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Startups are not smaller versions of large companies, but interestingly we see that companies are not larger versions of startups.
I’ve been spending some time with large companies that are interested in using Lean methods. One of the conundrums is why does innovation take so long to happen in corporations? Previously Hank Chesbrough and I have written about some of the strategic issues that impede innovation inside large corporations here and here.
While they both emphasize getting out of the building and taking to customers, they’re not the same. Here’s why.
Urgency Drives Innovation Speed
Startups operate quickly – at a speed driven by the urgency of a proverbial gun-to-their-head called “burn rate.” Any founding CEO can tell you three numbers they live and breathe by:
If you’re a founder, there’s a constant gnawing fear in the pit of your stomach that it will all end badly; running out of money, having to fire all your employees and failing publicly. (Whoever says, “Failure feels OK in startups has clearly never run a startup.)
A startup CEO adroitly translates this urgency to their employees not with reminders of “we’ll all soon be out of jobs,” but with a bias to action – making measureable progress in getting minimum viable products in front of customers, beating competitors, getting users/customer quickly, and generating revenue. Startups build a culture of commitment and drive to make things happen.
In large companies, the employees are no less smart, but the organization is optimized to deliver repeatable products, revenue and profits. To support this, its corporate culture is dominated by process, procedures and incentives. In large companies, even the most innovative projects (whether it’s process innovation, continuous innovation or disruptive innovation) are not going to make or break the company – and employees know it. Canceling a project may frustrate the team members working on it but unlike in a startup, they still have their jobs, offices and houses and the company won’t close. Attempts to instill urgency via a gun-to-the-head philosophy are frowned on by Corporate HR. All of this adds up to a “complacency culture” rather than an “urgency culture.”
Customer Development versus Design Thinking
This real sense of urgency—and how it shapes employee attitudes and practices – is a big reason why innovation processes in startups are different from those in large companies. One of these processes is how startups versus companies learn from customers. It’s the difference between Customer Development versus Design Thinking.
Customer Development and Design Thinking share similar characteristics in exploring customer needs, but their origins, differences and speed in practice are very different.
I invented the Customer Development process trying to solve two startup problems. First, most Silicon Valley startups were (and primarily still are) technology-driven. They are founded and funded by visionaries who already have products (or product ideas based on technology innovation) and now need to find customers and markets. (Think of the early days of Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Second, burn rate and dwindling cash meant startups had to find these customers and the attendant product/market fit rapidly – before they ran out of money. These two characteristics– a technology-driven product already in hand and a need for speed– drove the unique characteristics of Customer Development. These include:
Design Thinking also focuses on understanding the needs of potential customers outside the building. But its motivations and tactics are different from those of Customer Development. Design Thinking doesn’t start with a founder’s vision and a product in-hand. Instead it starts with “needs finding” and attempts to reduce new product risk by accelerating learning through rapid prototyping. This cycle of Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation is a solutions-based approach to solving customer problems.
Design Thinking is perfectly suited to situations where the process isn’t engineering-driven; time and money are abundant and the cost (and time) of a failure of a major project launch can be substantial. This process makes sense in a large company when the bets on a new product require large investments in engineering, a new factory or spending 10s or 100s of millions on launching a new product line.
But therein lies the conundrum. Because of the size of the dollars at stake (and your career), lots of effort is spent to make sure your understanding of the customer and the product is right. At times large companies will drag out these design-thinking investigations (prototype after prototype) for years. Often there is no place where urgency gets built into the corporate process. (Just to be clear this isn’t a failure of the process. Urgency can be built in, it’s just that most of the time it’s not.)
Both Models Work for Large Companies
There is no right process for all types of corporate innovation. In a perfect world you wouldn’t need Customer Development. No corporate R&D would happen before you understood customer problems and needs. But until that day, the challenge for executives in charge of corporate innovation is to understand the distinction between the two approaches and decide which process best fits which situation. While both get product teams out of the building the differences are in speed, urgency and whether the process is driven by product vision or customer needs.
In one example, you might have a great technology innovation from corporate or division R&D in search of customers. In another, you might have a limited time to respond to rapidly shifting market or changing competitive environment. And in still another, understanding untapped customer needs can offer an opportunity for new innovation.
Often I hear spirited defenses for Customer Development versus Design Thinking or vice versa, and my reaction is to slowly back out of these faith-based conversations. For large companies, it isn’t about which process is right – the reality is that we probably haven’t invented the right process yet. It’s about whether your company is satisfied with the speed, quality and size of the innovations being produced. And whether you’re applying the right customer discovery process to the right situation. No one size fits all.
There’s ample evidence from the National Science Foundation that Customer Development is the right process for commercializing existing technology. There’s equally compelling evidence from IDEO the Stanford D-School and the Biodesign Innovation Process that Design Thinking works great in finding customer needs and building products to match them.
