This interview was originally published in MN Magazine.
Maarten Pieters On Why Co-Creation is The Pathway to Innovation
Maarten Pieters is the co-founder of TheCoCreators, the movement of self-employed co-creation specialists, each of whom add invaluable knowledge and experience from their own field of expertise.
After his management studies at the Hoge Hotelschool Maastricht and international career in sales and various functions within young start-ups, Maarten Pieters passions and interests came together when he became a founding member of the international innovation agency Flare Growth, where he was thoroughly trained in creative concept development. Because Maarten needed more freedom to express his own ideas and in particular wanted to focus on co-creation as a means to help organizations add real, sustainable value to their customers, he decided to team up with Stefanie Jansen to bring a new initiative to life and co-founded TheCoCreators in 2012.
Magazine MN caught up with Maarten to talk about his entrepreneurial journey and co-creation as the pathway to innovation and sustainable business development.
Magazine MN: Maarten, what sparked your interest towards entrepreneurship?
Maarten: I come from an entrepreneurial family, so from a young age I knew that creating my own business would fit me best. Over the past years I have been involved in various initiatives, which brought me to the point where my business partner Stefanie Jansen and I founded TheCoCreators. We are a co-creation consulting initiative that has the co-creation principles at the core of everything we do.
Magazine MN: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Maarten: The single best advice I ever got when it comes to creating your business is that you shouldn’t start building until you understand—not assume—the core of your offering. If you don’t understand, it will be a waste of time and resources. You have to start with why. You need to understand why your future customers really want to buy or use your product or service before anything else. In other words, learn how to do proper research and immediately connect with your target group (and don’t stop after you have launched).
Magazine MN: What is the main idea behind TheCoCreators? What does TheCoCreators stand for?
Maarten: When my business partner Stefanie Jansen and I re-connected at an event celebrating the success of an education start-up (we were both invited being two-thirds of the team who created the original concept), we immediately felt the excitement of a shared belief in co-creation. Not only did we recognize that co-created projects lead to better results compared to the widespread general innovation approach, we also felt that co-creation can have a much larger impact—a positive influence on the world we live in. With this in mind, we founded TheCoCreators.
We are a collective of various specialists who are committed to make a difference by helping organizations with their innovation needs by closely connecting and co-creating with their end-user and other relevant stakeholders. At the same time we aim to train people to become ‘CoCreators’ and we openly share our knowledge so that co-creation is implemented and accepted worldwide. We do all kinds of projects for organizations ranging from online gaming to education, from FMCG to governments. Our goal is to fuel the global co-creation movement by becoming the number one co-creation expert worldwide.
Magazine MN: In what ways do you collaborate with your customers? How do you go about selecting the projects to get involved in collaboration with?
Maarten: To answer this question, you have to understand the definition of complete co-creation that TheCoCreators use. We define Complete Co-creation as the continuous process of developing a product, service, experience, brand and/or communication and everything around it in a productive collaboration with the end-user and other relevant parties. We label anything that doesn’t involve all three key elements – ‘continuous process’, ‘productive collaboration’ and ‘with the end-user and other relevant parties’ – as incomplete co-creation. In other words, we see a lot of different forms of co-creation out there, but most of them are incomplete, not getting all the possible benefits of co-creation.
This definition implies that there are various ways to collaborate with your customers, depending on the challenge. For instance, live group sessions are very effective, but you can also use gamification tools, such as LEGO Serious Play©, or develop a specific challenge online. Nevertheless, it is important that before you start co-creating you have done your research, so that you have a clear development direction ideally based on an insight. This is an important message we spread. We aim to provide our (potential) clients with enough arguments so that they see the benefits of implementing Complete Co-creation. In the end, almost any business issue or opportunity is suited for co-creating; it’s just a matter of commitment.
Magazine MN: What are the benefits of co-creation?
Maarten: We have identified six benefits of implementing Complete Co-creation as an integrated approach. These six key motives can be used to convince management and peers to adopt Complete Co-creation. First, the outcomes of a complete co-creative process, whether a product, service, brand or experience and everything around it, are highly relevant and attractive for the participants, because they themselves have worked to get the results and have been involved in every major decision.
Second, the process creates a marketing and resonance advantage. User groups and other stakeholders will be aware of the value proposition, before the results are even tangible. Word will spread, which will lead to a ‘boost’ when introducing the offering to the market. Its relevance will also be more credible to potential end-users, because customers co-developed it. Scientific research supports this notion of enhanced relevance of co-created output for end-users.
Third, the open and interactive character of the Complete Co-creation process guarantees a broad support among the stakeholders, since they are directly involved. The results are a joint creation developed by and for all the actors involved, making it ‘theirs’.
The fourth motive to adopt Complete Co-creation is motivation. True co-creation is highly motivating! From the start it is clear how the process to address the issue or challenge will be organized and every participant will have the same mission and vision. The co-creative process creates equal space for all to add value. Discovering and collaborating with the different and common interests involved in direct dialogue is highly inspiring and can profoundly change an organization for the better.
The fifth motive is result. Co-creative processes have a strong positive impact on the quality of the result. The result takes into account the different perceptions, realities and interests of all parties. Because the results are endorsed by the user groups and other stakeholders the quality of the output is high and sustainable on all levels – not just financially.
Finally, the sixth motive is that Complete Co-creation has a positive effect on the companies’ resources. Experiencing the process step by step with all stakeholders allows avoiding making wrong decisions based on assumptions, and avoids an unnecessary waste of time, money and energy that can lead to conflicts and the outcome that is not fully supported by the intended user groups. Thus, the Complete Co-creative process is effective and efficient on a resource level.
Magazine MN: Which aspects of business gain the greatest value from co-creation?
Maarten: Co-creation can have an impact on the whole organization. Ideally, Complete Co-creation becomes a company culture. It will be most visible in the products and services that are offered and the departments that are directly linked to that, such as marketing and sales. However, co-creation certainly doesn’t have to be limited to product development. For instance, we have positive experiences with co-creating in-company facilities for employees, which enhances the motivation and retention of employees, thus boosting their productivity. Another example where co-creation works is in streamlining a company’s customer service so as to become a valuable channel for customer dialogue.
Magazine MN: How is co-creation different from crowdsourcing?
Maarten: Crowdsourcing is one of many possible tools within a co-creation process. It is an online activity with specific benefits, such as quantity of ideas or ability to test on a larger scale. It is less impactful than Complete Co-creation as it is only one tool within a larger approach.
Magazine MN: Is co-creation a new era of innovation?
Maarten: I’d say Complete Co-creation is an evolution. But yes, it is beyond hype; co-creation is here to stay. We see many agencies in the fields of innovation and market research suddenly add some form of co-creation to their methods, because they see the growing need of expertise in this field. We foresee that specialized co-creation agencies will be common in the near future. However, at the moment, as far as we know, TheCoCreators is the one of the only ones.
Magazine MN: What is your best advice for the first-time entrepreneur?
Maarten: Invest in learning how to make your start-up a co-creative start-up.