Feb 17, 2023

Real Courage in Business Isn’t About Bold Leaps into the Unknown, it’s a Shared Mindset to Help You Take the Shot

Erika Wykes-Sneyd, adidas' Web3 lead, reflects on the journey that’s led the sports brand into the metaverse and how courage in business is at the heart of it.
by Erika Wykes-Sneydstaff

Adi Dassler once said, those “who are against new developments or the testing of new things, should not hinder those who are willing”. Well, this article is an invitation for the willing!

I’m proud to take on the value of ‘Courage’ because our team doesn’t have a choice but to be ‘brave and willing’ as we frontier-build on the cutting edge of sport and lifestyle culture.

The adidas /// Studio (3-Stripes studio) was newly formed to guide adidas through a paradigm shift that is still largely undefined, somewhat unproven, and often misunderstood. We started as a small but mighty taskforce who had courage to take bold steps into the unknown and, as a result, we landed adidas credibly in the metaverse.

Make no mistake about it, the early days were scary! When you move into the edges of culture, you’re often early and there aren’t a lot of people (or brands) on the other side cheering you on.

From starting with a collaboration with the then-anonymous Bored Ape Yacht Club founders, testing and launching non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on adidas.com, to ordering 30,000 bespoke tracksuits for people whose address we didn’t have yet; we did some things which at the time felt scary. However, taking these bold moves has given adidas a first-mover advantage to design patents, emerging technology and digital applications that will transform how we manage supply chains, reduce waste, build up membership and even built a new product category in ‘Virtual Goods.’

adidas’ journey into the metaverse took courage but the reward put this brand back into pop culture, gave us invaluable knowledge, and made us more courageous to keep taking pioneer steps – all following our courageous pioneer, Adi Dassler.

Courage as a minimum requirement

It’s not surprising, then, that courage should be our standard operating procedure. And by putting it into the adidas core values, it’s an invitation to inspire, invite and act courageously every day.

"To be really courageous, you need to listen to the haters."

To define culture, you have to be brave enough to look ahead of it. To see around corners. To go where others haven’t yet. As leaders, this means stepping out of the glass offices to actively listen to those on the front lines serving our athletes, partners, members, shoppers – and above all else our employees. To be really courageous, you need to listen to the haters. Those who may be cheering for the other brand. Often those who don’t like us (yet) or won’t consider us (yet) are the ones we can learn from the most. To meet changing consumer expectations, you need to be open-minded. Willing to hear the negative feedback. Willing to explore your own bias. Quite often just the act of research, development and planning requires a courageous amount of empathy.

At adidas we believe impossible is nothing. And this is the greatest mandate in the world. It’s the greatest brief I’ve ever had a brand give me – to enable and empower new possibilities. This is an invitation to create, to innovate, to challenge convention and buck the status quo. This should inspire and invite to think big and imagine ideas before there is a playbook, case study or data dashboard telling you “this is gonna work.”

We are called to build breakthrough technology for athletes, wellbeing into our designs, to enable limitless self-expression and embrace original pioneers re-shaping culture in style. To do any of that – never mind all of it –you have to be courageous every single day. Brave enough to imagine. Even braver to try. Most brave of all to fail and keep on trying. Because anything less is standing still.

Why go into the metaverse?

Courage is a minimum requirement for the ‘all or nothing’ expectations of the Web3 future we are building. But, like Adi Dassler, I believe it’s even scarier to imagine a world where we don’t go into the metaverse at all. Where we let other brands champion the pioneers who will shape how we experience cutting-edge performance, teamwork, self-expression and identity. Yikes!

I’m constantly being asked, ‘why take that leap into the unknown?’ and it really comes down to who we are here to serve – our consumers. Their behaviors are changing. New habits are being formed. They want niche products from value-aligned brands that represent their passions, priorities and interests. They want to feel seen, heard and represented, but not because of data harvesting. Like generations before them, they demand our attention, but they are also tired of being dictated to by algorithms or faceless brands. They are concerned about privacy, and conscious that their consumption creates waste, because right now we are making more than we need.

"Very quickly, the question turns from ‘why the metaverse?’, to ‘how else can we get involved?’!"

From popular culture to sports, from high streets to runways, the metaverse is both an end goal and a starting-off point in a paradigm-shift to value-led and value-creating consumerism. I see the metaverse as the new team sport, where new communities are being forged and people are coming together to collaborate, play and create. When you drop an NFT, it’s really the creation of a new form of identity. It’s no longer just about getting to rep the team, now you’re a stakeholder who has some equity in the team too.

By making airdrops more transparent and fair, for example, we can put products into the hands of true fans, who don’t have to feel like they need a master’s degree or a server farm of bots to win a hype drop. This is the new definition of loyalty – at a scale that has never before been imagined.

