Why Corporate Entrepreneurs are Extraordinary – the Rebel Alliance

I’ve spent this year working with corporations and government agencies that are adopting and adapting Lean Methodologies. The biggest surprise for me was getting schooled on how extremely difficult it is to be an innovator inside a company of executors.

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What Have We Lost?
I’ve been working with Richard, a mid-level executive in a large federal agency facing increasing external disruption (technology shifts, new competitors, asymmetric warfare, etc.). Several pockets of innovation in his agency have begun to look to startups and have tried to adopt lean methods. Richard has been trying to get his organization to recognize that change needs to happen. Relentless and effective, Richard exudes enthusiasm and radiates optimism. He’s attracted a following, and he had just been tapped to lead innovation in his division.

He’s working to get his agency to adopt Lean and the Horizon 1, 2, and 3 innovation language (Horizon 1 executes current business models, Horizon 2 extends current business models and Horizon 3 searches for new business models) and was now building a Lean innovation pipeline created out of my I-Corps/Lean LaunchPad classes.

Yet today at dinner his frustration just spilled out.

“Most of the time our attempts at innovation result in “innovation theater” – lots of motion (memos from our CEO, posters in the cafeteria, corporate incubators) but no real change. We were once a scrappy, agile and feared organization with a “can-do” attitude. Now most people here don’t want to rock the boat and simply want do their job 9 to 5. Mid-level bureaucrats kill everything by studying it to death or saying it’s too risky. Everything innovative I’ve accomplished has taken years of political battles, calling in favors, and building alliances.” He thought for a minute and said, “Boy, I wish I had a manual to tell me the best way to make this place better.”

Richard continued, “Innovation is something startups do as part of their daily activities – it’s in their DNA. Why is that?”

While I understood conceptually that adopting new ideas was harder in larger companies, hearing it first-hand from a successful change agent made me realize both how extraordinary Richard was and how extraordinarily difficult it is to bring change to large organizations. His two questions– 1) Was there a manual on “how to be a successful corporate rebel”? and 2) Why are startups innovative by design but companies are innovative by exception?–left me searching for answers.

Why Startups are Innovative by Design
If you come from the startup world, you take for granted that on day one startups are filled with rebels. Everyone around you is focused on a single goal – disrupt incumbents and deliver something innovative to the market.

In a (well-run) startup, the founder has a vision (at first a series of untested hypotheses) and rallies employees and investors around that singular idea. The founders get out of building and rapidly turn the hypotheses into facts by developing a series of incremental and iterative minimal viable products they test in front of customers in search of product-market fit.

While there might be arguments internally about technology and the right markets, no one is confused about the company’s goal – find a sustainable business model, get enough revenue, users, etc., before you run out of money.

Every obstacle Richard described in his agency simply does not exist in the early days of a startup. Zero. Nada. For the first year or so startups actually accumulate technical and organizational debt as they take people and process shortcuts to just get the first orders, 100,000 users or whatever they need to build the business. All that matters is survival.  Process, procedures, KPI’s, org charts, forms, and bureaucracy are impediments to survival as a new company struggles to search for and find a repeatable business model. Founding CEO’s hate process, and actually beat it out of an organization when it appears too early.

In the technology world companies that grow large take one of two paths. Most common is when startups do find a repeatable and scalable business model they hire people to execute the successful business model. And these hires turn the startup into a company – a Horizon 1 or 2 execution organization focused on executing and extending the current business model – with the leadership incented for repeatability and scale. (See here for explanations of the three Horizons of Innovation.)

But often as the company/agency scales, the early innovators feel disfranchised and leave. Subsequently, when a technology and/or platform shift occurs, the company becomes a victim of disruption and unable to innovate, usually stagnates and dies.

Alternatively, a company/agency scales but continues to be run by innovators. The large companies that survive rapid technology and/or platform shifts are often run by founders, (Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Steve Jobs at Apple, Larry Page at Google, Larry Ellison at Oracle) or faced with an existential crisis and forced to change (Satya Nadella at Microsoft) or somehow have miraculously retained an innovation culture through multiple generations of leadership like W.L. Gore.

