Corporate innovators don’t face an easy path, and they often struggle to find the resources to shepherd an innovation project from the drawing board through validation to full product launch.
It’s the choices you make as you launch and develop a new venture that will affect the product for months or years to come. When you have too much money, it’s easy to spend without feeling its impact. You can overbuild your technology, spend fearlessly on splashy marketing without focused results, lock yourself into a long-term contract that you’ll later regret or invest heavily in the wrong partnerships. If you do any of this, you’ll be dead in the water before you know it.
Find a Niche and Own It
Too often, innovators fall into the same trap as startup entrepreneurs; in an attempt to avoid disruption, innovators (and executives) aim to build “the next Facebook” or “Uber for [insert any industry here].” While we’d all love to develop the next multi-million dollar business unit overnight, it’s more important to swim in the right pond than to be the biggest fish in the wrong pond.
Innovation labs tasked with building the next big business unit can’t focus on pleasing everyone. Instead, they need to focus on solving the needs of a core audience. Many innovators forget Facebook launched as an online yearbook for Harvard students before expanding to other schools and beyond. By the time Facebook tried to target “everyone,” it had years of refinement, feedback and loyal users to support its growth.
When you’re attempting to build a new venture, it’s vital to narrow your focus to a core audience and build a product that delivers value to them. Once you’ve proven a viable pilot product with a real customer, you can think about expanding the product to a wider audience.
Storytelling Is King
Credibility is the innovator’s currency, and earning a reputation requires incremental wins and an ability to sell those wins within the enterprise. Convincing the C-Suite an idea is worth pursuing, or developing further, requires innovators to tell a compelling story around their product ideas.
Asking for innovation budget requires storytelling around your hypothesis, backed by the data you expect to find. #EESAtlanta
— 352 Inc. (@352inc) September 14, 2016
While we all wish it were the case, ideas don’t sell themselves. Even your C-Suite takes a sustainable approach to innovation and won’t judge new ventures by standard P&L statements; executives need signs of success to move funding and support through innovation stage gates. Corporate change-makers can lay a foundation for internal traction by creating early alignment between the design lab and business unit stakeholders, but they can go beyond that as the product progresses.
During the exploration phase of innovation, it may be simply proving a single metric. For pilot projects, it might be creating customer journey maps and sharing lessons learned from marketplace tests. No matter what you’re learning, you need to be able to share your idea’s success story outside the innovation lab.
Don’t Be Afraid of Feedback
While early stage products shouldn’t be held to the same metrics as the core business, it’s still vital for corporate innovators to right the ship on occasion. For innovators, just like entrepreneurs, that often requires being told your idea is wrong – or dumb. As a previous startup founder myself, it’s happened more times than I care to admit.
Eventually most product developers realize two truths: 1) most of your assumptions are likely wrong, and 2) you won’t find your answers inside the innovation lab. Finding those answers requires showing your product within the organization and testing with real users.
Test Early and Often
The enterprise barriers to lean startup and agile methodologies are well-known, but innovators need at least a basic commitment to testing new product ideas with real customers. Innovation exercises like the Design Sprint allow design labs to get worthwhile feedback from actual customers without sacrificing brand quality or launching an unpolished product to the market.
Though corporate leaders may resist, true innovation requires iteration through testing and feedback from real customers. It often seems like it, but disruption doesn’t happen overnight. Typically, it’s the result of dozens of small product decisions made very quickly that uncover and exploit an opportunity in the marketplace. Disruptive startups seek out those opportunities as a matter of survival, yet enterprise organizations ignore them at their own peril.
With the weight of the enterprise behind them, innovators need to embrace a model that allows them to build quickly and adapt to feedback. Given the internal pressures of the organization, that may occasionally require developing a product outside the walls of the enterprise under a separate brand with external developers.
Launching a new venture within the enterprise isn’t easy, but innovator’s can map out a journey to success:
- Start lean and be ready to pivot.
- Find a niche product with value to the business.
- Seek out and build upon criticism.
- Tell your story and share your wins.
- Launch quickly, refine quicker.
Most importantly, remember that a failed product isn’t a failure – it’s merely an opportunity to learn, minimize risk and try something new.