A conversation with startup specialist and podcaster Brian Ardinger

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.

Brian Ardinger believes real innovation begins with a well-defined plan.With a topic as broad as innovation, it’s easy to get caught up in the chase. Startup specialist and podcaster Brian Ardinger has spent his career exploring the paths we take to reach breakthrough moments and figuring out how we can refine those approaches to get the best results. In a recent conversation, he shared his insights on how structure often plays a major role in reaching success.

Brian Ardinger, Director of Innovation at Nelnet
Brian Ardinger, Director of Innovation at Nelnet
Brian Ardinger, Director of Innovation at Nelnet

“A lot of corporates fall in the trap: They don’t clearly define what innovation is to the company and what they want to get out of it. What’s their thesis? What’s their future vision of the world? And then come up with a strategy and tactics that will try to get to that part of the world.”

As the Director of Innovation at Nelnet, Brian knows the end benefits of setting parameters and goals. He also launched the startup accelerator NMotion six years ago, around the same time he began hosting the Inside Outside podcast, which gives insights to corporates about effective innovation approaches, particularly from within the startup community. He’s also been bringing “ties and tee-shirts together” in real life with his two-year strong, Nebraska-based, Inside Outside Innovation Summit.

We had an excellent talk about the benefits of pairing structure with exploration, knowing when to quit and the importance of having someone on the corporate side to help keep dialogue flowing. Here are some of my key takeaways from our conversation.

Brian Ardinger, Director of Innovation at Nelnet

Take inventory of today’s resources

On the topic of planning for a more innovative future, Brian points out that a key ingredient to success is understanding exactly where you are currently, and to take stock of all that’s available to you. “Where are you spending your time and resources? What kind of capacity do you have? Then be deliberate about what you’re doing and how you’re spending it.”

Brian Ardinger, Director of Innovation at Nelnet

Look out for ripple effects

While we often focus on the disruptors within our own industries, Brian gave an example of innovation refusing to be hemmed in by corporate lines. Looking at Uber’s presence in transportation, he mentions its ability to also shake up all of the other businesses that were wrapped up in that old model.

Uber and Lyft cars

Just a few years ago, a New York cab medallion was a million dollar investment, but the shift to rideshare has caused those values to plummet. Now, the lenders — and especially the smaller credit unions with fewer protections — are left holding those defaulted loans.

While this disruption happened in the transportation market, its ripple effects carried on to the lending sphere.

So while this disruption happened in the transportation market, its ripple effects carried on to the lending sphere. And while with this example those ripple effects were negatives for the lenders, you can also imagine scenarios where a business that’s positioned to positively harness a ripple effect could boost itself forward — even if it’s operating in another industry.

First, do no harm

Brian spends a lot of time helping corporations and startups fine-tune their working relationships, and the most successful unions tend to share a few key traits. From his experience, a lot of that begins with corporations defining their parameters before they decide to activate a startup strategy.

“What are you trying to get out of this?” he questioned. “Initially, it could be just what you’re trying to find — early-stage companies with interesting technologies that we want to play with, that we want to use as a customer and then see how it works. Or, maybe you want to find a startup company that has some new talent that you want to track.”

Once a corporation has decided to reach outside, Brian believes there’s a responsibility to understand how these startups work, and for both groups to cater to those differences. “If you’re going to go out and actually have a startup strategy, on an outside strategy, be good to the startups.”

Scale working speeds for shared success

For corporations who traditionally move slowly, startups move fast. And since startups have limited resources, Brian points out that they need to grow and evolve quickly. A way to bridge those two speeds can be to have an intermediary running regular timelines, touch-ins and gauging progress, so both parties stay on track.

Blurry lights

“Look for small wins. How can you move fast or have multiple conversations? How can you do an MVP? Or, rather than bottle product with a company, do a minimal viable pilot?”

Take a portfolio approach

He also thinks it’s important to appreciate a startup’s role and be realistic in its innovation reach. “You’re not gonna be able to just find one startup out there to solve all your innovation needs. A lot of these companies are gonna die. It’s the nature of where they’re at. So have a portfolio approach scouting startups out there, dating them, and engaging them with the ones that look like you can help them and they can help you.”

“You’re not gonna be able to just find one startup out there to solve all your innovation needs”.

Ocean Animals
Take a portfolio approach to scouting start-ups.

Get ahead of big losses

Brian has seen big opportunities when corporations move nimbly and regularly define their projects’ parameters. But he’s also seen the opposite happen. He points to one example of a 14 million dollar failure that could have been avoided. It was a manufacturing company; they’d slated a big project, gathered the funding, built a team, then gave them two years to create the product. But when it was time to go to market, their biggest fears came true: nobody wanted to use what they’d made.

That project made Brian think about how working leaner could have allowed them to pivot, test, and better target their end goals and resources.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had a methodology that you could still have 14 million dollars “budgeted,” but if you gave that out through a metered funding? Or something where you had the team take your thesis and for the first 500 thousand: ‘Here’s what we’re trying to prove out, here’s what we’re gonna do, here’s our MVP.’ And then find out that the idea is crap or it’s not gonna go anywhere. Well, you just saved 13 million dollars right there. And you can use that 13 million on something else.

Brian gave me a lot of great insights during our call. I hope you enjoyed his thinking as much as I did.

To read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.