If you work at a corporation, you’ve probably noticed that your company’s most talented innovators have a tough time quickly turning great ideas into great products. But Greg Larkin, author of This Might Get Me Fired, knows how to break the cycle of stale and destructive corporate habits.
In this episode, Gregory (@gregory_larkin) shares what he’s learned by launching more than 30 new products with Fortune 500 companies and start-ups. He’s going to show you how to gather support within your organization and launch your product in just two months rather than two years.
By the end of this episode, you’ll have the tools to develop your entrepreneurial mindset, and you’ll know when to prioritize your product over your job.
Greg Larkin: I began my entrepreneurial life as the head of products for a really gritty, tough, wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, startup that was called Innovest. Our CEO was a guy called Matthew Kiernan, and he pushed me very hard to have the audacity to be the only person in the room.
I was covering banks during the housing boom. We would get pressure from many of these huge institutions, many of which since failed, and to switch our analysis off to soften our language.
Every time that happened, Matthew Kiernan was just, “That’s how you know you’re doing it right, when they’re threatening you with their legal teams, that’s a good sign. When they’re challenging your opinions but can’t discredit your facts, you’re on target. You know it’s working because people are mad at you.”
“That kind of rebellious audacity was critical.”
We were one of the earliest voices in finance to have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.
Only because he was leaning on me to not be afraid to swim against the tide and not be afraid to be provocative. Not to be reckless, but if your facts are solid, then you can own a virtual monopoly on courage.
That kind of disruption was literally the blood that coursed through our veins. It was not a marketing slogan at Innovest.
We were acquired in 2009. I had to make the transition for being a startup entrepreneur to being a corporate intrapreneur.
Corporate Culture Shock
Charlie Hoehn: Who acquired you?
Gregory Larkin: We were acquired by a large publicly traded financial services company called Risk Metrics, and then very soon after that, they were acquired by another company called MSCI. I shifted away and became a director in the innovation department of Bloomberg after that.
Through those different transitions, the extent to which there were these barriers to launch that had nothing to do with possibility or efficiency but they were entirely this wall of fear, this “wall of can’t.” That was astounding for me.
My first meeting with Matthew Kiernan, when a very powerful investment bank called Lehman Brothers had threatened to sue me, I said, “I’m happy to tend my resignation, this is really – I put you in a very rough spot, I’m sorry about this. You tell me what I’ve got to do, I’m happy to quit.”
His response was, “No, this is how you know you’re doing it right. You’re supposed to be in this risk, this is how you know you’re growing. If we’re right, we’re going to own a monopoly on being the only people who got it right.”
You juxtapose that with some of my first meetings and get huge corporations that acquired me like Bloomberg with you know, the executive leadership there and that was not the tone of the meeting at all.
The tone of the meeting was, where’s your power point deck, have you spoken to McKenzie or Boston Consulting Group yet?
The way in which people were prepared for those meetings, not in terms of how they would affect people’s lives but very much in terms of how not to get into trouble.
“The degree of risk aversion was such a surprise to me.”
The extent to which people were predominantly focused on not breaking protocol and not challenging hierarchy. Making sure that their boss likes them, even if their boss had a really incorrect idea. The extent to which that there is this really pervasive fear driven culture.
People felt they couldn’t do things all the time. I was in meeting after meeting where people felt they couldn’t achieve something that was mission critical for the company’s survival.
It was mission critical for someone to take the risk and prioritize their product over their status or over their job, or else a start up would come out of nowhere and eat into market share again and again.
“There is this enormous cost of not innovating, and people neglected that cost all the time.”
That was a really intense culture shock for me. I think after a little while, I realized that inertia was a choice. People assumed they couldn’t do these things, but in reality, they wouldn’t do these things. And the extent to which the willfully left those opportunities, they left that money on the table, they walked by those opportunities without seizing on them so that they could stay safe.
It might have been good politics in the short term, but over the long term, there is this enormous vulnerability which emerged. You would consistently see that out of nowhere, a company or a product which wasn’t there weeks ago, months ago was suddenly eating in to these stalwart, Fortune 100 income streams that had been there for years where the companies themselves assumed that their defenses were impregnable.
Charlie Hoehn: Does an example come to mind for you that really jumped out at you?
