Join the entrepreneurial revolution: Innovate like and with startups

In this week’s blog post, I feature my interview in Mike Docherty’s upcoming book, Collective Disruption:  How Corporations & Startups Can Co-Create Transformative New Businesses

Ricardo dos Santos, ex-Senior Director of New Business Development at Qualcomm

How can you get an entire organization to step up and explore new venture opportunities—and incorporate lean principles along the way? Dos Santos started a boot camp.

I joined Qualcomm from a startup that was acquired by Qualcomm and found a role in new business development. Eventually, I created an original innovation program called the Qualcomm Venture Fest. It was a way to crowd source ideas from anywhere in the company. It was also an idea accelerator and a way to do innovation training contextually.

I explicitly didn’t want to compete with the core business or some obvious adjacencies. I called our work breakthrough innovation, and I painted a typical growth matrix along technology access and a new market access and said, “We’re the program that’s supposed to push some things out.”

We went from a standalone online idea tournament (I’d call it our minimum viable product) into something that combined an offline effort to turn top ideas into actionable, investment-worthy projects—an idea development boot camp. We encouraged employees to practice “entrepreneurial thinking and behaviors” to prove their idea’s financial and strategic potential. The program retained its tournament structure, where 10 to 20 ideas out of hundreds of original entries would make it to this boot camp round, and this was the heart of the program.

The first day of boot camp, people were instructed to recruit a small venture team. They were advised on how to round off their (founder) skills, expertise, personality, and connections with those of complementary team members. It was also critical to think ahead in terms of where they thought their idea would eventually need to be internally validated, improved, and supported. Based on this, they could recruit the appropriate mentors.

It was a grassroots, volunteer effort. Our program simply made it more efficient for deserving “intrapreneurs” to get their “day in court.” It welcomed all, but the rigorous tournament and boot camp phases filtered out the less committed change makers. It provided context for “founder types” to recruit a small team of volunteers, enlist upper management mentorship, receive training, and use modest amounts of seed funding to think through and validate their ideas before “pitching” them to the company’s CEO and the rest of his executive staff.

I was always telling those who joined my program that we needed to innovate like startups (I admired their boldness, speed, and resourcefulness). Bottom-up innovators could relate: they shared the same discontent for complacency but realized that when it came to their own blue-sky ideas, the burden of proof rested with them—startups offered a model for self-empowerment, albeit at a different risk/reward profile.

Someone pointed out that there was a flaw in using startups as the corporate entrepreneur’s ideal: we could try to innovate like startups, but how, exactly, did startups innovate? Why did so many fail?

So we had inspiration but not substance in our teachings to employees. I really didn’t have an answer until I first bumped into the term “the lean startup.” I was trained as an industrial engineer, and I knew about lean manufacturing, which was about cutting out extraneous fat such as inventory, defects, long cycle times, etc. What was the analogous “fat” in startups? When finally pointed to Steve Blank’s and Eric Ries’s writings, I was like, “Aha! Now you’re talking!”

We took the major principles and applied them to our particular situation; we become more specific about what the teams should be learning and doing in the boot camp. We asked them to reconsider their ideas by separating the problem from the solution and to generate additional alternatives (for both). We asked them to first test the problem with their intended customers to sharpen their hypothesis and then start testing their solutions iteratively through prototypes and demos.

We completely revamped how teams pitched, being upfront with what they learned and what was left to learn through continued experiments. The “Let’s just go for it! Are you with me?” stance was replaced by a cost/benefit conversation of “If you invest in this next stage of risk, I’ll bring this back as a reward (option, strategic, and exit value), and then we’ll see whether it’s worth proceeding to the next stage.”

The lean approach encouraged the company to make small bets in many more directions than traditional “business as usual” would have dictated. Usually, making decisions on large upfront investments in the absence of proof of concept results in passive or aggressive resistance to unloosen any purse strings. Venture Fest broadened our view. Augmented reality, spin-transfer torque chips, wearables, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, ultra-low-power server chips, and other ideas were embedded on the Qualcomm collective mind by the Venture Fest upstarts.

I remember our CEO saying to one of the Venture Fest teams a few years back: “This vehicle-to- vehicle wireless mesh stuff is a great idea that could one day put an end to deadly auto accidents. I hadn’t realized it has so much in common with some of the technical challenges we’ve solved in other areas. I’m glad you guys brought this up now!” Then he turns around and asks his executive staff what they thought. The head of R&D raised his hand and said: “I’ll take this one. Let’s learn more.” In this case, the Venture Fest project lead brought tremendous credibility. He had just joined Qualcomm after completing seminal university research on V2V communications.

Qualcomm immediately formed a taskforce to determine where to play and whom to partner with in the connected-car arena—a typical example of how we were able to surface new ideas that became important programs we might have otherwise missed.


Ricardo dos Santos is a director with 4inno, an innovation consultancy, and a mentor for Cisco’s EIR Program. Until 2012 he was a senior director of new business development with Qualcomm; dos Santos’ passion is helping large companies return to their entrepreneurial roots.

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