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Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Mike Slawson
Title: IoT Ecosystem Leader; New Venture Development
Company: Georgia-Pacific
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 3 years
LinkedIn: Mike Slawson

The Internet of Things (IoT) has already begun to transform the world. From connected apparel to connected cars to connected homes, everything and anything will soon have accessibility online. For the enterprise, connectivity has vast implications for efficiency and productivity. As such, many corporate innovators have made its adoption a priority across many enterprise initiatives. We recently spoke with Mike Slawson, Georgia-Pacific’s IoT Ecosystem Leader, about his company’s perception of IoT and how it fits within its staunch commitment to sustainability.

Tell us a little bit about the roles and responsibilities of an “IoT Ecosystem Leader?” How does such a position fits into Georgia-Pacific’s larger enterprise innovation goals and objectives? How did your previous experiences prepare you for this role?

My role primarily focuses on garnering an understanding of the comprehensive IoT ecosystem, particularly as it relates to GP Professional, a Georgia-Pacific business unit focused on enterprise customers, to discover opportunities to introduce IoT products and services that optimize business results for both Georgia-Pacific and our customers. To do so, I’m involved in constructing all types of partnerships, with suppliers and product developers and other organizations, large and small, in which there may be occasions for collaboration now and in the future.

Additionally, I keep an active eye on the startup community, making recommendations on partnerships that in rare cases could involve investments and even acquisitions. As mentioned, I focus on our enterprise brands and products – like dispensers for towels, tissue, soap, etc. However, I do keep my eye on consumer innovation, especially the connected home market, because much of that technology can potentially be applied to the enterprise.

How did your previous experiences prepare you for this role?

My career has spanned various roles in intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship and venture capital investing. As an early-stage tech investor, I invested in sensors, wireless networking, and semiconductors – major components of today’s IoT. In addition to financial support, my firm provided a ton of hands-on guidance, strategy and go-to-market support. Following my stint as a VC, I moved into entrepreneurship, forming two sensor companies, the second of which was an IoT platform to detect trace levels of chemicals or microbials. Between the business know-how obtained during my time as a VC investor, and my technology experience as an engineer and startup CEO, the IoT Ecosystem Leader role at Georgia-Pacific is a perfect fit.

Sustainability, from CSR to your core business model, is a huge priority for Georgia-Pacific. How does IoT play a role in the organization’s commitment to sustainability and in any changes to the company’s business model moving forward?

There is no doubt that the IoT is a huge efficiency enabler, primarily through its ability to strip out a lot of waste, which is a major component of sustainability. We view IoT as a driver of efficiency and value in both our factory settings and in the usage of our products. We are exploring ways to connect almost all of the products we offer, simply because the data and intelligence we could gather could potentially lead to business efficiencies for us, and large reductions in wasteful spending for our customers. If you think about office buildings and other commercial environments, right now devices like paper towel dispensers are being prematurely refilled every day, and excess inventory reordered, because maintenance personnel don’t know when dispensers will actually run empty. Switching out partial rolls of paper for full rolls equates to a lot of waste. IoT connectivity can help us eliminate this problem, and other problems, for our customers.

The ability that IoT gives us to predict when a consumable would run out or when maintenance is needed can also drive transformational change in workforce productivity. IoT will enable work to be done based on actual facility usage, data and information, and not just according to a preordained regimen. As a result, labor can be more efficient and can focus on higher-order tasks, which has both tangible and intangible financial benefits of its own. Finally, with IoT, Georgia-Pacific sees a tremendous opportunity to learn a lot about the way our products are used and how facilities and personnel operate; and we can then translate that information into more effective selling and more productive account maintenance.

In the end, if we can lower our customers’ costs and help them use less of the products that we sell them, we become a more valuable supplier. This increases loyalty, reduces supplier churn, and helps us expand into more locations. We and our customers become more profitable. IoT is an important vehicle to accomplish this.

As someone with both startup and intrapreneurial experiences, tell us what, in your perception, makes the enterprise innovation profession truly unique from working in a startup environment. What skills are required for a successful intrapreneur?

The most prevalent commonality between the two professions is the need for a laser focus on the creation of the new business, including experimenting, learning quickly, being nimble and agile. Making changes and figuring out what’s working and what’s not working quickly, in a capital efficient way, is key to getting both startup innovation and corporate innovation up and out to the market.

With that being said, there are many more differences than one might think, including:

  1. There is usually a comforting level of stability in larger companies compared to startups. While this can lead to complacency, the best intrapreneurs are motivated by “creative destruction” and remain committed to achievement and to meeting goals. Sometimes entrepreneurs become overwhelmed, intimidated and demoralized by the financial challenges of the startup environment, and this can affect their ability to perform. While intrapreneurship is not immune to these types of challenges, they tend to occur less often.
  2. In general, companies want to work with large companies, whereas startups have to spend a lot of time convincing other companies to work with them. At Georgia-Pacific, potential business partners often seek us out (which presents challenges of its own), so we don’t have to spend nearly as much time educating the business community on who we are and what the benefits of working with us might be.
  3. As an intrapreneur, you have to be more careful. There is a lot more at stake financially in a large company, and that needs to impact the risk profile. Both internal and external relationships must be managed carefully.
  4. The scale of innovation is also another big difference. Entrepreneurs can define success by getting to an arbitrary run rate, or to profitability, or an acquisition, and then cash in their equity and head home. With large companies like Georgia-Pacific, we’re trying to impact profits long-term, so we have to think at a large scale. For example, whereas a startup might scale to $10 million in revenue and be successful, we’re immediately thinking of innovation that can add $100 million to the bottom line.

Any final words of advice for your fellow intrapreneurs?

 My experience has led me to believe that it’s healthy for entrepreneurs to spend part of their careers in larger companies and for intrapreneurs to have experienced a bit of startup life. The experiences are invaluable, especially the knowledge obtained from having multiple perspectives of how and when to add process and scalability to innovation.

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