With blockchain technology, we can also know our buyers before we’ve even made their product, and that will unlock a new way of approaching supply chains. Imagine how just-in-time quantity runs for people who ordered using a token could eliminate waste. Just as much as the product designers working in the game and virtual reality space, I believe the supply chain and product operations teams at adidas will be the rock stars of Web3.

"Our metaverse journey started with courage, curiosity and a sense that we would always do what's best for adidas."

Our metaverse journey started with courage, curiosity and a sense that we would always do what’s best for adidas. It wasn’t about being first in our industry in blockchain, expanding the relevance of Web3, getting rich fast or making cool headlines. It was about doing things that aligned with our mission and our values. And doing all that without becoming overwhelmed by the fear of the unknown or the unrealized expectations of internal and external stakeholders.

That’s what helped us overcome so many obstacles to take the shot. Once you step up and take your shot, everything flows from there.

Embrace the no’s – they help you win

The metaverse is an exciting idea, but there were a lot of skeptics who questioned why we would jump into blockchain and Web3. We embraced the skeptics, and put our egos to the side, because they made sure our values weren’t just words on a PowerPoint slide and that we were actually living them.

When you are brave enough to challenge conventional thinking, you’re going to get a lot of ‘nos’ along the journey.

Flip it around and every no is important. Sometimes even more important than a yes, because they are hints and nudges to get the right information and input. You need to collect those no’s so you can continue to fine-tune how you take the shot. That process encourages you not to get too married to one perfect idea of the end result, and to focus instead on what’s best for the brand and the business.

It takes courage to seek out the dissenting voices, check your bias at the door, park your ego, be willing to actively listen, take onboard feedback, keep an open mind, and be prepared to rethink the way you were approaching something. Sitting in this discomfort is the root of true success.

"Our metaverse project involves a lot of difficult conversations and we continue to approach them with a combination of curiosity and bravery."

This doesn’t work if you show up to be right or to be proven right. What we need is a desire to learn and the conviction to keep an open mind. If you come in with nothing to defend, those courageous conversations don’t actually need to feel courageous at all. That way, you can keep some bravery reserves for the bigger challenges ahead!

Ultimately, the metaverse is a fast-moving and truly democratized concept, so you’re competing or collaborating with almost every other Web3 user to define where this journey ends – and how to get there. If we want to truly help the Web3 community go from a moment in history to a movement that changed the world, it requires a level of resilience and open-mindedness from everyone involved. Which is no small ask.

As a brand, we understand the stress and strain this places on the ecosystem. We need to move with, for, and against a Web3 definition that is evolving to the demands of hundreds of thousands of active users. But, by having the strength of courage to stay true to the values of the brand and business, we work every day to make sure the end user is at the heart of our decision-making. Those north stars gave us the courage to keep moving through the difficulties and the barriers, as we continue to venture towards these interoperable, virtual worlds.

"We need to move with, for, and against a Web3 definition that is evolving to the demands of hundreds of thousands of active users."

Go Fast, Take Chances, Hold Hands

Courage is not a solution or an approach, it is an outcome. One that is based on a culture of trust, creativity, empathy and ambition. If you set a tone that rewards and encourages bravery, you open the doors for innovation in any process, department or team you can think of.

In order to achieve this, however, it’s important that you don’t forget to bring people with you.

My first mentor, the CEO of Burton Snowboards, would say to me ‘go fast, take chances’ and that became my motto. However, throughout my career, the higher I went up the ladder, the more I realized I needed to bring people on the journey, and to understand what my impact would be on people’s lives – especially the end users.

"If you set a tone that rewards and encourages bravery, you open the doors for innovation."

So, I’ve changed. My motto is still ‘go fast, take chances,’ but I’ve added ‘hold hands’. It has helped me to slow down where I need to collaborate or build, because the time spent to have those difficult conversations and work through the discomfort is a force amplifier for the strength of conviction that comes from decisions taken together.

When I hold hands, I get those differing perspectives that make the output better. That’s why entering the metaverse was a slow, thoughtful and methodical process. We made sure we were connecting back to our core business strategy. By the time we went live, we had brought along tax, treasury, legal innovation, e-com – every team was onboard. There were hundreds of people behind the scenes who were all joining our courageous journey on the step that required the most bravery: the first!

The most courageous question of all

Courage has carried adidas through the last 73 years, and I’m confident that courage can take this brand through whatever shifts in sports, culture, society, identity and technology will come to define the next 73 years – and beyond.

The Metaverse is just the latest frontier for our teams to explore so that we can meet our consumers where they are, where they will be, and where they want to be interacted with. Our /// Studio is bringing enough bravery for everyone in Web3, all we ask is for the courage to join us, to test, to try, and to see where this all could go!

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