, I followed a series of careful, precise steps, each taking up precious time. But I must have made some mistake, perhaps I’d not let the nicotine cool properly and released toxic fumes into the enclosed space. And now I would die as a result of this error. Not the outcome I particularly wanted.
David discussed my actions and work, then went on to ask, again very calmly, “You did all that whilst holding your breath then, yes?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Because I didn’t want to inhale all the fumes, but it only took 40 seconds maybe.” David asked how many batches I had made that evening, to which I replied I had made about 25. I then heard him laughing and tried to understand what he found so funny, especially at this time when I might be moments from death. “Chris,” he cajoled gently. “Are you surprised you feel dizzy and nauseous and have a headache when you’ve been holding your breath for the best part of a minute twenty-five times in the last hour or so?” Needless to say I didn’t die.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve never really had a mentor in the usual sense. My greatest influence and learnings have, however, come from my business partner and best friend of the past 15 years, David Newns. What I have learnt from him is vast and largely has helped me become stronger in the areas in which I was weakest. I think our relationship has made us both better; made our weaknesses less vulnerable and our strengths formidable!
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I don’t believe that consensus is science nor do I believe that time is proof of suitability. Quite the contrary in fact. Almost always the longer something’s been present whilst the circumstances or environment has changed, the more likely the test of time would fail, given the right test.
Indeed some things last because they haven’t been given the right test, or have but the innovation that disrupts it hasn’t been created or monetised.
A simple example might be something as basic as a kitchen sink. Why hasn’t it changed in hundreds of years yet its purpose has? Dishwashers mean we don’t need a large sink for piles of dishes. Nor do we empty the mop bucket into the sink anymore. Yet these were reasons for the original design: large, deep and bulky sinks. So why does that unsightly and unnecessary design persist? We have had slight variations on the design, but nothing disruptive or revolutionary.
As I said, innovation –as opposed to variation– is almost always good and therefore if executed well will in itself prove disruptive. If something can be disrupted it was in need of it. And that is usually for the better.
Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- The best advice I’ve been given and the best I can give are the same thing: ‘question’.
Question question question. It’s at the heart of every disruption, every innovation. It’s my north star and it can unlock your company’s idea, vision, mission, values and culture.
I learned to fly, as a hobby, in Los Angeles. I wanted to break the club record for getting my license, but in order to do so, I had to question the conventional methods of doing so. My teacher agreed we had to question the usual methods.
So he covered up my instrument dials, those critically important information displays that tell you somewhat important things like airspeed, artificial horizon and your altitude. I had been studying them thoroughly and knew perfectly how to use them. But he made me question them as the sole guide for flying a small aircraft.
Instead, he said, “Listen to the plane, Chris. and just fly it” I looked at him, as if to ask whether the plane was going to suddenly speak out the data I needed! But he meant I should use my intuition, and fly circuit after circuit getting used to seeing, hearing and feeling the nuances without the pesky dials. Questioning runs through everything I do, so here are some more ways to apply it in disruptive business.
2. Separate fake problems from real ones.
By its nature, disrupting is doing something that hasn’t been done before. There will be unknowns. Obstacles will get in the way. Failures can happen. Your people will come to you with problems, and your job as a leader is to question if it’s truly an issue at all before spending valuable time ‘solving it’
For instance, colleagues have frequently come to me with what they’ll describe as a huge issue that turned out to be nothing of the sort. ‘We failed the test’ would be one such problem, but my immediate response was to question it.
I asked if the test was performed correctly; was its methodology correct; were the results correctly obtained; and, were the results correctly analyzed in providing the conclusion. This knowing and having the confidence our products didn’t fail tests. Not arrogance but attention to detail.
I’d estimate 80% of the issuesI’ve questioned turned out not to be issues at all. So it’s possible that questioning can solve 80% of an innovator’s dilemmas! It’s not only the way to discover real problems to solve, but also solutions.
3. Challenge the status quo. When it comes to innovation, question why something is done a particular way, whether the existing solution is most precisely, or economically or simply satisfying the problem it’s supposed to be solving.
I think I get this type of thinking from my dad. He solved problems within the aerospace industry’s metallurgy area that no one else could manage and obtained for them some pretty fundamental patents with regard to titanium and its manufacture into honeycomb structures. Several teams around the world had spent eight years trying to solve a particular and fundamental problem which was holding up the launch of a military aircraft, the Tornado. He turned the problem on its head, analyzed it from an atomic perspective, and solved it on an atomic level. Something to do with electrons and atoms! But he had questioned the previous approach and inverted it with great success. From this came titanium honeycomb and ultimately the firewall between the two engines on the Tornado.
4. If something matters to you, review the available data and come to your own conclusions.
I’m naturally wary of reading and blindly accepting a conclusion performed by someone else. If the answer is worth knowing and matters to me, then it’s worth me reading the methodology and results to determine a reasonable conclusion. But all too often the conclusion is predetermined. In many cases a study has been commissioned and paid by someone with vested interest in the report having a predetermined conclusion. Let’s take a hypothetical example.
It is hypothesized that vitamin D can play a major part in boosting the immune system and preventing disease. A study could be performed long-term to determine this. But you can make a tonne of vitamin D for mere tens of dollars, so therefore there’s little profit in it. Would you then expect a study performed by a profit-oriented organization like a pharmaceutical company and study performed by a company producing vitamins to have the same conclusion? Both when read I’m sure would appear plausible. Both will contradict each other and both can’t therefore be correct.