I offered that perhaps his top-level management would embrace Three Horizons of Innovation from the top-down. Richard replied, “In a perfect world that would be great, but in most agencies (and companies) the CEO or board is not a visionary. Even when our CEO’s acknowledged the need for Horizon 3 innovation, the problem isn’t solved because entrepreneurs run into either “a culture of no” or worse yet the intransigent middle management.

Richard explained, “In a Horizon 1-dominated culture, where everyone is focused on Horizon 1 execution, you can’t grow enough Horizon 3 managers. Instead we’ve found that support for innovation has to come from rare leaders embedded in the Horizon 1 organizations who “get it.” We’ve always had to hide/couch Horizon 3 style change in Horizon 1 and Horizon 2 language, which is maddening but I do what works.  In Silicon Valley, the operative word in any pitch is “disrupt.”  In Horizon 1 organizations, uttering the word “disrupt” is the death of an idea.”

That really brought home the stark difference between our two worlds.

(Lean Innovation management now offers Horizon 1 executives a set of tools that allow them to feel comfortable with Horizon 2/3 initiatives. Investment Readiness Levels are the Key Performance Indicators for Horizon 1 execs to measure progress.)

What about a manual of “how to be a successful corporate rebel”? Serendipitously after I gave my Innovation @ 50x presentation, someone gave me a book saying “thanks for the strategy, but here are the tactics.”  This book entitled Rebels@Work had some answers to Richard’s question.

Rebels at Work
If you’re a mid-level manager in a company or government agency trying to figure out how to get your ideas adopted, you must read Rebels@Workit will save your sanity. rebels at workThe book, which was written by successful corporate innovators, offers real practical, tactical advice about how to push corporate innovation.

One of the handy tables explains the difference between being a “bad rebel” versus a “good rebel.” The chapters march you through a series of “how to’s”: how to gain credibility, navigate the organizational landscape, communicate your ideas, manage conflict, deal with fear uncertainty and doubt, etc. It illustrates all of this with real-life vignettes from the authors’ decades-long experience trying to make corporate innovation happen.good rebels bad rebels

The Innovation at 50x presentation gives corporate rebels the roadmap, common language, and lean tools to develop a Lean innovation strategy, but Rebels@Work gives them the tools to be a positive force for leading change from within.

After I read it I bought 10 copies for Richard and his team.

Lessons Learned

  • In a startup we are by definition all born as rebels
  • While startups are not smaller versions of large companies, companies are very much not larger versions of startups
  • Canonical startup advice fails when applied in large companies
  • The Three Horizons offer a way to describe innovation strategy across a company/agency
  • Lean Innovation Management allows startup speed inside of companies
  • However:
    • Horizon 1 managers run the company and are not rebels
    • Horizon 3 ideas might have to be couched in Horizon 1 and 2 language
  • Rebels@Work offers practical advice on how to move corporate innovation forward

Innovation @ 50x in Companies and Government Agencies

I’ve spent this year working with corporations and government agencies trying to adapt and adopt Lean Methodologies.  In doing so I’ve learned a ton from lots of people. I’ve summarized my learnings in this blog post, and here and here and here and put it all together in the presentation below.

if you can’t see the presentation click here.

But the biggest surprise for me was getting schooled on how extremely difficult it is to be an innovator inside a company of executors.  More on that in the next post.

Graphic recording - SteveBlank - Innovation at 50x - Trent Wakenight OGSystems 20150814

Doubling Down On a Good Thing: The National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Lite

I’ve known Edmund Pendleton from the University of Maryland as the Director of the D.C. National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Node (a collaboration among the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins). edmund pendeltonBut it wasn’t until seeing him lead the first I-Corps class at the National Institutes of Health that I realized Edmund could teach my class better than I can.

After seeing the results of 500+ teams through the I-Corps, the NSF now offers all teams who’ve received government funding to start a company an introduction to building a Lean Startup.

Here’s Edmund’s description of the I-Corps Lite program.

SBIR/STTR Program and Startup Seed Funding
The Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are startup seed funds created by Congress to encourage U.S. small businesses to turn Government-funded research into commercial businesses. Eleven U.S. agencies participate in the SBIR/STTR program, with DOD, HHS (NIH), NSF, DOE, and NASA offering the majority of funding opportunities.SBIR and STTR program

The SBIR/STTR program made ~6,200 seed stage investments in 2014, dwarfing the seed investments made by venture capital. seed stage investmentThe SBIR/STTR program represents a critical source of seed funding for U.S. startups that don’t fit whatever’s hot in venture capital. In fact, half of all seed stages in tech companies in the U.S. were funded by the SBIR program.

