On March 24, 2017, I sat in my office talking with my friend and co-founder, Scott Weinert. As we talked I had an idea for a new product. Here's the idea at a high level: Remember the last time you lost a credit card and had to update it at all the places it was stored online? It was undoubtedly painful. That experience probably involved hours of visiting websites like Netflix so you could get back to streaming Stranger Things.
My insight was that I thought we could build a very simple solution to solve this problem. I ran my idea past Scott - my technical co-founder at Unbill - and one other colleague. My next calls were to some key clients that have given me permission to call them anytime with ideas like this. Fortunately for me, our customer conference was just around the corner. At the conference I had the additional opportunity to validate this concept with around 40 customers. Overall consensus was “two thumbs way, way up!”
Following that feedback - and with several customers on the hook saying they would buy it as soon as it was ready - I returned to Scott with a very high level pitch of what the product would be. I had made some crude initial mockups, but this idea was beginning to take on a life of its own, and I needed someone that could take it to the next level! I shared what features customers felt were critical and which would be “nice to have’s.” Scott - as usual - made the idea significantly better. We did our best to come up with something that could be built fairly quickly and still meet or exceed customer expectations. I pitched the refined product back to our customers to make sure we were on the right track - along with some new mockups, provide by Scott. They confirmed our product direction.
We were now approaching the middle of April, 2017. Scott and his amazing team set to work building what we came to call CardSwap. At a high level, the solution allowed people to give us their login’s for the most popular places their cards are stored online - Amazon, Netflix, Uber, Lyft, etc. - then we would go in and swap out the default payment method on file with those merchants with whatever payment method they provided to us.
In July of 2017 we did the first production install of the CardSwap product for one of our Q2 Holdings financial institutions. That’s 4 months from the time the product was conceived! The product has gone on to do some incredible things.
I share the above story because it highlights several key principles of effective intrapreneurship. Using this story as a backdrop, I’d like to share 4 tips to help intrapreneurs succeed. These are 1) When it comes to teams working on these sorts of problems, smaller is better, 2) Simplify, simplify, simplify, and 3) Plan to be wrong.
Smaller is Better
Don't spend cycles telling everyone what you're up to, making sure everyone is in the loop, or allowing everyone in the business to provide feedback on your concept or idea. As an intrapreneur there are only two groups you need to satisfy - the customer and the business. When I say the business I mean, does it align with your companies strategic direction? Will it make revenue? Will it do so at the right margins?
Like a startup - teams that are small and highly focused are able to turn out better products in shorter periods of time. Don’t worry about perfection out of the gate.
Consider option 1 - you break the product into a deliverable that’s 4 months out. You’re bound to get a few things wrong, but you’re constantly validating your work with customers throughout the 4 months. Your team is pumped about the major milestone they’ve hit - a product from concept to production in 4 months! Your product comes to market and needs another month or two of design and development time order to for it to be ready for mass adoption. The next milestone will lead to broader adoption and optimization of the initial minimum viable product - all exciting things for great product people. Long-term you can continue to add features and functionality to the product.
Consider option 2 - (what most companies do) you have an idea. Your group does a ton of research up front and figures out what the perfect product would be. Once that’s complete, you tell customers what you’re going to build. Some customers likely tell you that you’re off, but you’ve go too much ego invested in this, so you defend the decisions you made, thereby offending a big chunk of your early adopters and a number of your potential first customers. On that exciting note you develop a roadmap wherein you estimate it will take you a year to deliver the product. Knowing the timeline, your dev team starts slogging through the code without much drive since, after all, you have a whole year to complete this work! A year later your team is now depressed because it has taken forever to build this product and they’re going to slip the date. Executives start applying pressure and everyone is feeling testy. This leads to churn on your team, which leads to greater delays as you have to bring new people up to speed with the project. Finally, two years after starting this project, you release your product only to hear that there are a bunch of things you missed. This leads to more frustration, and you know how it goes from here.
When you attack a product with the intense focus of a startup, you find ways to get your product to market much faster. Most startups couldn’t survive two years of development time. They would have long-since died out. When approaching products with a startup mentality you’ll likely find there are necessary adjustments following the initial release. Good startup founders actually plan on those, not utilizing all their resources assuming their first product will be perfect.
Note: Understanding which product opportunities to take on is crucial to good intrapreneurship. Find opportunities that have strategic value to the business and can be built quickly, with a small team. I’ve been around software long enough to know if a concept is the kind that will take six months or less to get in market. I’ve worked on products that take longer, but find that most software products can be simplified down to a six months or less sort of effort, if approached correctly.
I’ve found the roles in the image below are critical to successfully getting products to market.
A single person - if they’re a good intrapreneur - can typically cover ideation, the business case, and customer validation. The roles are typically associated with a product managers job function. Another person can typically fulfill the role of solution architect and lead the execution team from a design and technical perspective. I find the solution architect is more successful when they also have design skills, because they can begin to add value in multiple ways early on in the product life cycle.