- Customer Development and Design Thinking are both customer discovery processes
- Customer Development starts with, “I have a technology/product, now who do I sell it to?”
- Design Thinking starts with, “I need to understand customer needs and iterate prototypes until I find a technology and product that satisfies this need”
- Customer Development is optimized for speed and “good enough” decision making with limited time and resources
- Design Thinking is optimized for getting it right before we make big bets
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For decades large companies have gone shopping in Silicon Valley for startups. Lately the pressure of continuous disruption has forced them to step up the pace.
More often than not the results of these acquisitions are disappointing.
What can companies learn from others’ failed efforts to integrate startups into large companies? The answer – there are two types of integration strategies, and they depend on where the startup is in its lifecycle.
The Innovation Portfolio
Most large companies manage three types of innovation: process innovation (making existing products incrementally better), continuous innovation (building on the strength of the company’s current business model but creating new elements) and disruptive innovation (creating products or services that did not exist before.)
Companies manage these three types of innovation with an innovation portfolio – they build innovation internally, they buy it or they partner with resources outside their company.
Silicon Valley – a Corporate Innovation Candy Store
Corporate business development and strategic partner executives are flocking to Silicon Valley to find these five types of innovation. In response, venture capital firms like Sequoia and Andreessen/Horowitz are hiring new partners just to work with their portfolio companies and match them to corporations. They are actively organizing annual and quarterly activities to bring the portfolio and Fortune 500 decision makers together– in both large events and one-on-one visits. The goal is to get a corporate investment or an outright acquisition of the startup.
VCs like acquisitions as much as IPOs because the acquiring companies often can rationalize paying large multiples over the current valuation of the startup. For acquirers this math makes sense since they can factor in the potential impact the startup has when combined with their existing business. However, these nosebleed valuations make it even more important in getting the acquired company integrated correctly. The common mistake acquirers make is treating all acquisitions the same.
Is the Potential Acquisition Searching or Executing?
Not all new ventures are at the same stage of maturity. Remember, the definition of a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. (A business model is all the parts of a strategy necessary to deliver a product to a customer and make money from it. These include the product itself, the customer, the distribution channel, revenue model, how to get, keep and grow customers, resources and activities needed to build the business and costs.)
Startups are those companies that are still in the process of searching for a business model. Ventures that are further along and now executing their business model are no longer startups, they are now early-stage companies. Large corporations come to the valley to looking to acquire both startups which are searching for a business model and early-stage companies which are executing.
Companies that acquire startups for their intellectual property, teams or product lines are acquiring startups that are still searching for a business model. If they acquire later stage companies who already have users/customers and/or a predictable revenue stream, they are acquiring companies which are executing.
What gets lost when a large company looks at the rationale for an acquisition (IP, team, product, users) is that startups are run by founders searching for a business model. The founding team is testing for the right combination of product, market, revenue, costs, etc. They do it with a continual customer discovery process, iterating, pivoting and building incremental MVP’s.
This phase of a new venture is chaotic and unpredictable with very few processes, procedures or formal hierarchy. At this stage the paramount goal of the startup management team is to find product/market fit and a business model that can scale before they run out of cash. This search phase is driven by the startup culture which encourages individual initiative and autonomy, and creates a shared esprit de corps that results in the passionate and relentless pursuit of opportunity. This is the antithesis of the process, procedures and rules that make up large companies.
In contrast, early stage companies that have found product/market fit are now in execution mode, scaling their organization and customer base. While they still may share the same passion as a startup, the goal is now scale. Since scale and execution require repeatable processes and procedures, these companies have begun to replace their chaotic early days with org charts, HR manuals, revenue plans, budgets, key performance indicators and other tools that allow measurement and control of a growing business. And as part of their transition to predictable processes, their founders may or may not still be at the helm. Often they have brought in an operating executive as the new CEO.
Predicting Success or Failure of an Acquisition
So what? Who cares whether a potential acquisition is searching or executing?
Ironically, the business development and strategic partner executives who find the startup and negotiate the deal are not the executives who manage the integration or the acquisition. Usually it’s up to the CTO or the operating executive who wanted the innovative technology (and at times with a formal HR integration process) to decide the fate of the startup inside the acquiring company.
It turns out the success of the acquisition depends on whether the acquiring company intends to keep the new venture as a standalone division or integrate and assimilate it into the corporation.
Actually there is a simple heuristic to guide this decision.
If the startup is being acquired for its intellectual property and/or team, the right strategy is to integrate and assimilate it quickly. The rest is just overhead surrounding what is the core value to the acquiring company.