The SBIR/STTR program
The SBIR/STTR program funds companies in three phases. Phase I funding is for teams to prove feasibility, both technical and commercial.

Since most of the founders come from strong technical roots, companies in Phase I tend to focus on the technology – and spend very little time understanding what it takes to turn the company’s technology into a scalable and repeatable commercial business.

SBIR PhasesIn 2011 the National Science Foundation recognized that many of the innovators they were funding were failing – not from an inability to make their technologies work – but because they did not understand how to translate the technology into a successful business. To address this problem, the NSF collaborated with Steve Blank to adapt his Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford for NSF-funded founders. By focusing on hypothesis testing, the Lean LaunchPad had actually developed something akin to the scientific method for entrepreneurship. (see here, here and the results here.) This was an approach that would immediately make sense to the scientists and technologists NSF was funding. Steve and the NSF collaborated on adapting his curriculum and the result was the 9-week NSF I-Corps program.

NSF’s original I-Corps program was specifically designed for academic innovators still in the lab; fundamentally, to help them determine the best path to commercialization before they moved to the start-up stage. (I-Corps participants are at the “pre-company” stage.) But NSF realized the Lean LaunchPad approach would be equally beneficial for the many startups they fund through the SBIR/STTR program.Icorps plus SBIR

The “Beat the Odds” Bootcamp – an I-Corps “Lite”
The good news is that the NSF found that the I-Corps program works spectacularly well. But the class requires a substantial time commitment for the founding team to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week, and then present what they learned – the class is essentially a full time commitment.

Was there a way to expose every one of ~240 companies/year who receive a NSF grant to the I-Corps? The NSF decided to pilot a “Beat the Odds Boot Camp” (essentially an I-Corps Lite) at the biannual gathering of new SBIR/STTR Phase I grantees in Washington.

Steve provided an overview of the Lean LaunchPad methodology in an introductory webinar. Then the companies were sent off to do customer discovery before coming to an optional “bootcamp workshop” 12 weeks later. Four certified I-Corps instructors provided feedback to these companies at the workshop. The results of the pilot were excellent. The participating companies learned a significant amount about their business models, even in this very light-touch approach. The NSF SBIR/STTR program had found a way to improve the odds of building a successful company.Icorps lite plus sbir

During the past two years, I’ve taken the lead to expand and head up this program, building on what Steve started. We now require the participating companies to attend kick-off and mid-point webinars, and to conduct 30 customer interviews over the twelve-week program. The companies present to I-Corps instructors at a “Beat the Odds Bootcamp” – the day before the biannual NSF Phase I Grantee Workshop.

In March we conducted our fourth iteration of this workshop with a record number of companies participating (about 110 of 120, or 90%) and 14 certified I-Corps instructors giving feedback to teams. This time, we added afternoon one-on-one sessions with the teams in addition to group presentations in the morning. Companies are very happy with the program, and many have requested even more face time with I-Corps instructors throughout the process.

The smart companies in Phase I realize that this Bootcamp program provides a solid foundation for success in Phase II, when more dollars are available.

What’s Next
Currently, once these teams leave I-Corps Lite, they do not have any “formal” touch points with their instructors. Over time, we hope to offer more services to the teams and develop a version of I-Corps (I-Corps-Next?) for Phase II grantees.

We envision even greater startup successes if SBIR/STTR funded teams can take advantage of I-Corps classes through their entire life cycle:

  • “Pre-company” academic researchers – current I-Corps
  • Phase I SBIR/STTR teams – current I-Corps Lite
  • Phase II SBIR/STTR teams – develop a new I-Corps Next class

Icorps next plus SBIR ii and iii

The emphasis and format would change for each, but all would be solidly rooted in the Lean LaunchPad methodology. And of course, we don’t want to stop with only NSF teams/companies…as we all know. The opportunity is huge, and we can have a significant impact on the country’s innovation ecosystem.

Summary
NSF led the development of the SBIR program in the late 1970s. It has since been adopted by the entire federal research community. We believe NSF’s leadership with I-Corps will deliver something of equal significance… a program that teaches scientists and engineers what it takes to turn those research projects into products and services for the benefit of society.  I-Corps Lite is one more piece of that program.