In the case of CardSwap, Scott and I bounced the idea off of each other to make sure it was viable from a technical and business standpoint. I then validated that with customers. Scott made that idea better. We validated with customers again, then we put together a SWAT team made up of the best and brightest to knock the product out in a few short months.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
The role of most intrapreneur's is to bring new innovative products to market for their company. In order to do that successfully they must become masters of simplification. They need to understand the problem and potential solution well enough to trim it back and find the essential core components that make it innovative. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself the following question when trying to figure out what’s needed for the bare bones of a product, “If I had to get this product out in 2 weeks, what would I include?” By asking this question I gain greater clarity into what the critical components of my product are.
We asked ourselves this question multiple times when considering what to build into CardSwap. This question, and other questions like it, helped us separate the critical from the things that were really nice to have.
On the path to simplification, intrapreneurs must become good at saying no. They have to be able to say no to customers and they have to be able to say no to internal influences that could derail the pace of innovation for their products.
In the case of CardSwap we eliminated a ton of ideas others had for the product. When other internal groups wanted to get involved we told them “We’d love to get your thoughts on this after we launch.” We gave presentations to the organization so everyone would be aware of what we were up to, but we kept the group of people working on the project to a handful of people that are the best of the best. We also held back on some features that we knew customers wanted, but would impede our ability to deliver the product quickly and efficiently. As long as we could deliver a product that a fair number of customers were willing to buy out of the gate, we were fine. We didn’t need mass adoption on day one.
Plan To Be Wrong
In planning when your product will be released and what will be needed following release, plan to be wrong about a few things when you initially release your product. Do some research within your organization or ask intrapreneurs at other organizations to find out how much time they have to spend following a release to add necessary features or make fixes. I’ve never, ever seen a product get released that didn’t need a significant amount of follow on development.
Nothing will kill your product like a first release without the necessary commitment to continuing to develop your product. If you deliver a half baked product without committing resources to make the necessary adjustments your customers will be frustrated, your product will fail, and your reputation will suffer - rightfully so.
I can’t emphasize this point enough. It’s hard for our minds to commit to things we cannot see. When you build a product, you don’t know what will be wrong with it - if you did, you would fix it during the initial build out. That’s one of the crazy things about building new products. What you see is all there is. You don’t know what you don’t know. Great intrapreneurs plan for this based on their past experiences and the experiences of others.
With the rate of change in the world today, I believe every company should have intrapreneurs. People leading the way in innovation. As an intrapreneur I’ve delivered products that did better, financially, than my own startups. I know it can be difficult and that I’ve oversimplified some much broader issues in large company dynamics, but how to successfully bring new products to market has to be top of mind for any great business and intrapreneurs are critical to making that happen.
Tips for companies -
- Pushing innovation within your company can be difficult. Don’t just take someone that’s been a dedicated employee for 15 years, give them some kind of innovation title, and expect them to deliver. Intrapreneurship is a skill and they will need training in order to be successful.
- Consider inviting a successful intrapreneur from a vendor or partner into your organization to show your team how to be successful. I love doing that for companies.
- Make innovation a priority at the very top of your company. If your company lacks innovation or software expertise at the highest levels, consider inviting someone to serve as an advisor to your company. Ideally, this person would have experience as a tech entrepreneur or as a very successful intrapreneur. Initially you can run your business model by this person and get their thoughts on where technology can be used to help grow your business. They may also reach out to you when they think of new ideas for your business. I’ve performed this role for the executive leadership team at several companies and really enjoy it.
Tips for intrapreneurs -
- Consider reading these excellent books to help you better understand intrapreneurial concepts: Art of the Start, Rework, The Innovators Dilemma, The Lean Startup, Zero to One, Nail It Then Scale It.
- Get to know the sales folks or relationship managers in your organization. Ask them if they’d be willing to connect you with their most innovative clients so you can run an idea past the client and get some feedback.
- Create a directory of go-to clients that are willing to take your calls when you have innovative ideas. Anytime you speak with an innovative client be sure to let them know that you're always looking for people to help validate your ideas. Ask them if they're okay with you putting them on your list of go-to clients. Give them your cell phone number and ask them to send you their good ideas.
- Network with people in your organization that are the very best at what they do. You never know when you’ll need to draw on their expertise to put together an incredible product.
- Understand where you provide value as an intrapreneur. Identify your skill sets. If you posses only one of the skill sets mentioned above, see what you can do to improve in another area so you can provide greater value. Don’t feel like you have to do everything. I’ve found a huge jump in productivity when going from a team of one to a team of two and a similar gain from two to three, but the gains quickly begin to diminish from there.
- Keep at it! Our work is to guide our companies to a brighter future and it's a battle worth fighting.