However, if the startup is still in search mode, and you want the product line and users to grow at its current pace or faster, keep the startup as an independent division and appoint the existing CEO as the division head. Given startups in this stage are chaotic, and the speed of innovation depends on preserving a culture that is driven by autonomy and initiative, insulate the acquisition as much as possible from the corporate overhead. Unless you want to stop innovation in your new acquisition dead in its tracks, do not pile on the corporate KPI’s, processes and procedures. Provide the existing CEO with a politically savvy “corporate concierge” to access the acquiring company’s resources to further accelerate growth. (It helps if the acquirer has incentives for its existing employees that tie the new acquisition’s success to those that help them.) The key insight here is that for a startup still searching for a business model, corporate processes and policies will kill innovation and drive the employees responsible for innovation out of the acquired company before the startup’s optimal value can be realized.
If the acquisition is in execution mode, the right model is to integrate and assimilate it. Combine its emerging corporate KPI’s, process and procedures with those of the acquiring company. Unless it’s the rare founder who secretly loves processes and procedures, transition the existing CEO to a corporate innovation group or an exit.
- Corporate acquirers need to know what they’re buying – is their acquisition searching or executing
- If the startup is acquired for its IP, talent or revenue, it should be rapidly integrated into the acquirer
- If the startup is acquired for its products and/or users, preserve its startup culture by keeping it an independent unit
- Appoint a “corporate concierge” to access the acquiring company’s resources
- Incentive programs need to tie together the new acquisition’s continued success and the rest of the company
- Acquirers need a formal integration and on-boarding process
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President Bieto, Dean Sauquet, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen….Thank you for the kind introduction. I’m honored to be at a university noted for knowledge, and in a city with 2000 years of history – home of Gaudí one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators.
I’d like to start with a request.
Everyone, hold your phone up in the air like this.
Now look around. In this sea of phones do you see any Blackberries? How about any Nokia phones?
Ok you can put your phones down now but let’s keep exploring this a bit. Raise your hand if you rented a VHS tape last night? Or if you used a paper map to find your way here?
These questions and your answers lie at the heart of what I’d like to talk about with you today: the changing face of innovation and your role in it.
Let’s start with Joseph Schumpeter. I’m sure many of you have heard his name. Schumpeter was an economist who taught at Harvard in the 1930’s and 40’s. I like the guy because he’s credited with coining the word entrepreneur. But you probably remember him as the one who proposed the theory of creative destruction. According to Schumpeter, capitalism is an evolutionary process where new industries and new companies continually emerge to knock out the old.
Fifty years later another Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen, developed his theory of disruptive innovation, which actually described how creative destruction worked.
Disruptive innovation leads to the creative destruction of businesses that once seemed pre-eminent and secure.
Which brings me back to your mobile phones.
Think about this; 7 years ago Nokia owned 50% of the handset market. Apple owned 0%. In fact, it was only 7 years ago that Apple shipped its first iPhone and Google introduced its Android operating system.
Fast-forward to today—Apple is the most profitable Smartphone company in the world and in Spain Android commands a market share of more than 90%. And Nokia? Its worldwide market share of Smartphones has dwindled to 5%.
You’re witnessing creative destruction and disruptive innovation at work. It’s the paradox of progress in a capitalist economy.
So congratulations graduates – as you move forward in your careers, you’ll be face to face with innovation that’s relentless.
And that’s what I’d like to talk about today—how innovation will shape the business world of the next 50 years—and what it means for you.
The Perfect Storm
Your time at ESADE has trained you to become a global business leader.
But the world you lead will be much different from the one your professors knew or your predecessors managed.
Just look at the disruptive challenges that businesses face today– globalization, China as a manufacturer, China as a consumer, the Internet, and a steady stream of new startups. Today’s workforce has radically different expectations, brands are losing their power, physical channels are being destroyed by virtual ones, market share is less important than market creation, and software is eating world.
Industries that we all grew up with, industries that enjoyed decades of market dominance – like newspapers, bookstores, video rentals, personal computers — are being swept away.
The convergence of digital trends along with the rise of China and globalization has upended the rules for almost every business in every corner of the globe. It’s worth noting that everything from the Internet, to electric cars, genomic sequencing, mobile apps, and social media — were pioneered by startups, not existing companies.
Perhaps that’s because where established companies might see risks or threats, startups see opportunity. As the venture capital business has come roaring back in the last 5 years, startups are awash in available capital. As a consequence, existing companies confront a tidal wave of competitors 100 times what they saw 25 years ago.
Efficiency over innovation
Yet in the face of all this change, traditional firms continue to embrace a management ethos that values efficiency over innovation. Companies horde cash and squeeze the most revenue and margin from the money they use. Instead of measuring success in dollars of profit, …firms focus on measuring capital efficiency. Metrics like Return on Net Assets, Return on Capital and Internal Rate of Return are the guiding stars of the board and CEO.