Lessons Learned

  • The SBIR/STTR program is a critical source of seed funding for technology startups that don’t fit the “whatever’s hot” category for venture capital
  • The program is a national treasure and envied around the world, but we can (and should) improve it.
  • SBIR/STTR Phase I applicants needed more help with “commercial feasibility”…a perfect fit for business model design, customer discovery and agile engineering – so we rolled out the NSF I-Corps
  • The I-Corps was so successful we wanted more NSF funded entrepreneneurs, not just a select few, to be exposed to the Lean methodology – so we built I-Corps Lite

Why Build, Measure, Learn – isn’t just throwing things against the wall to see if they work – the Minimal Viable Product

I am always surprised when critics complain that the Lean Startup’s Build, Measure, Learn approach is nothing more than “throwing incomplete products out of the building to see if they work.”

Unfortunately the Build, Measure, Learn diagram is the cause of that confusion. At first glance it seems like a fire-ready-aim process.

It’s time to update Build, Measure, Learn to what we now know is the best way to build Lean startups.

Here’s how.


Build, Measure, Learn sounds pretty simple. Build a product, get it into the real world, measure customers’ reactions and behaviors, learn from this, and use what you’ve learned to build something better. Repeat, learning whether to iterate, pivot or restart until you have something that customers love.build measure learn

Waterfall Development
While it sounds simple, the Build Measure Learn approach to product development is a radical improvement over the traditional Waterfall model used throughout the 20th century to build and ship products. Back then, an entrepreneur used a serial product development process that proceeded step-by-step with little if any customer feedback. Founders assumed they understood customer problems/needs, wrote engineering requirements documents, designed the product, implemented/built the hardware/software, verified that it worked by testing it, and then introduced the product to customers in a formal coming out called first customer ship.

Waterfall Development was all about execution of the requirements document. While early versions of the product were shared with customers in Alpha and Beta Testing, the goal of early customer access to the product was to uncover bugs not to provide feedback on features or usability. Only after shipping and attempting to sell the product would a startup hear any substantive feedback from customers. And too often, after months or even years of development, entrepreneurs learned the hard way that customers were not buying their product because they did not need or want most of its features.

It often took companies three tries to get products right. Version 1 was built without customer feedback, and before version 1 was complete work had already started on version 2 so it took till version 3 before the customer was really heard (e.g. Microsoft Windows 3.0)

Best practices in software development started to move to agile development in the early 2000’s. This methodology improved on waterfall by building software iteratively and involving the customer. But it lacked a framework for testing all commercialization hypotheses outside of the building. With Agile you could end up satisfying every feature a customer asked for and still go out of business.

Then came the Build-Measure-learn focus of the Lean Startup.

Build-Measure-Learn
The goal of Build-Measure-Learn is not to build a final product to ship or even to build a prototype of a product, but to maximize learning through incremental and iterative engineering. (Learning could be about product features, customer needs, the right pricing and distribution channel, etc.) The “build” step refers to building a minimal viable product (an MVP.) It’s critical to understand that an MVP is not the product with fewer features. Rather it is the simplest thing that you can show to customers to get the most learning at that point in time. build measure learnEarly on in a startup, an MVP could simply be a PowerPoint slide, wireframe, clay model, sample data set, etc. Each time you build an MVP you also define what you are trying to test/measure. Later, as more is learned, the MVP’s go from low-fidelity to higher fidelity, but the goal continues to be to maximize learning not to build a beta/fully featured prototype of the product.

A major improvement over Waterfall development, Build Measure Learn lets startups be fast, agile and efficient.

The three-circle diagram of Build Measure Learn is good approximation of the process. Unfortunately, using the word “build” first often confuses people. The diagram does seem to imply build stuff and throw it out of the building. A more detailed version of the Build Measure Learn diagram helps to clarify the meaning by adding three more elements: Ideas-Build-Code-Measure-Data-Learn.

ideas build code measureThe five-part version of the Build Measure Learn diagram helps us see that the real intent of building is to test “ideas” – not just to build blindly without an objective. The circle labeled “code” could easily be labeled “build hardware” or “build artificial genome.” The circle labeled “data” indicates that after we measure our experiments we’ll use the data to further refine our learning. And the new learning will influence our next ideas. So we can see that the goal of Build-Measure-Learn isn’t just to build things, the goal is to build things to validate or invalidate the initial idea.