Gregory Larkin: Sure, a bunch of examples that come to mind. I guess the most acute example was while I was at Bloomberg. A company, a product that was pitched by someone else in the innovation team was actually an exact copycat of a product at my own startup had retired seven years earlier and no one spoke out against it because it was, politically, something that had to happen.
I knew it was going to fail, and it did.
But I was in the meeting where it was funded for millions of dollars. It was literally a copycat of a product that my own startup had launched, and immediately retired because there were no sales, there was no excitement from the market. All of those indicators that would let you know that it’s something you should double down on and none of those are happening.
“We failed, and we were okay with that.”
We just put it to bed and moved on. Someone else who had politically positioned it in exactly the right way at Bloomberg pitched the exact same product. It was the positioning that won the money rather than the fact that there was an unmet need in the market and that this product could solve that problem in a differentiated way.
I saw that happen all the time. Ironically, one of the products that I had launched at Bloomberg that was politically not positioned properly, that was later a startup called Kensho, built the same thing. They were just acquired two weeks ago for something like 600 million dollars.
You know, it was a long time ago but I still see those stories and I’m like that, “That could have been ours.”
Fast Innovation in Action
Charlie Hoehn: What are you most proud of having built?
Gregory Larkin: I’m actually currently working on a new product for a major drink company, can’t name them yet or the product yet because it’s not yet on shelves and it’s still being developed. But what’s been exciting about that is that it’s exposed the senior leadership of this organization to an entirely new way of thinking and doing.
Literally in eight weeks, we’ve put an entirely new beverage on shelves in a very small number of settings, but that same process for this same organization would typically take about two years.It would cost tens of millions of dollars.
We just moved extremely quickly, got in front of people and listed a few very small retailers who were willing to participate in this experiment where the drink is on shelves.
If someone walks by one of the coolers in that area and sees what they like, they would pick up an empty bottle of a drink, and you have somebody there and they approach them and say, “Hey, thank you for picking that up, this is actually an experiment, we’ll give you 20 bucks.”
“The larger the company is, the further they get away from intimacy with their customer.”
You get an understanding of why they like it, you see the look on their face. You get to know whether them saying, “Yes, I like this.”
“Okay, you like it but on a scale of zero to five, how much do you like it and who are you that makes you like that? If you were to describe that as a person, how would you describe this person?”
Sometimes some of the greatest disruption in any industry stems from that.
That’s definitely what we’re experiencing right now with this drink. It’s pretty thrilling, and I think you’re going to see when the story gets written and this company can be named and this product can be named, it’s kind of an amazing inflection point.
From my vantage point on the ground, you can really see how this is going to transform the way they think of themselves, vis-a-vis their customer, and it’s going to transform the way in which they think of their products and build their products going forward.
“It’s going to become a portfolio strategy rather than just a strategy for a single product.”
That’s kind of incredible on the extent to which people in this organization who were kind of risk averse initially and very tentative because seemed like a deviation from how they’ve normally done things. They’ve seen the results and seen how it’s an exponential difference from how they would normally, from what they would normally achieve.
That’s the best part of my job by the way, when you’re just literally on the ground as these seeds just sprout the first green shoot, you know?
Entrepreneur vs Intrapreneur
Charlie Hoehn: It sounds like a big part of your personal mission is to infuse the DNA of what makes a lot of startups successful into corporate DNA which definitely has its strengths but certainly has huge weaknesses and chinks in the armor when it comes to continuing to innovate and stay in touch with their customers.
Gregory Larkin: I think that’s true to a point. I think the transition from entrepreneur to ‘intrapreneur’ taught me something that doesn’t get taught enough when people talk about enterprise innovation. It doesn’t necessarily get featured in the cookbook.
An entrepreneur has one job: you have to build a disruptive product and you have to stay disruptive. You have to identify an unmet need in the market and solve it in a competitive way.
An intrapreneur in a large organization, you have two jobs: you have to build a disruptive product and you have to make an organization more afraid of extinction than change.
Most people that make that transition and many of the people in the lean startup movement overlook the importance of cultural transformation in intrapreneurship. They underestimate it.
“No one’s going to say they’re anti-innovation in any major corporation ever.”
