The rise of the intrepreneur close

David Hart
David Hart
In Musings
18th December 2013
The rise of the intrepreneur

Corporates always talk about the need for innovation. Which is interesting because, in my experience, many are set-up to avoid all the things that sums up entrepreneurship. When we think about innovation, we think about new ways of doing things that will ‘disrupt’ the market. We think about taking risks, failing fast and moving on. And having flat hierarchies, devoid of intra-company politics and unnecessary ‘sign-off’ procedures.

Think beyond new product development for a second, I’m talking about digital product or service innovation: something that will fundamentally change what the company does, or how it does it. Maybe it’s a new business, but maybe it’s a radical new way of monetizing assets that you already have, or even a new way of managing how you communicate with customers or learn from each other.

Are corporates, with their interests in maintaining the status quo and managers who have built their careers around ‘the current business’, fundamentally incapable of behaving like a start-up?

Well, we’ve started to notice something.

Companies are coming to us and talking about innovation. It feels fragmented: it could be someone in HR, or someone in IT, or marketing, business development or even the CEO, but there is definitely a shift in thinking.

And because of what we do, the innovations we are seeing are around using digital technology to effect change. And although there might not be lots of companies creating formal innovation programmes yet, or specific teams whose job it is to encourage staff to operate outside the corporate structure (in a Skunk Works style), we think we’re going to see more of it.

At the BBC, we have been involved in two separate “Connected Studio” days, where agencies come in and work with the BBC team to solve specific digital problems. The team at the BBC has its own mandate and a specific budget to drive innovation in this way.

Companies such as DreamWorks have a training programme that allow people to learn how to pitch an idea to the executive team. And Facebook is famous for developing their ‘Like’ feature out of an internal Hackathon. News UK has a development team whose job it is to find ways to innovate around editorial and readership assets.

What we’re actually seeing is a desire for established companies to behave like a start-up. We have been inviting our clients and potential clients, to base themselves in our studio for a day or a week or whatever it takes and work with us to help define, validate and develop a product or service prototype that can be used to make a case for more budget, taken in-house for further development, or developed further with our team. We’re pretty good at it, too. Not only have we created successful products or services for our clients, we’ve also done it for ourselves.

What are the barriers? Like most things, innovation is easier said than done. And there are some specific issues when it comes to large organisations looking to behave like entrepreneurs.

Non-defined Corporates love defining roles and responsibilities, but it feels as if this isn’t totally defined yet in some companies. Just from our perspective, people we’ve been talking to come from a variety of roles within the company. Maybe a bit like social media a few years ago, nobody was really sure whether it was PR or digital or something else.

Too experienced How many of us have thought of something great just to be told that ‘that’s not the way things are done here’? It’s why taking people out of the environment and giving them a free reign will always work better than forcing them to innovate within the tight constraints of an entrenched culture.

A little more execution a little less ideas Ideas aren’t the hard bit. It’s the execution. And in a large organization it could be that executing something without being allocated any actual resources kills it straight away. Poor execution really is the death knell of many a good idea. We can all sit around and dream up some great ideas, but who creates the prototype and validates it with real users? Again, a great case for partnering with someone like us: we provide the resources as and when you need them and you don’t have to go begging to a cynical IT manager that you really could do with a week of someone’s time.

Impetus You have to remember that none of us is a machine. Enthusiasm doesn’t spring eternal. You have to move at a speed to keep things going. Large companies can have decisions bottle-necked and something with a lot of promise soon becomes yesterday’s shiny thing.

Fear of failure Generally, failing at something within a large company isn't ever a career-enhancing move. Against this backdrop of "we tried that 3 years ago and it failed and the guy who championed it is now the office joke", you would have to have a thick skin and be pretty sure of yourself to put your neck on the line.

Where is it going? We’re not sure. I remember talking about ‘corporate incubation’ back in 2000 when I worked for the incubator, Brainspark, but it never really took off in the way it could have done. Think about all the dominant industry players who should have innovated around digital? Imagine what Waterstones or Borders could have achieved if they’d beaten Amazon to the party? What about Blockbusters and Netflix? HMV and Spotify?

But, back in 2000 people were more cynical about the Internet, and the app store was just a twinkle in Steve Job’s eye. But now, with over 60 billion downloads on iOS alone (Codegent has had 10 million downloads of its apps), corporates are warming to the idea. We’ve seen how Software as a Service (SaaS) products have revolutionised businesses from both an organisational as well as a commercial-perspective.

For established brands, digital product/service innovation is great because of the potential upside if you hit on something that works. For employees, it’s a chance to be creative and become a hero in the organization, or learn valuable skills for when you end up doing it for yourself.

As this becomes more mainstream, with popular books such as Eric Ries’ The Lean Start-up suggesting innovation isn’t just the domain of the entrepreneur, we think we’re going to see more corporates talking to us about digital product and service innovation. We hope so.