Cheered on by finance professors, Wall Street analysts, investors and hedge funds, companies have learned how to make metrics like Internal Rate of Return look great by one; outsourcing everything, two, getting assets off their balance sheet, and three only investing in things that pay off fast.
As Harvard professor Clayton Christensen noted, these efficiency metrics provided wise guidance for times when capital was scarce and raising money was hard. But they have also stacked the deck against investment in long-term innovation.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, policy makers have kept interest rates at near zero, flooding the market with cheap money in an attempt to restart growth. In spite of this, private equity funds have used the rallying cry of efficiency to hijack corporate strategy and loot the profits that historically would have been reinvested into research and development and new products. We legalized robbing the corporate treasury. Today billions of dollars that companies could have invested in innovation are sitting in the hands of private equity funds.
Unfortunately as we’ve learned from recent experience, using Return on Net Assets and IRR as proxies for efficiency and execution won’t save a company when their industry encounters creative disruption. Ask Sony about Samsung, ask any retailer about Amazon, any car company about Tesla, and any newspaper company about the web.
The stock market clearly values companies that can deliver disruptive innovation. Look at the valuations of companies like Tesla, Illumina, and Twitter.
In fact, I predict that over the next few decades, we will see two classes of public companies. The first will be commodity businesses that are valued for their ability to execute their current business model. Their lifetime as a market leader will be measured in years. The second class will be firms with a demonstrated ability to continually innovate and reinvent their business models. The companies that can show “startup-like” growth rates of 50% plus per year will get stratospheric market valuations.
So I hope you are thinking—“hey how can I lead a business with startup growth?” At least I hope you’re thinking that, rather than “oops I joined the wrong company.”The question for all of you is … “What will it take to inspire and manage this kind of innovation?”
Before I answer that question, let’s take a minute to establish a common definition of innovation. At its most basic, innovation means to introduce something new. But in a business context, the meaning gets more nuanced. I’d like to describe the four types of innovation you can build inside a corporation:
The first type of corporate innovation is individual initiative. It’s exactly as it sounds – you build a corporate culture where anyone can suggest an idea and start a project. Some companies use a suggestion box, others like Google give employees 20% of their time to work on their own projects.
The second type of business innovation is called process improvement. This is the kind most of us are familiar with. Car companies introduce new models each year, running shoes grow ever lighter and more flexible, Coca-Cola offers a new version of Coke. Smart companies are always looking to make their current products better – and there are many ways to do this. For example they can reduce component cost, introduce a line extension or create new versions of the existing product. These innovations do not require change in a company’s existing business model.
This is what companies typically do to secure and defend their core business.
The third type of business innovation – continuous innovation – is much harder. Continuous innovation builds on a strength of the company’s current business model but requires that new elements be created. For example, Coke added snack foods, which could be distributed through its existing distribution channels. The Amazon Kindle played on Amazon’s strengths as a distributor of content but required developing expertise in electronics and manufacturing.
Fourth and finally is disruptive innovation – this is the innovation we associate with startups. This type of innovation creates new products or new services that did not exist before. It’s the automobile in the 1910’s, radio in the 1920’s, television in the 1950’s, the integrated circuit in the 1960’s, the fax machine in the 1970’s, personal computers in the 1980’s, the Internet in the 1990’s, and the Smartphone, human genome sequencing, and even fracking in this decade. These innovations are exactly what Schumpeter and Christensen were talking about. They create new industries and destroy existing ones. And interestingly, in spite of all their resources, large companies are responsible for very, very few disruptive innovations.
The first two types of innovation—individual and process innovation– are what good companies do well. The third type—continuous innovation—is a hallmark of great companies like GE and Procter and Gamble. But the fourth type of innovation – creating disruptive innovation– and doing it on a repeatable basis– is what extraordinary companies do. Apple with the iPod, iPhone and iPad; Amazon with Amazon Web Services and Kindle; Toyota with the Prius… these companies are extraordinary because, like startups, they create entirely new products and services.
ESADE and other great business schools have provided decades of advice and strategy for the first three types of innovation. But leading an existing firm to innovate like a startup is not business as usual.
Building Innovation Internally is Hard
Paradoxically, in spite of the seemingly endless resources, innovation inside of an existing company is much harder than inside a startup. That’s because existing companies face a conundrum: Every policy and procedure that makes them efficient execution machines stifles innovation.
Think about this. When it comes to innovation, public companies have two strikes against them. First the markets favor capital efficiency over R&D. And secondly, their sole purpose is to focus resources on the execution of their business model.
As a consequence, companies are optimized for execution over innovation. And to keep executing large organizations hire employees with a range of skills and competencies. To manage these employees companies create metrics to control, measure and reward execution. But remember—in public companies financial metrics take precedence. As a result, staff functions and business units develop their own performance indicators and processes to ensure that every part of the organization marches in lock step to the corporate numbers.
