Respia: A Start-up Story

From lockdown to launch: How an idea became a mission

On Monday 23 March 2020, the UK government announced the first national lockdown measures in response to the COVID pandemic. At the time, I was working in a busy office in London Bridge, but by the end of that week I was told that I would be working from home indefinitely.

I have never been back.

My situation is not unique – our society has experienced profound changes ever since the pandemic hit. Social life seemed to move online, remote working became commonplace, and “zoom” became a verb with new meaning.

I’m sure you remember those first months well – although we might have been expecting Star Trek, it was more like Comedy Central. Cats jumping on desks in the middle of meetings, people turning up in dressing gowns, or forgetting to mute themselves as they blurted out what was really on their mind. In short, entirely new ways for professionals to embarrass themselves.

But, it soon became clear that lockdowns meant more than occasional Zoom mishaps. Many people began experiencing isolation, anxiety, and frustration, which has spilled over into politics, corporate governance, and pop culture in the years since COVID.

Christian and I first met in a Telegram Group for people wanting to understand the impact of these issues and what could be done to support those affected. Christian was led to the group by his interest in executive coaching. For me, it was my interest in finding solutions to complex problems. As we collaborated, we discovered a mutual interest in growth, entrepreneurship, and the emerging digital economy.

We began to look at the impacts of the lockdowns from new perspectives. With an eye on the future, we realised that along with the challenges there were also many opportunities. Opportunities that, if embraced by professionals today, could help them successfully transition into the emerging digital economy over the next few decades.

It was also clear that many of the challenges people were facing, including isolation, increased responsibility, and a need to be more autonomous are intrinsic to being an entrepreneur, founder, or leader. Being at the helm of a new venture or shouldering the responsibility of leadership can be a lonely and daunting journey full of uncertainty.

Christian and I both understood that as we exit the industrial age and enter the digital era, the rate of change will keep accelerating. New technologies, new consumer demands, new expectations, new markets, new political landscapes, even new forms of money.  We saw that learning how to navigate the seas of change is critical for anyone that wants to survive, and that learning to embrace new ways of doing business is necessary for those that want to thrive.

Turning Uncertainty Into Opportunity

It wasn’t long before we had a mission, we wanted to help people filter the signal from the noise, discover exciting new opportunities, and thrive in today’s turbulent business world. We knew we needed to tap into multiple disciplines to innovate and create a flexible process that would support professionals as they grow into these challenges.

We started by exploring our own experiences and interests.

Influences

I’ve always been a big picture person, fascinated by both the past and the future. In particular, from an early age I was drawn to history, trying to make sense of how the past influences the present. Why do people think they way they do? What are the great stories that inform us, and what wisdom is hidden within them?

Around 4 years ago I stumbled across Rebel Wisdom a media platform founded by BBC & Channel 4 filmmaker David Fuller, and Alexander Beiner, a writer, podcaster and event organiser. Rebel Wisdom was centered on the conviction that we are seeing a crisis of ideas as the old operating system breaks down and that the most transformative ideas always show up first as rebellious.

Amongst the many amazing people showcased on Rebel Wisdom I found John Vervaeke, Ph.D. He is an award-winning professor of psychology, cognitive science, and Buddhist psychology at the University of Toronto. John’s epic video series “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis” has been a huge influence, in it he unravels the mystery of how we think and generate knowledge and wisdom. His work is also influential in the pathways taken to develop AI modelled on human cognitive processes.

From John I learned about distributed cognition and how the story of human development is also the story of working together. Distributed cognition describes how information processing, learning and problem solving happens collectively. Yes, we do figure things out for ourselves as individuals, but the heavy lifting is a collaborative effort that we naturally participate in.

Research now shows that our memory, decision making, reasoning, and learning are all distributed activities that include people, technology, social organizations and workplaces. Furthermore, these processes evolve over time. The advantages of this way of working have become a key influence in how we work at Respia, as our flagship programs all involve group problem-solving processes.

Futurism & Business

For me, William Gibson is one of the most visionary and original authors alive, and probably the best science fiction / futurist author of all time. In 1984 he wrote Neuromancer in which he coined the term “cyberspace” and emerged as a leading exponent of the cyberpunk movement. His writing continues to enrich my imagination and vision, opening up numerous avenues of possibility.

This futurist perspective is the foundation of my optimism for what Respia and our clients can achieve together. The opening up of possibility, the development of forward momentum, and the leaning into adaptive experimentation keeps us flexible, responsive, and seeking to be at least one step ahead.

Continuum

A narrative of history and future is most useful when it forms a continuum, an unfinished story that follows the forces, drives, and trends of the past into the present and extends into the future.

This is of great importance as we enter a transitionary period from industrial to informational, from analogue to digital, and from centralised to decentralised. There has never been a time in history when so much is changing – and changing with such velocity.

