A Brief History of ?What If!

?What If! co-founders Dave Allan and Matt Kingdon on the beginnings of their innovation journey.
What If! was born in London in September 1992. We were two marketers at Unilever who had a hunch that large “supertanker” corporations needed a special sort of help to invent truly breakthrough products and services. Sal Pajwani, our Global C.E.O., joined us from P&G in 1994.
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The business was started on a shoestring with the kind of optimism that powers you to places wiser people wouldn’t go. Our mantras were: obsess about the outcome, not the process; get really close to consumers no matter how difficult that might be; and make each idea as real as possible as early as possible.

Initially we did product-development work with packaged-goods companies. Our innovation process and culture were so effective that clients soon began asking how they could adapt it to their own organizations. So in 1996 we developed our first innovation training course, and that work blossomed into a capability-and-culture practice. Today our business is evenly spread between the “what” (developing new brands, products, services, and business models) and the “how” of innovation (helping clients develop their own innovation capabilities and culture).

As founders, the biggest lesson we’ve learned is that building a business that genuinely partners with clients means recruiting and retaining the best talent. Our “big ambition, low ego” spirit has served us well and we now have the smartest, most provocative, most impact-hungry innovators working with us around the world. In 2005, the Financial Times voted us “Best Company to Work for in the European Union.” We were proud to win that honor again the following year, something no other business has done.

Today we are a 250-strong team and have built a global network with offices in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Our business is well-capitalized and expanding fast. We’re very proud to devote a significant amount of our profits to making a difference in the world through social innovation. Though we have grown in size and scope to help us serve our global client base, at heart we remain a company of entrepreneurs. To us, everything—our standards, our work, our relationships with clients, our impact—is personal.

FROM the greenhouse