What does innovation mean?

Recently appointed to Charley’s Chocolate Advisory Board, my third food tech start up board, and after an immersion tour in their sunny far north Queensland operations, I began thinking about some common themes of my SME consultancy and my for purpose board roles: innovation and why some organisations do well and others not so well in this space.

First of all, far north Queensland is such a delightful mix of scenery, agriculture, tourism … My ‘tour’ started with a drop by accountant meeting, a site meeting at the Centre for Wet Tropics Agriculture and a beautiful 90 minute drive from Cairns airport to Mission Beach, courtesy of seasoned Board Chair Ruth Medd and full of interesting conversation about innovation.

The conversation reminded of the challenge in scaling in terms of resourcing, cash flow, immediate operational priorities, sales and margin.

When we arrived in Mission Beach we visited Charley’s for an introductory tour of the plantation and chocolate production facility and to update with the founders. The next day included the Directors meeting, a wander around delightful Mission Beach with its glorious esplanade and then observation of the AGM alongside several Advisory Board Members and investors. I always appreciate AGMs as an opportunity to recap the successes and challenges of the recent period and present an outlook for the year ahead; the Charley’s AGM met and exceeded my expectations.

While Charley’s website, videos and even product deliveries give a ‘taste’, it’s when I touched the leaves in the cocoa plantations, watched the chocolate production, heard about Charley’s story and experienced the zest of the founders Chris and Lynn Jahnke, I was truly reminded of the challenges and excitement of building a business from the ground up (literally). I also gained a birds’ eye view into Charley’s uniqueness on the world stage – the ‘tree to bar’ approach (sometimes called ‘plantation to plate’) that can only exist in ideal cocoa growing regions of equatorial proximity for climate conditions such as far north Queensland. The Queensland Government and Charley’s are undertaking ground breaking research to better understand and develop Australia’s cocoa growing industry.

My visit offered a microscopic view of founders, folk I’ve worked with for years, and who contribute greatly to Australia’s economy and future. Being a founder in retail or tourism can be thrilling – the sheer joy of bringing an idea to life, often in a shortish timeframe, and the opportunity to interact directly with customers and other stakeholders. It can also be challenging – loneliness, incredibly hard work and antisocial hours, people management, financial stresses and handling anything and everything (with a smile!). Successful founders like Chris and Lynn seem able to stay true to the original vision, build organisation capacity and let go of historic responsibilities, maintain enthusiasm and be open to smart risks.

There are many helpful frameworks to support business growth. In my view these are fundamental but not sufficient on their own. For example, from my SME experience there appear to be some distinctive entrepreneurial skillsets and styles, including trusting on the ground learning and adaptability. Co-Founder Chris Jahnke epitomises the clever entrepreneur – someone who thinks outside the box, quietly persists and always looks to improve on standard equipment and approaches in a way that suits the size, scope, lifecycle and financial resources of the organisation.

In five short years Charley’s has become a scalable business – it’s cash flow positive, won international awards, has regular consumer sales from the website and runs a popular tour. Charley’s recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign raising two times the target capital. With feet squarely in Australia’s developing far north Queensland, Charley’s future is promising.

Charley’s experience reflects similar themes to the experience of many organisations scaling or undertaking change. The challenges of strategy, regulation and compliance, stakeholder engagement, accountability, technology trends and organisation sustainability are just as real in the community services, cultural affairs, healthcare, public sector and corporate worlds as in the food start up arena. While I visited far north Queensland to support my Charley’s Advisory Board role, I came away better equipped for my other board roles in health, education, community, infrastructure and Government.

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