What we produce and how we produce it, how we organise ourselves, how we spend our time, who we connect with and how we connect with them, even how we pay for things are all changing at the same time. There are many coherent theories that encompass past and present, but few have so accurately predicted the near future as The Sovereign Individual. It is this key text that really drove home the inevitable explosion in entrepreneurial growth as a consequence of, and response to, the changes that are underway.

In fact, prior to pandemic lockdowns, self-employment in the UK had been steadily increasing, peaking at 5.0 million in December 2019, approximately 15% of total employment. Since then, the numbers have fallen considerably, down to around 4.2 million in Feb 2024, just under 13% of total employment.

However, the trend is rising again, and entrepreneurship is the obvious response to complex and widespread transformation caused by converging social and technological trends. We need people who see, and seize, opportunities. People that create, organise and operate new forms of business, often by taking great risks in exchange for great rewards.

Partnership With Christian

Meeting Christian was the pivotal moment in the creation of Respia. My focus on macro trends gave us a context, but Christian’s expertise in organisational and leadership issues, and his experience in managing networks, gave us the working model we needed to develop a service offering.

Christian’s first career was in the legal profession. He graduated in business and finance law specialising in commercial and tax law. During his time in law, he tuned into the fundamental importance of personal psychology as a factor of success.

A few years later Christian qualified as a psychotherapist and has been running a private practice in south London focusing on organisational issues and executive coaching. In that capacity, he has worked with founders and managers in the tech and B2B services sector.

Christian has also managed a national network providing support to employees on workplace and personal issues, as well as chairing the Ethics Committee of a psychotherapy training institute. His deep understanding of workplace dynamics and group analysis is a key influence in the design of Respia’s services.

His skills, experience, and perspective helped us move from the standard goal orientated model to an innovative process orientated methodology. With this approach, we were seeking to go beyond the traditional consulting world and future-proof ourselves in the digital age.

Collaboration as a Service (CaaS)

The result of our work is Collaboration-as-a-Service, or CaaS. This is a share, learn, grow methodology rooted in relational intelligence, designed for modern professionals meeting the challenges of rapidly changing complex environments. We designed CaaS for anyone, like us, who is seeking growth beyond traditional networking, consulting, and coaching.

By bringing together like-minded professionals to discuss common problems within a structured framework, we allow participants to discover untapped potential in their own work, refine their perspectives through open dialogue with peers, and brainstorm new ideas within a supportive and diverse group.

Ultimately, we created Respia to support the next generation of business leaders as they leverage the wisdom of their peers, and the advantages of our CaaS process, to turn their challenges into their greatest opportunities and sources of development.


The Digital Disruptor

The Digital Disruptor - Innovation, Minimalism, and Embracing Imperfection.

As I stepped off the plane at Beijing Capital International Airport the freezing air gripped my bones. It was January 2003 and Northern China can be brutally cold, only 7 hours earlier I had been soaking up the heat in Kuala Lumpur. I exited the airport in search of a taxi and was instantly mobbed by men, cigarettes seemingly glued to their lips, as they shouted in Mandarin and tried to drag me into their taxis.

I quickly put my 10 weeks of Mandarin lessons to the test but no one seemed to understand me. It was an intense moment; I was in uncharted waters and could feel panic washing over me. I wanted to get back on the plane and return to KL. I stopped, pulled my arm free from the guy currently dragging me towards a car and thanked him in my awful Mandarin. Closing my eyes I counted to 10 and slowed my breathing, “what was I doing here?”, ah yes, the address in my pocket.

I found the piece of paper with my friend’s Beijing address and instructions on where to find the official taxi rank. “Don’t exit the airport, turn left before the doors and follow the signs for tourist information.” I rapidly about-faced and re-entered the airport, found the official taxi rank and joined an orderly queue. The relief of the familiar!

A month later I was still in Beijing, I quit an amazing career in London with JP Morgan Chase & Co to take the biggest risk of my life. At that time China was entering the market in full force, the entrepreneurial energy was amazing, and despite the initial shock I quickly adapted.

There were opportunities everywhere once you allowed yourself to see them. Sure, it was unfamiliar, even uncomfortable at times, I frequently felt lost and confused and had to think on my feet, ask for help, and embrace the vulnerability. However, necessity is the mother of more than invention, it is also a great motivator. I learned the language quickly, made friends, found my way around, and embraced the accelerating momentum of change. Within a year Beijing had changed before my very eyes, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the world was trying to catch up.

Relentless evolution

Today’s businesses find themselves in a perpetual race against time. The digital era is one of relentless evolution, and it’s not just technology that is changing at an unprecedented pace. Our financial systems, political perspectives, environmental conditions, and social structures are also undergoing rapid transformation. At the intersection of these developmental pathways emerges new consumer demands and expectations.