5. Have the die-hard positivity to turn challenges into opportunities. Cliché it may be, but as a disruptor you are bombarded with challenges. And having a positive mindset that will turn it into an opportunity is absolutely intrinsic in a successful entrepreneur. When I see an obstacle I think: how do I not only surmount it but come out better than I went into it?
It might be a new regulation coming in, or an inconvenient patent to get around, a product issue or quality control problem, but I always go into it with a very, very positive head on.
In my business CN Creative, we had some rather inconvenient patents to get around urgently and they were owned by a pretty big company: a company renowned for being the mother of patents in that particular area and really it was a brick wall dumped right across our otherwise blazing trail. I did, albeit with differing views of success from different patent attorneys, find not just a navigable path around it but at the same time develop new intellectual property (IP) and a quite unique product. Without going into the IP details, let’s just say I got around the wall by not wasting much time on the obvious and how to climb it but looked to the side and found the wall was very narrow and only a little wider than the path and… I just walked right around it. Not even a bead of sweat was spilled.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
The next thing I’m looking forward to is something that I haven’t done before, which is to launch a book. I’m told it’s one of the most authentic, roller-coaster rides a business book could hope to be, as it documents the highs and lows of building my first company which I sold for $60m. It really documents the disruptive entrepreneur mindset. Look out for it later in the year!
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
The biggest impact on my thinking, and my life, is my business partner, David Newns. More than any book or podcast or talk, he has been the most positive influence on my life and helped me disruptively innovate to the extent that I have. Indeed, he’s my partner in disruption and together we’re an unstoppable, dynamic duo that have created four incredibly successful, global companies, including two that sold for more than $200m.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As Einstein said: “Given 60 mins to solve a problem, I spend 55 minutes thinking of the solution and 5 minutes executing it.” For me, this approach is relevant in my life because it’s encouraged me to think through problems correctly, to use effective questions and generate new ideas. And then put them quickly into action through prototyping, testing and learning. It’s a quote that led to me filing more than 800 patents and creating two innovative companies which disrupted and shook up their sectors.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want people to imagine a better future. And to do that, we have to learn how to question the world around us more than we appear to do currently, and think through better alternatives that we are developing. That starts with schooling.
Our schools today are not teaching critical thinking. Indeed, they are set up to avoid it. Seth Godin points out that today’s public education system is a product of the Industrial Revolution, whose sole intent was not to train the scholars of tomorrow — we had plenty of scholars. It was to train people to be willing to work in the factory. It was to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in. “We process you for a whole year. If you are defective, we hold you back and process you again. We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people because factories are based on interchangeable parts.” And we haven’t changed the system, despite the world around us transforming.
As a result, bright, smart, hardworking young people come out of the system still full of energy and passion, but wearing what the master disruptor Elon Musk calls a “mental straightjacket.” He says the most common mistake from smart engineers is to “optimize things that should not exist.” Why they do this, he says, is because “everyone has been trained in high school and college to answer the question, convergent logic, so you cannot tell the teacher that the question is dumb or you’ll get a bad grade. You always have to answer the question regardless of whether the premise makes any sense at all.”
So you get brilliant young people coming out of the education system, ready to make a difference to the world, with the means of creative production and distribution at their fingertips, on their phone. But they’ve had their thinking faculties straightjacketed. So they make the wrong difference, they optimize the things which shouldn’t exist. And they kick this back up to their parents, applying the same sort of brainwashing — or at least, limited reasoning — to them. And that can be quite dangerous.
It can inhibit people from disrupting effectively on the one hand and challenging the mainstream narrative on the other. Take a corporate example, where the mainstream is a public sector incumbent company, like an oil or mining company, trying to protect the downside rather than invent a better future. They spend more money on lobbying pals in government than on R&D. But then there’s a disruptive company like mine, or Elon Musk’s trying to make things better. Now, neither incumbent nor disruptor is perfect, and we both have much to learn from each other. But as a student, consumer, employee, voter…or whatever, you must have the ability to separate truth and reality from fiction and fake news, in order to make better choices.
Otherwise, as the incumbent’s lobbyists would have us believe, we might think that booze and cigarettes are healthy or that dumping toxic waste in a public water source is good for our salmon. And if we fail to question that effectively, then how can we disrupt it and make it better? And I believe that is what’s happening just now and it’s why I see this as an urgent issue. Lazy thinking has enabled politicians to lie without repercussions, huge global contracts, such as health ones, to be awarded to companies that are incompetent’s, and for disruptors to be more thwarted than they should.
You can apply the same dilemma to any mainstream narrative. Thankfully, disruptors question that narrative. We examine the data and if we find a different outcome, can imagine a better way and are entrepreneurial enough to commercialize our idea, then we can make the world better. We replace wasteful gas guzzlers with efficient electric technology, we solve the food crisis with lab grown protein, we save lives with operations performed by robotic surgeons operated by a continent away. But we wouldn’t do this if we simply nodded our heads and agreed with everything we were told, we have to question rigorously and think imaginatively.
And that’s really my hope, dream, and my goal, that today we can encourage the adults of tomorrow to challenge the paradigm and imagine something better.
How can our readers follow you online?
Look out for my new personal website in the coming weeks, but alternatively you can find me at https://www.mustardkick.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Meet The Disruptors: Chris Lord Of Mustard Kick On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.