Business Strategy, Internet Industry, Product Management

Thoughts on Innovation At Established Companies

I spent two plus year working in an innovation group at my prior job and in earlier roles I’ve lead many new product efforts. These experiences have taught me about why many corporate innovation efforts fail. I’m not going to name the places where I’ve worked in this piece. While every organization has its specific challenges, this piece focuses on what I see as common challenges to that any organization pursing innovation.

There’s been much written on why companies miss disruptive shifts in their markets. Clayton Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma is the seminal work in the genre. As much as I think The Innovators Dilemma is mandatory reading and its recommendations are strong, there are a series of more practical issues which that work and others in the genre do not address.

Venture Capital Exists For a Reason

Many new innovative products are financed through venture capital funding new companies. Venture capital is well structured for financing new innovations and established corporations are not.

One of the primary reasons is the power law nature of returns for new innovations.  Power law distributions have much fatter tails than the “normal” distribution. The main implication of the power law is home runs generate more return than the rest of the fund. Venture funds take a portfolio approach. If they invest in 50 companies, then the odds the home run are greater. To increase the size of their portfolio, venture investors almost always co-invest with other funds, broadening their portfolio.

Except for the largest corporations, it’s not possible to establish a broad enough innovation portfolio to have a decent chance of a home run as it takes too much money. Looking at venture funded companies, in general, it takes at least $50M in funding to get them to cash flow positive. For the home runs, levels of investment are often much much higher to fuel the growth necessary to capture the opportunity.

An established company running an innovation effort typically either does not have the level of funds available or is unwilling to spend it. As a venture funded startup goes through its Series A, B, C, etc financing rounds, its financial statements are showing a sea of red ink. Venture investors expect this. For a public company, this level of spending means lower earnings per share which for most companies is not tolerable.

The other alternative is boot-strapping, using a small amount funds up front and using profits to grow the business. We love a great bootstrap story but there really are not that many of them that generate large scale returns. Boot-strapped businesses, because they are capital constrained, tend to grow slower. With in an established company, the slower growth of a boot-strapping will often result in executives thinking it’s too small a business to be worthwhile.

Long Time Scales

The other area where established companies struggle with innovation efforts is the time frame of returns. Venture investors assume, on that average, returns are years away which is why their investment funds have 10 year lifetimes. Venture investors will set aside money for follow-on investment rounds knowing that it takes years and follow-on investment to build a strong business.

Most established companies lack this level of patience and typically expect to see large returns much quicker which typically is not possible. Even an exponential growth rate doesn’t yield big numbers early on. The returns of the new business always seem puny and irrelevant when compared to the firm’s existing businesses.

Risk Aversion

Startups by their very nature move fast and are willing to take risks. If a startup can not show progress and achieve milestones, it will be unable to raise the next round of funding. The greatest risk is not being able to raise the next round.

By contrast, established corporations, particularly publicly traded ones, are risk minimization machines. There are many high paid professionals whose job it is to reduce risk regardless if it reduces speed. Considering there’s more to lose, this is a rational mindset. But for innovation efforts, it can become a serious obstacle.

This obstacle rears its head when there’s risk of lawsuits or regulatory concerns. A start-up will see a 25% risk of a lawsuit or regulatory action as preferable to the 100% certainty of ceasing to exist if it doesn’t make progress. Extreme examples are Uber or Airbnb. It’s inconceivable to me that any established company could have built those businesses because of the risks involved. YouTube is another example. The risk of being sued for copyright infringement is too large for an established company to take on a nascent product.

Option To Give Up

One of greatest impediments to innovation efforts at established companies is that it’s too easy to give up. Being a risk minimization machine, an established organization will at some level see giving up as a good thing when obstacles and risks arise. Those employees working on the innovation efforts will be moved to some other project. The senior executives are spared the discomfort of having to explain a reduction in profitability or a new lawsuit on an earnings call. For the startup, giving up means shutting down or at least a pivot, both of which are painful.

The Technology Myth

At the core of innovation efforts is the belief that new technology is what will drive future business success. The problem with this belief is not that it values technology, but rather that it discounts all the other pieces that go into building a successful business. The ignoring all the activities a business must get right is a primary factor in dramatically underestimating just how much funding it takes to turn one of these ideas into a real business. The technology is the cheap part. Turning an early stage product into a real business which includes productizing it, marketing it, selling it which all gets expensive.

What Works Better

Given all these challenges, established firms are most likely to be successful with innovations that are connected or adjacent to their existing businesses. The first reason is there’s leverage from the existing business which both plays to the firm’s existing strengths and lowers some of the costs. In adjacent business, many of the assets of the company are valuable such as the brand, the sales and support operations and the channels to market.

The second reason is that executive leadership will be able to recognize the value being created. The most innovation famous story, one which has reached the level of myth in the technology world, is Xerox Parc which in the late 1970’s invented the future of computing but failed to see the value and commercialize it. Malcolm Gladwell has a great essay on Xerox Parc titled the Creation Myth.  Gladwell tells us there’s one innovation from Parc where Xerox recognized the value:

Meanwhile, the thing that they invented that was similar to their own business—a really big machine that spit paper —they made a lot of money on it.” And so they did. Gary Starkweather’s laser printer made billions for Xerox. It paid for every other single project at Xerox PARC, many times over.

This outcome is partially because Xerox could readily understand the value of laser printing because it was similar to their core copier business and partially because printers was a smaller leap to turn into a real business since many of the activities needed to be the copier business are also useful for the printer business.

The underlying goal of most innovations efforts to create a continuous pipeline of profitable new businesses. Note that a pipeline of profitable business is not what the professional venture investors try to achieve.  Rather they focus on the power law and look for the home runs. Pure innovation is not repeatable or predictable.  For better or worse, established firms want a repeatable process for new sources of profits.

The repeatable process for new sources of profits is a system for successfully moving into adjacencies. Cisco does this via acquiring smaller companies and then leveraging its salesforce, customer relationships and brand to increase the value of the acquired product. Acquisition is not an easy model as most acquisitions fail but Cisco has built strengths in acquiring and integrating so it can achieve a high success rate.

Amazon is another great example. Amazon started in books and has systematically expanded to new categories to the point where it covers a huge portion of the retail landscape. These category expansions leverage all the strengths that Amazon has built including its world class supply chain, fulfillment capabilities and strong brand. One of Amazon’s biggest flops was outside its core competencies, the Fire Phone. Amazon has also been successful at consumer electronics, most notably Alexa.

If you read this far, what I want to leave you with is that innovating is an unpredictable endeavor where failure is much more common than success. Established firms are on the whole not suited to this pursuit in areas disconnected to their core business. Even if an innovation effort discovers a great new technology, the constraints that established firms have mean they are unlikely to successfully commercialize it. Instead, established firms should build a system to move into adjacencies where they are most likely to be successful and can leverage their existing strengths and capabilities.


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