The focus on testing specific ideas counters the concern that build-measure-learn is just throwing things against the wall and see if they work.

But it’s still not good enough. We can now do better.

Start With Hypotheses
What Build-Measure-Learn misses is that new ventures (both startups and new ideas in existing companies) don’t start with “ideas”, they start with hypotheses (a fancy word for guesses.) It’s important to understand that the words “idea ” and “hypotheses” mean two very different things. For most innovators the word “idea” conjures up an insight that immediately requires a plan to bring it to fruition. In contrast, a hypothesis means we have an educated guess that requires experimentation and data to validate or invalidate.

These hypotheses span the gamut from who’s the customer(s), to what’s the value proposition (product/service features), pricing, distribution channel, and demand creation (customer acquisition, activation, retention, etc.)

That the Lean Startup begins with acknowledging that your idea is simply a series of untested hypotheses is a big idea. It’s a really big idea because what you build needs to match the hypothesis you want to test.

The minimum viable product you’ll need to build to find the right customers is different from the minimum viable product you need for testing pricing, which is different from an MVP you would build to test specific product features. And all of these hypotheses (and minimal viable products) change over time as you learn more. So instead of Build-Measure-Learn, the diagram for building minimal viable products in a Lean Startup looks like Hypotheses – Experiments – Tests – Insights.hypotheses experiment

Generating Hypotheses
Using this new Hypotheses – Experiments – Tests – Insights diagram the question then becomes, “What hypotheses should I test?” Luckily Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas presents a visual overview of the nine components of a business on one page. They are:

  • value proposition, product/service the company offers (along with its benefits to customers)
  • customer segments, such as users and payers or moms or teens
  • distribution channels to reach customers and offer them the value proposition
  • customer relationships to create demand
  • revenue streams generated by the value proposition(s)
  • activities necessary to implement the business model
  • resources needed to make the activities possible
  • partners 3rd parties needed to make the activities possible
  • cost structure resulting from the business model

Business Model Canvas

And it brings us to the definition of a startup: A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Testing Hypotheses
And once these hypotheses fill the Business Model Canvas, how does an entrepreneur go about testing them? If you’re a scientist the answer is easy: you run experiments. The same is true in a Lean Startup. (The National Science Foundation described the Lean LaunchPad class as the scientific method for entrepreneurship.)

The Customer Development process is a simple methodology for taking new venture hypotheses and getting out of the building to test them. Customer discovery captures the founders’ vision and turns it into a series of business model hypotheses. Then it develops a series of experiments to test customer reactions to those hypotheses and turn them into facts. The experiments can be a series of questions you ask customers but most often a minimal viable product to help potential customers understand your solution accompanies the questions.

So another big idea here is startups are not building minimal viable products to build a prototype. They are building minimal viable products to learn the most they can.

HBR Reprint

Finally, the goal of designing these experiments and minimal viable products is not to get data. The data is not the endpoint. Anyone can collect data. Focus groups collect data. This is not a focus group. The goal is to get insight. The entire point of getting out of the building is to inform the founder’s vision. The insight may come from analyzing customer responses, but it also may come from ignoring the data or realizing that what you are describing is a new, disruptive market that doesn’t exist, and that you need to change your experiments from measuring specifics to inventing the future.

Lessons Learned

  • Build, Measure, Learn is a great improvement over Waterfall product development and provided the framework to truly join the customer to agile development
  • However, emphasizing “Build” or “Ideas” as the first step misses the key insight about a Lean Startup – you are starting with hypotheses to be tested and are searching for repeatable and scalable business model
  • Hypotheses, Experiments, Test, Insights better represents the Lean startup process:
    • Use the Business Model Canvas to frame hypotheses, Customer Development to get out of the building to test hypotheses, and Agile Engineering to build the product iteratively and incrementally

How One Startup Figured Out What Could Really Help Deaf People

Thibault Duchemin and his team applied for our Lean LaunchPad class at UC Berkeley in 2014. We accepted them because it was clear Thibault was driven to solve a very personal problem – he grew up in a Deaf family, the only one who could hear. His team project was to provide automated aids for the hearing impaired.