But day to day, they’re much more afraid of change than extinction.
That sort of dual-pronged mission of organizational change coupled with product innovation. Coupled with disruptiveness in your market.
That’s not just infusing the culture of a startup into a huge company, that’s sort of saying, what can you do as a huge company that makes you more disruptive than anyone can be?
What makes you uniquely capable of solving this problem, and what are the obstacles that comprise your wall of can’t?
Where is the resistance in the company that doesn’t need to be there but just culturally is very much embedded but needs to be changed? Who are the leaders that need to have a voice that don’t have a voice? Who are the skeptics that need to be either neutralized or converted into supporters?
Any intrapreneur that starts a product and doesn’t think about that, very explicitly, from the outset won’t launch properly. They’re not going to ever make it out of the gate. They’ll spin their wheels.
Getting People on Your Side
Charlie Hoehn: How do you get those converts, how do you get people on your side?
Gregory Larkin: I think there’s a few principles that any intrapreneur needs to embrace. I think the biggest one of those principles is don’t ever pitch an idea, always pitch an outcome.
In any major company, it’s very easy for people with power to say no. When the culture of innovation is that you come up with an idea pitch and you present it to the powers that be, you ask for funding, you ask for support, and you hope that they don’t say no.
“Many of those same executives look very powerful for saying no.”
As an intrapreneur, if you go into those meetings and you take those opportunities and you’re coming up with results, we have identified an unmet need.
We have built a product that is solving that problem in a way that is mission critical for the results of that organization. It is very hard for people to walk away from that. It’s very hard for executive leadership to say no to that. Because they are not just saying no to your idea.
They are saying no to an outcome and the sort of implicit message is the question is not whether this can be built.
The question is whether it will be built here.
And I think a lot of intrapreneurs neglect to put validation and ask for executive leadership to double down on it. They pitch a hypothesis of what validation might look like one day.
Finding Support for Your Innovation
Charlie Hoehn: So you talk about ‘the godfather’ and ‘the secret society’ in your book, what does that mean?
Gregory Larkin: Yeah, it can be a very lonely existence being one of the few people in a major big company who is born with the wiring of an entrepreneur who finds himself working in a huge company.
It’s very hard to find your people.
What I mean by that is very often, you might find the software developers who know the right coding languages and you might find designers that have emerged from very prestigious design programs. But they don’t necessarily have the cocktail of piss and vinegar that someone who’s an entrepreneur has.
“When they identify an unmet need in the market, they can’t stop themselves from going after it.”
Where they put an enormous amount of self-worth in their sense of fulfillment in their job as a product of how impactful they are of what they’re building each day.
Everyone has that to an extent, but I think people who have the wiring of an entrepreneur, it registers a lot more. It is very hard if you are with that wiring to find your comrades.
One of the things that I’ve identified over time is that that has to extend to the executive level of an organization. Every successful entrepreneur I have ever known finds what I call the godfather.
The godfather is the executive who has lots of power, who is determined to introduce their company into modernity.
“They are determined to become an agent of essential change, they want that to be their legacy, and they also have the power to enforce it.”
They have favors that they can call in and they are powerful enough so the people who are going to stand in the way are going to have to think twice simply because that person is involved.
That’s the godfather. I have never seen a product work effectively without one and then there’s the secret society, and that is a much harder thing to find. But that is essentially a coalition of people who you may or may not formally have a working relationship within the big company who are entrepreneurial, who do understand what it’s like to work at the speed and the impactfulness of a startup. They are determined to be of service to other entrepreneurs in the company and to infuse that into the DNA of the organization as a whole.
It’s mission critical.
I have never seen a product launch effectively that had to depend on people who are not part of that. Who couldn’t build that coalition and send out the right sonar signal so that the other entrepreneurs in the organization hear it and come running and say: “Hey I hear you are working on this thing. I’d love to be a part of it if that’s possible.”
Why Big Ideas Die
Charlie Hoehn: I love your approach in this book. You actually teach the necessary political finesse that comes with working with people who are territorial, who are scared of change, who are all these things in a corporate environment. You teach how to get them on board.
Gregory Larkin: Or neutralize them. Or make it clear to them that there is a risk to not getting on board.