These Key Performance Indicators and processes are what make a company efficient —but they are also the root cause of its inability to be agile and innovative. Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more.
Act Like a Startup
So how does a company act like a startup in search of new business models while still continuing to successfully execute?
First, management must understand that innovation happens not by exception but is integral to all parts of the firm. If they don’t, then the management team has simply become caretakers of the founders’ legacy. This never ends well.
Second and maybe the most difficult is the recognition that innovation is chaotic, messy and uncertain. Not everything will work out, but failure in innovation is not cause for firing but for learning. Managers need radically different tools to control and measure innovation. A company needs innovation policies, innovation processes and innovation incentives to match those it already has for execution. These will enable firms to embrace innovation by design not by exception.
Third, smart companies manage an innovation portfolio where they can pursue potential disruption in a variety of ways. To build innovation internally companies can adopt the practices of startups and accelerators. To buy innovation companies can buy intellectual property, acquire great teams, buy-out another company’s product line or even buy entire companies. And if they’re particularly challenged in a market they can acquire and integrate disruptive innovation. My favorite example is Exxon’s $35 billion purchase of XTO Energy in large part to get their fracking expertise.
Other smart companies are learning how to use Open Innovation pioneered by Henry Chesbrough who teaches here at ESADE. They can partner with suppliers, co-create with consumers, open-source key technologies, open their application programming interfaces, or run open incubators for customer ideas.
Everything I’ve been talking about smart companies have already figured out. Many firms are creating the new role of Chief Innovation Officer to lead and manage these innovation activities. Ultimately this is not just another staff function. The Chief Innovation Officer is a c-level executive who runs the company’s entire innovation portfolio and oversees the integration of innovation metrics and initiatives across the entire organization.
Looking forward, all of you will play a role in the future of business innovation, whether you help to accelerate it or discourage it.
How can you kill innovation? Some companies have so lost the DNA for innovation they become “rent seekers”. Rent seekers fight to keep the status quo. Instead of offering better products or superior service, rent seekers hire lawyers and lobbyists to influence politicians to pass laws that block competition. The bad news here is that countries where bribes and corruption are the cost of doing business or that are dominated by organized interest groups, tend to be the economic losers. And as rent-seeking becomes more attractive than innovation, the economy falls into decline.
I know that’s not the path most of you want to take. Instead I think you want to be part of the innovation team. And if you do you are in luck. Companies need your help.
They need your help in creating new metrics to manage measure disruptive innovation. They need your help in creating new innovation incentive systems that reward creative innovation.
And they need your help as leaders who can run companies that can both execute and innovate.
Finally, remember Innovation won’t come from plans or people outside your company – it will be found in the people you already have inside who understand your company’s strengths and its vulnerabilities.
So in closing, let me leave you with this final thought:
A pessimist sees danger in every opportunity but an optimist.. an optimist sees opportunity in every danger.
In the last 150 years only a few generations have had the opportunity to reshape the nature of business.
Be an optimist.
Congratulations class of 2014:
Embrace change and lead the way.
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Henry Chesbrough is known as the father of Open Innovation and wrote the book that defined the practice. Henry is the Faculty Director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, at U.C. Berkeley in the Haas Business School. Henry and I teach a corporate innovation class together.
Thanks to Steve for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you all. This post follows directly on Steve’s earlier excellent post, Why Companies are not Startups.
The question of how corporations can be more innovative is one I have wrestled with for a long time. For those who don’t know, I wrote the book Open Innovation in 2003, and followed it with Open Business Models in 2006, and Open Services Innovation in 2011.
More recently, Steve, Alexander Osterwalder and I have started sharing notes, ideas and insights on this problem. We even ran an executive education course last fall at Berkeley on Corporate Business Model Innovation that helped each of us understand the others’ perspectives on this problem. In this post, I want to share some new thoughts that build on Steve’s post, and connect them to Lean Startup methods. However, I will then argue that while these methods are necessary to managing new ventures inside a company, they are insufficient.
First, let me recap a key insight for me from Steve’s post. A startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable, scalable business model. A corporation, by contrast, is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable, scalable business model. While a simple statement, this is a profound insight. When companies want to innovate a new business model (vs. innovating new products and services within an already scaled business model), the processes that companies have optimized for execution inevitably interfere with the search processes needed to discover a new business model.