Here’s his story.

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Lean LaunchPad: A Year After
A month ago, Jason, one of my founder friends, shut down his startup. It failed because he forgot the No. 1 rule every founder hears over and over: Nobody wants your product until you prove it.

How come so many founders still wake up to this horrible truth, after months or years of hard work?

Listening to Jason’s story made me realize how critical our experience with the Lean LaunchPad has been in our entrepreneurial journey at Transcense. And why now, despite the time and effort involved, we do not hesitate getting out of our office to meet users.

Pre-Lean LaunchPad – Giving a Voice to the Deaf
Everything started when I applied to the Lean LaunchPad class pitching a big, crazy idea to solve a personal problem of mine. I grew up the only hearing person in a Deaf family. My sister’s dream has always been to become a lawyer, but closing statements and client meetings are impossible situations for her without the help of unaffordable interpreters.

Thibault_sister

At Berkeley I decided to build smart gloves to translate sign language. With my co-founder Pieter, I built a first basic prototype, which got us a prize and got the team started. It looked like one of the geeky science projects you find in Berkeley halls. Glove nerds we became.started with a glove

That’s also when we met Steve Blank.

More than the signing glove, he was interested by our passion for the problem.

Steve knew that first ideas rarely hit home for users, so to enter the Lean LaunchPad, we had to give in. “We’re not married to the glove,” we said, allowing us to accept the possibility of a pivot. There was no going back.

Lean LaunchPad – Stumbling Upon an Immense Need
Customer Development for us meant a lot of hard-won learnings. Our entire team took a fast-paced American Sign Language course to be able to really connect with our potential users. We spent six weekly hours in complete silence, discovering the subtleties of gestures and expressions. Since I’m French, I spoke for a while a bizarre Franglish in signs. It turned out to be out an excellent icebreaker in our interviews.

After 61 in-person discussions, and hundreds of bike rides across the Bay Area to meet and talk/sign/write for hours with our potential users, we were sure that the community of Deaf people cheered for our signing glove idea and prototype.

But we detected a common frustration when discussing their existing relationships with their hearing coworkers or friends, where the glove couldn’t help at all. This one thing kept coming back across all our interviews, over and over. A frustration so obvious, yet so deeply unresolved that when it became really apparent the day we met Alma, it blew our minds away and made us pivot.

Alma didn’t speak sign language, and relied on her residual hearing, being able to read lips very well in face-to-face situations. But in her own family, at the dinner table, she would read a book while everybody else was conversing.make do

Why?

Because following the conversation when multiple people were talking around her was impossible. She avoided the problem the best way she could, by doing something else, or being somewhere else.

We learned that existing solutions are not affordable enough to access in easy, informal social and professional conversational situations. For 400M people in the world with disabling hearing loss, this is an ongoing frustration, encountered every day. This was a big opportunity.

Halfway through the Lean LaunchPad, it was time for a major pivot. We dropped the signing glove.

And pivoted to a mobile application that transcribes group conversations using speech-recognition technologies. The app quickly connects all the smartphones in a group, enabling the app to translate and display who said what around the user (while uniquely identifying each speaker) in less than a second. With 24/7 autonomy, it allowed our deaf/hard-of-hearing user to understand and participate in any group situation, effortlessly.

The rest of the 123 total interviews helped us figure out a working business model. By the time we graduated from the Lean LaunchPad class, we had found the root cause of the initial problem we had set out to tackle, and even better, a potential solution for it.a device to understand themPost-Lean LaunchPad – Making Something People Need
Now it was time to build the company. Our team spent our whole summer in Berkeley iterating, testing and running experiments to validate and refine our concept before spending any of our precious resources. For example, we built a “mock-up meeting”, where 5 friends in the meeting called 5 more friends of ours who each transcribed the call to be interfaced to a Deaf tester in the room. Despite the low fidelity of this minimal viable product, some of our testers thought it was a real technology.

a device to understand them2Next, we joined the Boost.vc startup accelerator, where we spent 16 hours a day in a basement to finish the first working version of our app. By now we believed we had tested our hypotheses and wanted to validate whether there was a market. So we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. We raised $30,000 in less than 6 days, almost doubling our goal. The endless emails we received describing the exact need we had uncovered were the powerful validation of the customer development approach.

