A conversation with Claudia Reuter, Managing Director at Techstars Accelerator.

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space.

Claudia Reuter is a managing director at Techstars, an accelerator network designed to help entrepreneurs succeed. She’s familiar with the startup world and innovation by way of starting her own company back in 2006. She successfully led multiple rounds of investment to further the growth of her startup until it was acquired in 2014.

In recent years, Claudia has spent her time working with early-stage startups in partnership with Techstars + Stanley Black & Decker. Claudia has finessed how she brings others into the conversation around innovation, from large corporations to the founder-only startup. She believes that conquering fears around innovation and change is a conversation worth having.

Claudia Reuter, Managing Director at Techstars Accelerator
Claudia Reuter, Managing Director at Techstars Accelerator

Afraid of Heights

A fear of heights is one of the most common phobias, and for many, the closest they come to conquering their fear is climbing a ladder or a tree, or for the brave few, taking the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. Claudia took a very different approach to conquering her fear — she took flying lessons.

Motivated by setting a good example for her children and the idea of skipping lines at the airport, she started taking private lessons. Claudia learned how to stall the plane, take off, and fly for periods of time. Around the same time, her company was acquired, and she moved from where she was taking lessons. “It’s something I did enough to conquer my fear of heights, but not enough to pick you up in a plane,” Claudia says.

“I think most fears are irrational, and most fears are in your head…I thought it would help me realize how this was something that is just part of our lives and something that could be fun versus something scary, and so just getting up way above the clouds and having a different perspective of the world from up there helped me.”

Claudia also believes that these irrational fears don’t just keep us on the ground; they can keep our businesses in safe zones avoiding the potential for new ideas and significant revenue, all because we’re afraid of change.

Claudia referred to these as the “corporate antibodies” where new ideas are treated with resistance because they represent a threat to something incredibly valuable. People are afraid of spiders because they might have a poisonous bite, they’re afraid of public speaking because they might embarrass themselves and hurt their reputation. So they’re afraid of innovation because it similarly threatens the system in place that’s already working.

If this fear is similarly irrational to the fear of heights, spiders, and public speaking, how do you get people comfortable with the idea of change and let them feel in control of it? For Claudia, she wanted to sit in the pilot seat and familiarize herself with the ascending and descending. So what does it look like to put other people in their own pilot seats?

“It’s really important for people who are doing a good job in managing an existing business to make sure that they understand that everyone appreciates the value in that and it’s not something to be thrown away.”

The first step to help people overcome their fear of innovation and change is to acknowledge and appreciate the systems that have gotten us this far, “It’s really important for people who are doing a good job in managing an existing business to make sure that they understand that everyone appreciates the value in that and it’s not something to be thrown away,” Claudia says.

In acknowledging how vital the systems are that are already in place, innovators can slowly start to introduce new concepts and then balance them with what’s already in place. This balance is a masterful skill of seeing what’s necessary for the day to day and the vision for the future.

Stanley + Techstars Accelerator 2019 demo day
Stanley + Techstars Accelerator 2019 demo day

Horse and Buggy Innovation

Claudia shared this example, “In 1900, the horse and buggy were still the predominant means of transportation in New York City, and it was only about 13 years later that the entire city was transformed with cars. So it’s really easy, however many years later to say, ‘Oh, that was such a quick change,’ but 13 years is a very long time to anyone who’s working in a corporate job. Right?”

The potential for disruption could appear very fast in a hundred years for now, but in our day-to-day happens rather incrementally. Helping people be a part of that change can look like giving them a platform to be heard or share their ideas on either incremental innovations or truly disruptive opportunities. So while they’re managing the existing business that keeps payroll going, they feel they have a say and are part of the innovation process. Waiting for the transition from the horse and buggy can feel like a slow, frustrating process, but by being included in the transformation, it’s much more exciting.

“Not only are we looking for founders that are all the things you would expect, like incredibly smart and motivated, and entrepreneurial, but are they also coachable? Are they also open to feedback?”