This has serious implications for corporate venturing, for innovating new businesses – and new business models – inside an existing corporation. The context for an internal venture inside an existing company is dramatically different from the context confronting an external startup out in the wild. The good news is that corporations have access to resources and capabilities that most startups can only dream of, whether it is free cash flow, a strong brand, a vibrant supply chain, strong distribution, a skilled sales force, and so on. The bad news is that, as Steve reminded us above, each of these assets is tailored to execute the existing business model, not to help search for a new one. So what seem like unfair advantages for corporate ventures become inflexible liabilities that block the search process of the venture.
But the contextual differences go even beyond these substantial differences. A corporate venture, struggling to search for a new, repeatable and scalable business model, must wage that struggle on two fronts, not just one. The external startup has to work long hours, and make many pivots, to identify the product-market fit, validate the MVP, and articulate a winning business model that can then be repeated and scaled. The internal venture must do all this, and more! The internal venture must fight on a second front at the same time within the corporation. That second fight must obtain the permissions, protection, resources, etc. needed to launch the venture initiative, and then must work to retain that support over time as conflicts arise (which they will).
Knowing Steve’s fondness for military metaphors, think of the corporate venture as fighting a war on two fronts at the same time. Just as Germany’s domination of Western Europe in World War II was eventually undone by its decision to launch a second front by invading Russia, so too unlike a start up, corporate ventures cannot focus solely on winning in the external marketplace. This leads to two key points:
Point 1: You have to fight – and win- on two fronts (both outside and inside), in order to succeed in corporate venturing. As Steve would say, this is a big idea.
One memorable example of this was Xerox’s internal venture capital fund, Xerox Technology Ventures (XTV). Launched by Robert Adams in 1989, this $30 million fund grew to over $200 million in the next 7 years, as it launched companies like Documentum and Document Sciences out of Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center. This financial performance was extraordinary, and put XTV in the top quartile of all VC funds launched in 1989. Ordinary VCs would use this success to raise an even larger fund, and try to create the magic once more.
But Xerox instead chose to shut XTV down in 1996, despite its external success. Why? XTV’s success created lots of internal dissatisfaction within Xerox. The success of Documentum and Document Sciences, they felt, came largely from Xerox technology and customers, yet the startup companies XTV funded got all the credit. Worse, Robert Adams and his two partners got 20% of the carried interest in the fund, resulting in payouts of $30 million to the partnership. This was more, far more, than the Xerox CEO was paid in those years. So XTV won in the market, but lost inside the corporation.
This leads us to:
Point two: Corporate ventures may need to pivot to obtain and retain internal corporate support for the venture. This is likely to be controversial for adherents to Lean Startup thinking because we traditionally think of pivoting to improve the product-market fit in the external marketplace. But astute corporate venture managers, realizing that they must fight the war on two fronts, will also be alert to the need to pivot if needed in order to keep the internal support they require in order to succeed. For example, the new venture might pivot away from current customers of the corporation in the early days of the venture, in order to reduce friction with the established sales force (who want to sell large quantities of the current product, not test minute quantities of some future product that may or may not ever be built in volume. Worse, the potential new product might give customers a reason to delay the purchase of today’s products).
This also suggests that the internal organization must be carefully designed and prepared in order to sustain internal support for ventures over time. Ventures that launch without this preparation are at great risk as soon as the initial enthusiasm for innovation begins to wane. One bad quarter for the company, or one transition for a key internal champion, or the arrival of a new CEO who wants to clean house, any of these unforeseen changes could spell doom for an unprepared internal venture program.
This suggests a further modification to Lean Startup: Get Upstairs in the Building. You will need strong, sustained internal support for successful internal venturing. You will need to get the bigwigs upstairs to sign up to the risks, and put structures in place to insulate and protect the ventures from the execution processes in a large company that will attack the new venture. Think of it as internal political product-market fit, and prepare to pivot in order to increase that fit (and your support).
We will continue our conversations, and I fully expect that Steve, Alex and I will have more to say about how best to structure and support new ventures inside a large corporation in future posts!
- Internal ventures face a different context than do external startups.
- Venturing inside a corporation is a 2-front war.
- Lean Startup Methods are necessary, but insufficient, to fight this war.
- An internal venture may need to pivot to gain or maintain internal support. Get Upstairs in the Building, to generate this support.
- Stay tuned, as Steve, Alex and I have more coming….
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In the last few years we’ve recognized that a startup is not a smaller version of a large company. We’re now learning that companies are not larger versions of startups.
There’s been lots written about how companies need to be more innovative, but very little on what stops them from doing so.
Companies looking to be innovative face a conundrum: Every policy and procedure that makes them efficient execution machines stifles innovation.
This first post will describe some of the structural problems companies have; follow-on posts will offer some solutions.
Facing continuous disruption from globalization, China, the Internet, the diminished power of brands, changing workforce, etc., existing enterprises are establishing corporate innovation groups. These groups are adapting or adopting the practices of startups and accelerators – disruption and innovation rather than direct competition, customer development versus more product features, agility and speed versus lowest cost.