Now – Bridging the Communication Barrier
Skinner, our third cofounder, joined because of our persistence in talking to our users. The captioner (live-transcriber) we used in demoing to potential deaf customers was so excited about our product that she introduced us to Skinner, a brilliant mobile developer, who is profoundly deaf.

In the early days of Transcense, when we took Skinner to an event, he would grab a drink and go to an isolated space to check his phone. Today, in small groups, he can use the app to communicate with others. At lunch, during our internal meetings, we pull out our phones and stay connected, transcending the silence barrier. What was just my personal story now became a team story while we slowly dissolved the communication barriers within the team.

trancense

Every day, these simple moments justify our long hours of work.

But what’s ahead of us is even more exciting.

After a 3-months of beta testing with our community, we’ve seen the same pattern with our early users – we’ve changed their lives, enabling opportunities that had been closed to them so far. Incredibly high usage and impressive retention prove that we are on the right track.

So what now?

In a relentless build-measure-learn cycle, we’re staying focused on the next steps.

We are bridging the deaf/hearing communication gap, an immense mission that will take everyone’s participation to make it happen.

Lessons Learned

  • Dig deep into your customer psychology and test lo-fidelity minimum viable products, before trying to build anything
  • Track the need rather than the desire: solving somebody’s needs will help you much more
  • Eat your own dog food

Getting to “Yes” for Corporate Innovation

I’ve been working with Roberto, the Chief Innovation Officer of a diversified company I’ll call Sprocket Industries.

I hadn’t heard from Roberto in awhile and when we caught up, it was clear his initial optimism had faded. I listened as Roberto listed the obstacles to the new innovation program at Sprocket, “We’ve created innovation teams in both the business units and in corporate. Our CEO is behind the program. The division general managers have given us their support. But the teams still run into what feel like immovable obstacles in every part of the company. Finance, HR, Branding, Legal, you name it, everyone in a division or corporate staff has an excuse for why we can’t do something, and everyone has the power to say no and no urgency to make a change.”

Roberto was frustrated, “How do we get all these organizations to help us move forward with innovation? My CEO wants to fix this and is ready to bring in a big consulting firm to redo all our business processes.”

Uh oh…

—–

As Sprocket’s Chief Innovation Officer, Roberto was a C-level executive responsible for the corporate innovation strategy in a multi-billon dollar company. Over the last 9 months his staff got innovation teams operating with speed and urgency. The innovation pipeline had been rationalized. His groups whole-heartedly adopted and adapted Lean. His organization ran a corporate incubator for disruptive (horizon 3) experiments and provided innovation support for the divisions for process and business model innovations (Horizon 1 and 2.) He had an innovation pipeline of hundreds of employees going through weekend hackathons and 45 different innovation teams going through 3-month rapid Lean LaunchPad programs to validate product/market fit.

The next day Roberto and I sat together and listed what we knew about the innovation conundrum at Sprocket:

  1. Sprocket is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.
  2. Roberto’s innovation teams are temporary organizations designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
  3. Sprocket had world-class resources and capabilities in brand, supply chain, distribution, sales force, financial metrics, all tailored to execute the existing business model, not to help search for a new one
  4. The resources and capabilities optimized for execution interfere with the processes needed to search for a new business model
  5. Sprocket needed new and different processes for innovation while retaining the ones that work well for execution
  6. Sprocket wanted to use the same organizations that provided support for execution (brand, supply chain, distribution, sales force, financial metrics) to provide support for innovation

Roberto’s group had spent the last 9 months educating the company about why they needed to deliver continuous innovation, and why the execution and innovation teams need to work collaboratively. But while there was lots of theory, posters, memos, and lip-service to being innovative, it wasn’t working.

So what to do?

I offered that a top-down revamp of every business process should be a last resort. I suggested that Roberto consider trying a 6-month experimental “Get to Yes” program. His teams, not outside consultants, would write their own innovation processes and procedures.Get to Yes

Recognizing the Roadblocks
Most of the impediments the innovation teams faced were pretty tactical: for example an HR policy that said the innovative groups could only recruit employees by seniority. Or a branding group that refused to allow any form of the Sprocket name to appear on a minimal viable product or web site. Or legal, who said minimal viable products opened the company to lawsuits. Or sales, who shut out innovation groups from doing customer discovery with any existing, or even potential customer. Or finance, who insisted on measuring the success of new ventures on their first year’s revenue and gross margin.

