Takeaways from a conversation with corporate innovation specialist, Carie Davis
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
Carie Davis is the creator of Your Ideas Are Terrible, a platform that runs corporate hackathons to solve business challenges and help companies recruit tech talent.
Companies entering the innovation space today have much to consider. They can choose to create programs in-house, merge with agile startups, or opt for staff augmentation to name a few. The best-suited option depends on the business context and goals of the organization.
As the former Global Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Coca-Cola, Carie designed a new program for continuous innovation there. The lessons she learned from those experiences were pivotal in shaping her views on innovation and led to her current role as Managing Director at The Bridge Community Atlanta, a startup commercialization program focused on applying new technologies offered by startups to core business challenges faced by large organizations.
With a degree in Industrial Design, Carie started her career armed with thinking skills attuned to the product development world. “There are so many variables and constraints for manufacturing and mass production that you do have to create a kind of method for approaching problems.”
Carie’s first piece of advice is to start small and focus initial efforts at innovation closer to the core business to earn trust and eventually go further outside the business model. Some of the difficulties Carie has observed within companies that undertake innovation work center around socializing of the efforts, addressing corporate culture, and working within budgetary constraints. “If no one understands why you’re building something that is seemingly far outside of what your company does, it’s very difficult for them to prioritize.”
“If no one understands why you’re building something that is seemingly far outside of what your company does, it’s very difficult for them to prioritize.”
When bringing innovation in-house, Carie cautions against ramping up a large team too fast. During her tenure at Coca-Cola, Carie recalls an initiative where the company rapidly hired 20 people in 10 cities across the world to build internal startups to address company challenges. In hindsight, she sees the approach was expensive and working within the corporate bureaucracy slowed teams down.
“Even with all of the assets at Coke behind you, it’s still really hard to build an entirely new business model. We just didn’t have the opportunity to shut down the [initiatives] that weren’t working. It felt like we had to make it work. It ended up being something that was seen as very confusing for people at the company because, again, [the innovation team] wasn’t working on things that were core business related and were taking up resources.”
What felt like a setback is now an experience that Carie views as valuable. “It helped me recognize the opportunity to partner with startups and their customers as opposed to trying to build those things on your own.”
The value of partnerships
While investing in startups has historically been considered a risky endeavor, Carie points out that creating internal innovation programs from scratch using constrained resources introduces risk as well. A partnership can offer a lower risk opportunity for corporations to improve existing products by leveraging new technology and create new products for their customer base.
Through The Bridge Community Atlanta, Carie helps corporations identify their current challenges and then matches those companies with startups solving similar problems. When evaluating startups for partnership, Carie looks for organizations that have their products figured out, know who their customer is, and are looking for opportunities to get in front of more customers faster. The mutual benefits of partnership make it an appealing alternative for both parties.
Carie looks for organizations that have their products figured out, know who their customer is, and are looking for opportunities to get in front of more customers faster.
For startups, exposure to a new, larger customer base can ramp up adoption, increase customer feedback opportunities, and shift go-to-market strategies. Referencing a startup in their current cohort, Carie shared that: “It’s completely changed his approach to how he’s actually going to go to market. He’s going to start approaching enterprise clients as opposed to smaller businesses.”
For corporations, a startup’s product that is already production ready allows them to offer more value to their customers without the time and cost of starting from scratch. Armed with insights from the corporation’s objectives and needs, Carie’s team recruits around 200 applicants. The team then interviews 40 of the applicants to award the coveted 10–12 slots in the 7 month cohort. The filtering and curation process allows corporations to consider multiple products in the context of their specific business problems, connect the right people to explore potential pilots, and get the pilot across the finish line.
The portfolio approach
Carie points out that existing approaches like mergers and acquisitions are still used to solve innovation challenges. But she believes that corporations who take a “portfolio approach” by collaborating with startups have an advantage in maintaining awareness of advances in their field without the budgetary and cultural impacts of incorporating a new company into the fold.
Corporations who take a “portfolio approach” by collaborating with startups have an advantage in maintaining awareness of advances in their field without the budgetary and cultural impacts of incorporating a new company into the fold.
While there are many ways partnerships make sense, Carie acknowledges that partnership is not the answer for every scenario. Corporations seeking to move into a completely new space where they don’t have an existing customer base will miss out on a key value proposition of partnership — rapidly piloting a product and getting customer feedback.
Carie suggests companies consider a varied approach. That can mean investing in research and development, acquiring companies, partnering with adjacent companies, changing internal processes, as well as collaborating with startups or empowering them to solve problems on their own. With a portfolio approach corporations can evaluate many ideas and shoot them down faster. Carie offered that “a leading indicator of whether you’re getting better at innovating is how quickly you’re evaluating ideas — the number of ideas you kill perhaps.”
Whether partnering with startups or innovating internally, Carie asserts that measurement should focus on the basic goals of any product: customer satisfaction and engagement. “You’re launching a new product — are people buying it? You can put a bunch of marketing behind a new product launch provided that, once you pull that back, people are still interested in your product.”
The real challenge, as Carie points out, is measuring something without bias. While she believes product engagement and adoption offer a good starting place, a more powerful measurement is reflected in cultural improvement and evolution within the company. Are teams excited about their work, trying new approaches, and working with people across the business that they don’t know?
Get close to the customer
Carie applauds organizations who implement the principles of Agile in ways that give teams the latitude to determine what they should be working on informed by a closer proximity to the customer. In her observation, individuals on agile teams with this approach “are most excited about their job because they are solving problems right then and there.”
This preference toward action is evident in her response to my question on how she defines innovation. “When I’m asked to define innovation, I feel like a business textbook. It doesn’t feel very useful. I think when you are being innovative you know it. You’re creating things that are useful for customers. That, for me, is the core of innovation. I feel like a lot of time is wasted on defining innovation and people should just get out, start talking to customers, and find new ways to solve their problems.”
“I think when you are being innovative you know it. You’re creating things that are useful for customers.”
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.