But paradoxically, in spite of all their seemingly endless resources, innovation inside of an existing company is much harder than inside a startup. For most companies it feels like innovation can only happen by exception and heroic efforts, not by design. The question is – why?
The Enterprise: Business Model Execution
We know that a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. The corollary for an enterprise is:
A company is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.
Once you understand that existing companies are designed to execute then you can see why they have a hard time with continuous and disruptive innovation.
Every large company, whether it can articulate it or not, is executing a proven business model(s). A business model guides an organization to create and deliver products/service and make money from it. It describes the product/service, who is it for, what channel sells/deliver it, how demand is created, how does the company make money, etc.
Somewhere in the dim past of the company, it too was a startup searching for a business model. But now, as the business model is repeatable and scalable, most employees take the business model as a given, and instead focus on the execution of the model – what is it they are supposed to do every day when they come to work. They measure their success on metrics that reflect success in execution, and they reward execution.
It’s worth looking at the tools companies have to support successful execution and explain why these same execution policies and processes have become impediments and are antithetical to continuous innovation.
20th century Management Tools for Execution
In the 20th century business schools and consulting firms developed an amazing management stack to assist companies to execute. These tools brought clarity to corporate strategy, product line extension strategies, and made product management a repeatable process.
For example, the Boston Consulting Group 2 x 2 growth-share matrix was an easy to understand strategy tool – a market selection matrix for companies looking for growth opportunities.
Strategy Maps are a visualization tool to translate strategy into specific actions and objectives, and to measure the progress of how the strategy gets implemented.
Product management tools like Stage-Gate® emerged to systematically manage Waterfall product development. The product management process assumes that product/market fit is known, and the products can get spec’d and then implemented in a linear fashion.
Strategy becomes visible in a company when you draw the structure to execute the strategy. The most visible symbol of execution is the organization chart. It represents where employees fit in an execution hierarchy; showing command and control hierarchies – who’s responsible, what they are responsible for, and who they manage below them, and report to above them.
All these tools – strategy, product management and organizational structures, have an underlying assumption – that the business model – which features customers want, who the customer is, what channel sells/delivers the product or service, how demand is created, how does the company make money, etc – is known, and that all the company needed is a systematic process for execution.
Driven by Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) and Processes
Once the business model is known, the company organizes around that goal and measures efforts to reach the goal, and seeks the most efficient ways to reach the goal. This systematic process of execution needs to be repeatable and scalable throughout a large organization by employees with a range of skills and competencies. Staff functions in finance, human resources, legal departments and business units developed Key Performance Indicators, processes, procedures and goals to measure, control and execute.
Paradoxically, these very KPIs and processes, which make companies efficient, are the root cause of corporations’ inability to be agile, responsive innovators.
This is a big idea.
Finance The goals for public companies are driven primarily by financial Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). They include: return on net assets (RONA), return on capital deployed, internal rate of return (IRR), net/gross margins, earnings per share, marginal cost/revenue, debt/equity, EBIDA, price earning ratio, operating income, net revenue per employee, working capital, debt to equity ratio, acid test, accounts receivable/payable turnover, asset utilization, loan loss reserves, minimum acceptable rate of return, etc.
(A consequence of using these corporate finance metrics like RONA and IRR is that it‘s a lot easier to get these numbers to look great by 1) outsourcing everything, 2) getting assets off the balance sheet and 3) only investing in things that pay off fast. These metrics stack the deck against a company that wants to invest in long-term innovation.)
These financial performance indicators then drive the operating functions (sales, manufacturing, etc) or business units that have their own execution KPI’s (market share, quote to close ratio, sales per rep, customer acquisition/activation costs, average selling price, committed monthly recurring revenue, customer lifetime value, churn/retention, sales per square foot, inventory turns, etc.)
HR Process Historically Human Resources was responsible for recruiting, retaining and removing employees to execute known business functions with known job spec’s. One of the least obvious but most important HR Process, and ultimately the most contentious, issue in corporate innovation is the difference in incentives. The incentive system for a company focused on execution is driven by the goal of meeting and exceeding “the (quarterly/yearly) plan.” Sales teams are commission-based, executive compensation is based on EPS, revenue and margin, business units on revenue and margin contribution, etc.
What Does this Mean?
Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more.
The conundrum is that every policy and procedure that makes a company and efficient execution machine stifles innovation.
Innovation is chaotic, messy and uncertain. It needs radically different tools for measurement and control. It needs the tools and processes pioneered in Lean Startups.
While companies intellectually understand innovation, they don’t really know how to build innovation into their culture, or how to measure its progress.
What to Do?