We agreed that the goal was not to change any of the existing execution processes, procedures, incentives, metrics but rather to write new ones for innovation projects.

And these innovation policies would grow one at a time as needed from the bottom of the organization, not top down by some executive mandate.

If we were successful, innovation and execution policies, processes, procedures, incentives, metrics would then co-exist side-by-side. In their day-to-day activities, the support organizations would simply ask, “Are we supporting an execution process (hopefully 90% of the time) or are we supporting an innovation process?” and apply the appropriate policy.

Get to Yes
The “Get to Yes” program was pretty simple. Every time an innovation team needed a new policy, procedure, etc. from an existing organization (legal, finance, sales, HR, branding, etc.), they submitted a standard Sprocket corporate “Get to Yes” request form. The form was a single page. It asked what policy the innovation group wanted changed, why it wanted it changed, how it wanted the new policy to read, the impact the new policy would have on other policies and organizations, and most importantly the risks to the core existing business.

The “Get to Yes” request form looked like this:

Sprocket Get to Yes Form page 1

The appropriate department had one week to ask questions, gather information, meet with the innovation team and evaluate the costs and risks of the proposed process. They could either:

  1. approve and adopt
  2. suggest modifications that the team agreed with
  3. deny the request.

The approval form looked like this:

Sprocket Get to Yes Form page 2

Although it was just a one-page form, the entire concept was radical:

  • The innovation team would be proposing the new process, procedure, metric, etc. – not waiting for one to be written.
  • There was a hard 1-week deadline for the execution team to respond.
  • Yes was the default answer, a No required detailed explanation.
  • Appeals went straight to the Chief Innovation Officer.

The big idea is that Sprocket was going to create innovation by design not by exception, and they were going to do it by co-opting the existing execution machinery.

The key to making this work was that if the request was denied, it automatically was kicked upstairs to the Chief Innovation Officer – and would be acted on the next week. And it’s there that the execution department had to make its case of why this request should not be approved. (If there was still no agreement, it became an issue for the executive staff.)

The time for a process resolution in a billion dollar corporation – two weeks. At Sprocket innovation was starting to move at the speed of a startup.

Lessons Learned

  • Innovation by design, not by exception
  • Execution organizations now manage both execution and innovation
  • Innovation teams write their own process and procedures
  • Innovation policy, process and procedures get written as needed, one at a time
  • Over time a set of innovation processes are created from the bottom up
  • Bias for immediate action not perpetual delay

I’m on the Air – On Sirius XM Channel 111

Starting this Monday, March 9th 4-6pm Pacific Time I’ll be on the radio hosting the Bay Area Ventures program on Sirius XM radio Channel 111 – the Wharton Business Radio Channel.Untitled

Over this program I’ll be talking to entrepreneurs, financial experts and academic leaders in the tech and biotech industries. And if the past is prologue I guarantee you that this will be radio worth listening to.

On our first show, Monday March 9th 4-6pm Pacific Time join me, as I chat with Alexander Osterwalder – inventor of the Business Model Canvas, and Oren Jacob, ex-CTO of Pixar and now CEO of ToyTalk on Sirius XM Radio Channel 111.

Oren Jacob - CEO ToyTalk

Oren Jacob – CEO ToyTalk

Alex Osterwalder - Business Models

Alex Osterwalder – Business Models

On Monday’s show we’ll be talking about a range of entrepreneurship topics: what’s a Business Model Canvas, how to build startups efficiently, the 9 deadly sins of a startup, the life of a startup CEO, how large companies can innovate at startup speeds. But it won’t just be us talking; we’ll be taking your questions live and on the air by phone, email or Twitter.

On April 27th, on my next program, my guest will be Eric Ries the author of the Lean Startup. Future guests include Marc Pincus, founder of Zynga, and other interesting founders and investors.

Is there anyone you’d like to hear on the air on future shows? Any specific topics you’d like discussed? Leave me a comment.

Mark your calendar for 4-6pm Pacific Time on Sirius XM Radio Channel 111:

  • March 9th
  • April 27th
  • May 11th
  • June 29th
  • July 13th
  • Aug 24th in NY
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