People Behind the Innovation

A big part of bringing forth innovation is being sure you’re working with the right people. Claudia explains, “With the startups who come into Techstars, we’re looking at the quality of the team as part of our application process. Not only are we looking for founders that are all the things you would expect, like incredibly smart and motivated, and entrepreneurial, but are they also coachable? Are they also open to feedback? Are they open to looking at data and making different decisions based on that?”

While there might be a few people named as responsible for innovation, “Innovation doesn’t happen in a bubble,” Claudia says. There needs to be buy-in across the organization. This widespread teamwork enlightens the innovators to new perspectives and creates space for everyone to be heard.

Bringing forward innovation in any big organization requires continued support from C-level folks. These conversations of innovation start at the higher level first, making sure you have that support, and then you can engage throughout the organization.

By including more people in the innovation process, you’re able to leverage assets and resources within the broader company. Claudia explained, “It’s just a matter of making sure that, again, you’re not acting within a bubble, or you’re not isolating yourself, that if there is a communications department, that you’re meeting with that communications department and saying, ‘How can you guys help me get this message across, or how could I be saying this in a better way?’”

It’s not just communication, but resources like finance, legal, sales, and other functions, so you’re not just hoping you come up with something great on your own — you’re working with a full team to build something new.

The surprising thing about the people in innovation is that the perspectives shared have the opportunity to turn a perceived failure into a different kind of success. Claudia shared her favorite story of this, the story of the Post-It note.

Design Sprint
Design Sprint

The creator of the Post-It note was someone working on an adhesive, and the first thing they thought was, “This isn’t working because it’s not sticking forever,” and someone else was able to look at it and say, “Well, actually, there are cases where I don’t want something to stick forever.” So while the creator had a different use in mind and thought the project a complete failure, someone else in the organization was able to look at it and say, “Hey, this is something I can use to make my life better,” and someone paid enough attention to that to actually have become Post-it notes.

Decide What You Want

With so many opportunities and directions for innovation to take us, how do we know which is the right way to go and where to focus? Claudia’s answer is simple: Depends on what you want and what you’re trying to do.

The opportunities are endless at Techstars, where Claudia is currently the managing director. The worldwide network is tapped into thousands of companies with thousands of founders and mentors who are working on innovation and new ideas. They measure all sorts of metrics for the businesses they work with: internal corporate metrics, the number of founders they gain access to, or even the amount of relationships made as a result. Every company, startup, or big corporation needs to ask themselves what they want from innovation efforts.

“If our real goal is we want to sell 20% more of this certain product, then we know we need to be more innovative about that product. Then that’s what you’re going to measure on. However, if you’re investing to say, ‘We believe there’s a potential for an existing line to be disrupted, can we come up with some ten ideas or 20 ideas that allow us to build a foundation?’ That answer depends on what the goal is, but whatever your goal is, it’s important that you have an understanding with the right stakeholders and that then you take steps to make sure that things are measurable.”

Claudia suggested that some of the best innovation efforts come from innovating from a solution that’s already sold to customers. To find these innovations, Claudia asks, “How are customers using the product now? Are they using it the way we thought they were or did they find a new use we haven’t thought of? How can we make that better?” This is innovation at work.

Fly Your Own Plane

Claudia first joined Techstars in Hartford to provide startups with counsel because she remembered what it was like when she started her company. She had little to no resources or support, and the idea that she could be part of that and help earlier stage companies was a great opportunity. She’s seen first hand in her startup as well as in big corporations how tricky integrating innovation can be. She emphasizes first addressing the irrational fear, and ask, “What does it look like to conquer our irrational fears of change or innovation in our work and lives and then lead others along in that process?”

Next, how do we include everyone in the process of innovation, making sure they are heard, and as a result, our ideas and perspectives are strengthened and grown? Through this, maybe we’ll even change a perceived failure into a huge success like Post-It notes.

It all starts with conquering our fears and inviting other people into the process. How will you get in the pilot’s seat today? What innovation can you bring forward?

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.