And it is why digital transformation can be so frightening: Companies must shift their focus from what they know works and invest instead in alternatives they view as risky and unproven. Many companies simply refuse to believe they are facing a life-or-death situation. This is Clayton Christensen’s aptly named “Innovator’s Dilemma”: Companies fail to innovate, because it means changing the focus from what’s working to something unproven and risky.” - Thomas M. Siebel

For many businesses, they face pressure to innovate rapidly or crumble! Abandon what works and pursue what might fail. All of this in an environment of rapid change. Yet, we haven’t even begun to feel the true impact of elastic cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things (IoT). How do we navigate these unchartered waters?

It is clear innovation must become part of the DNA of any business that is serious about having a future. Innovative must embrace learning at its core, and learning always involves failure, especially in unmapped territories. So, what strategies can lead to success whilst embracing failure?

Well one counterintuitive strategy stands out. You may know it as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Rik Vera wrote a beautiful article about MVP where he refers to Antoni Gaudí's approach to building the Sagrada Família, a cathedral in Barcelona.

“Gaudí's genius lies in seeing the cathedral not as a finished product but as an evolving masterpiece.” - Rik Vera

As Vera explains, Gaudí created a visionary prototype. Instead of attempting to design a masterpiece before construction began, he took an novel approach to the design-build cycle. Gaudí built iterative refinement and allowance of imperfection into the design-build process itself. In other words, he made it possible to learn from failure without undermining the chances of eventual success.

In the digital age, businesses wrestle with what can appear to be overwhelming challenges. Where crafting a perfect blueprint or product is impractical in a frenetically changing world. The artistry of Gaudí’s approach afforded agility, resilience, ongoing innovative, and spontaneous learning in response to new challenges and changing demands. The result is spectacular!

Let that sink in, new challenges and changing demands have to be met by learning and innovation. Eric Ries author of The Lean Startup puts it wonderfully,

“…let this simple rule suffice: remove any feature, process, or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek.” - Eric Ries, The Lean Startup.

So what can we learn from the brilliance of Gaudí, the insight of Siebel, and the experience of Ries?

MVPs and Iteration: The MVP approach emphasizes beginning with a viable foundation and iterating for refinement. Businesses must recognize their initial models as imperfect but essential launchpads for continuous improvement.

The Tao of MVP: Innovative companies find ways to leverage external dynamics rather than resist them, turning challenges into advantages. Attempting to resist market forces during times of sweeping change is like trying to withstand a tsunami. Your best bet is to get in front of it and ride the wave. Businesses need to become responsive to trends by listening to customers and tracking user behaviour such as click-through-rates, repeat purchases, social shares, and reviews.

Validated Learning and Expansion: Scaling a business, product, or service in an evolving market means ensuring that iterative refinement is responsive to changing market forces. This requires what Eric Ries calls ‘validated learning’. In other words, businesses need the right measurements to demonstrate that they have discovered valuable truths about current and future business prospects.

“The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is waste, no matter how important it might have seemed at the time.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup.

MVPs should not be restricted to one off models for launching new services. In fact, maintaining a version of key products and services for the purpose of learning, responding to market forces, and maintaining relevance to the needs of customers is an excellent strategy in the digital age.

What else can we do?

Siebel explores various technological solutions that can help organizations navigate digital transformation successfully. This includes leveraging emerging technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain to streamline operations, enhance customer experiences, and drive growth.

All of these technologies enhance the usefulness of data to track trends, gain insights, and generate measurements that demonstrate valuable truths have been discovered. When harnessed properly they can feed the iterative validated learning and market responsive of businesses.

When the game is new the playing ground is somewhat levelled, there are no seasoned experts in the digital age. This presents a fabulous opportunity to create, play, test, and learn. Let’s think about this for a moment. Multiple changes in multiple domains, no real experts, and lots of uncertainty.

How has humanity taken advantage of novel opportunities and overcome new obstacles since the dawn of time? By working together. The saying “collaboration drives innovation” has never been more appropriate than now. When you bring together diverse perspectives, minds, experiences, and fields of expertise you maximise the potential for insight and innovation. With a structured approach you don’t need experts, you just need to be looking at the opportunity or challenge from as many different angles as possible.

Combine collaboration with enhanced data capabilities and you have the agility, resilience, and spontaneous learning to stay ahead of the curve.

 

Sources and resources:

https://www.rikvera.com/innovation-in-fast-changing-times-building-cathedrals-navigating-the-red-queen-and-embracing-gaudis-gravity-defying-approach/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/katevitasek/2015/01/13/innovation-and-collaboration-its-not-an-either-or-proposition/

https://theleanstartup.com/