It may be that the current attempts to build corporate innovation are starting at the wrong end of the problem. While it’s fashionable to build corporate incubators there’s little evidence that they deliver more than “Innovation Theater.” Because internal culture applies execution measures/performance indicators to the output of these incubators and allocates resources to them same way as to executing parts of company.
Corporations that want to build continuous innovation realize that innovation happens not by exception but as integral to all parts of the corporation.
To do so they will realize that a company needs innovation KPI’s, policies, processes and incentives. (Our Investment Readiness Level is just one of those metrics.) These enable innovation to occur as an integral and parallel process to execution. By design not by exception.
We’ll have more to say about this in future posts.
- Innovation inside of an existing company is much harder than a startup
- KPI’s and processes are the root cause of corporations’ inability to be agile and responsive innovators
- Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more
- Intellectually companies understand innovation, they don’t have the tools to put it into practice
- Companies need different policies, procedures and incentives designed for innovation
- Currently the data we use for execution models the past
- Innovation metrics need to be predictive for the future
- These tools and practices are coming…
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Since 2005 startup accelerators have provided cohorts of startups with mentoring, pitch practice and product focus. However, accelerator Demo Days are a combination of graduation ceremony and pitch contest, with the uncomfortable feel of a swimsuit competition. Other than “I’ll know it when I see it”, there’s no formal way for an investor attending Demo Day to assess project maturity or quantify risks. Other than measuring engineering progress, there’s no standard language to communicate progress.
Corporations running internal incubators face many of the same selection issues as startup investors, plus they must grapple with the issues of integrating new ideas into existing P&L-driven functions or business units.
What’s been missing for everyone is:
While it doesn’t eliminate great investor judgment, pattern recognition skills and mentoring, we’ve developed an Investment Readiness Level tool that fills in these missing pieces.
Investment Readiness Level (IRL) for Corporations and Investors
The startups in our Lean LaunchPad classes and the NSF I-Corps incubator use LaunchPad Central to collect a continuous stream of data across all the teams. Over 10 weeks each team gets out of the building talking to 100 customers to test their hypotheses across all 9 boxes in the business model canvas.
We track each team’s progress as they test their business model hypotheses. We collect the complete narrative of what they discovered talking to customers as well as aggregate interviews, hypotheses to test, invalidated hypotheses and mentor and instructor engagements. This data gives innovation managers and investors a feel for the evidence and trajectory of the cohort as a whole and a top-level view of each teams progress. The software rolls all the data into an Investment Readiness Level score.
The Power of the Investment Readiness Level: Different Metrics for Different Industry Segments
Recently we ran a Lean LaunchPad for Life Sciences class with 26 teams of clinicians and researchers at UCSF. The teams developed businesses in 4 different areas– therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health. To understand the power of this tool, look at how the VC overseeing each market segment modified the Investment Readiness Level so that it reflected metrics relevant to their particular industry.
Allan May of Life Science Angels modified the standard Investment Readiness Level to include metrics that were specific for medical device startups. These included; identification of a compelling clinical need, large enough market, intellectual property, regulatory issues, and reimbursement, and whether there was a plausible exit.
In the pictures below, note that all the thermometers are visual proxies for the more detailed evaluation criteria that lie behind them.
You can watch the entire presentation here
Karl Handelsman of CMEA Capital modified the standard Investment Readiness Level (IRL) for teams developing therapeutics to include identifying clinical problems, and agreeing on a timeline to pre-clinical and clinical data, cost and value of data points, what quality data to deliver to a company, and building a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) network. The heart of the therapeutics IRL also required “Proof of relevance” – was there a path to revenues fully articulated, an operational plan defined. Finally, did the team understand the key therapeutic liabilities, have data proving on-target activity and evidence of a therapeutic effect.
You can see the entire presentation here
For teams developing Digital Health solutions, Abhas Gupta of MDV noted that the Investment Readiness Level was closest to the standard web/mobile/cloud model with the addition of reimbursement and technical validation.
Todd Morrill wanted teams developing Diagnostics to have a reimbursement strategy fully documented, the necessary IP in place, regulation and technical validation (clinical trial) regime understood and described and the cost structure and financing needs well documented.
You can see the entire presentation here
For their final presentations, each team explained how they tested and validated their business model (value proposition, customer segment, channel, customer relationships, revenue, costs, activities, resources and partners.) But they also scored themselves using the Investment Readiness Level criteria for their market. After the teams reported the results of their self-evaluation, the VC’s then told them how they actually scored. We were fascinated to see that the team scores and the VC scores were almost the same.
- The Investment Readiness Level provides a “how are we doing” set of metrics
- It also creates a common language and metrics that investors, corporate innovation groups and entrepreneurs can share
- It’s flexible enough to be modified for industry-specific business models
- It’s part of a much larger suite of tools for those who manage corporate innovation, accelerators and incubators
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