I’ve never seen an enterprise product fail because it wasn’t designed slinky enough or because it wasn’t agile enough or because it wasn’t blockchain enough or it wasn’t artificial intelligent enough.
I have launched over 30 products in these companies. I have never seen that being the reason they died.
“The only reason they’ve died is because someone with power wanted it to be killed, every single time.”
Wealso live in a time where there is a big hangover from that. Once it’s built and it’s gaining validation there’s nothing stopping someone from making that product come to life or solving that problem outside of the organization and stealing market share.
I’ve seen huge companies watch that happen without challenging the power structure that prevented the innovation from getting into the market’s hands in the first place.
The reason I thought this book was necessary because that is the tragedy of inertia and the disruption economy in which we live in. There’s a huge cost to not innovating today that wasn’t necessarily there 10 years ago.
The company that thinks they can read The Lean Startupbut not solve the cultural barriers to innovation is at more financial risk today than at any point, maybe in economic history.
Anyone who is trying to innovate in that context needs to know that. It needs to have an explicit strategy to address that.
A Vision for the Future
Charlie Hoehn: What do you hope is the change that this will create? What were you hoping, 10 years from now, because this book is out there, will have happened?
Gregory Larkin: So there’s the change that you can measure and then there’s the change that you can feel, which do you want to hear first?
Charlie Hoehn: Both.
Gregory Larkin: I think launching a new product in a very big company requires an enormous amount of courage.
There is always a person that says, “I understand that building this would challenge very powerful people’s territory. I understand that there are very strong systems that are deeply engrained and the way this organization operates, I understand that I might get in trouble. I understand that I might get fired, and I am doing it anyway.”
That is not just one of the boldest acts of innovation. It’s one of the boldest acts of entrepreneurship, total startups, and corporations alike. The person that is willing to make that stand and willing to enlist a movement behind that. My hope is more people take that stand.
“Inertia is a powerful drug, and it’s a dangerous drug.”
The courage to break those habits is undervalued. It’s under recognized. The people who stood at those turning points, where those products got launched and made that bold stand, if they were startup founders, we would know all of their names no doubt.
But in the organization, we see retroactively that there is a bump in stock valuation. Or an old company had a new product that came out and it is doing pretty well, people are excited about it. Very rarely do you know who the person was or how that product came to be.
In startups, you become a rockstar fast.
I hope that that changes. I hope that, culturally, organizations embrace that, embrace those people within their midst, recognize that for them to thrive in the modern economy that those people need to have a voice.
It’s the organization’s job to make a comfortable home for them.
A Challenge from This Might Get Me Fired
Charlie Hoehn: What’s something listeners can do from This Might Get Me Fired this week that could have a positive impact in their life?
Gregory Larkin: I’m going to turn that into two challenges. One is going to be people in the listening audience who have a product that they know their company needs to build and can build but the company just won’t do it or it’s just not the right time or we have to wait until next year’s annual strategic plan:
“I would challenge people to just go and build it.”
Run user tests in it in seven days. What is the smallest increment of that that they can build and get it out to the people who they think need it? And just go, do it enlist to whatever you need to do, don’t ask for permission. Just go.
So that’s challenge number one, build a minimum viable product and get it in front of some customers and get some validation.
Number two, the second piece of that challenge is bring someone very powerful in a position of senior leadership in your company along for that journey.
Take them out for lunch after you have gotten the product in front of people. You’re starting to see that they love it, that they like it better than what your company is already providing to that customer.
Share what you have done, tell them that you are looking for support, tell them, present to them a hypothesis of why you think they should support you and act as your godfather.
And those are my two challenges. So build something that matters, and find a godfather to make it come to life.
How to Pitch an Outcome
Charlie Hoehn: How do you personally approach stores and distributors and say, “Hey I want to run an experiment with this product, will you have a seat in your shelves?”
Gregory Larkin: Yeah, that is actually one of the hardest things and that is one of the parts of guerilla validation that is extremely difficult. Especially when you are dealing with enterprise clients as opposed to something where you know you are looking for downloads from the app store for example. Those relationships, you have a few options.
One, you can go to the most accessible mom and pop version of the same industry. So, Procter and Gamble is one company. But is there a smaller scale business that is a little bit more approachable where you won’t have to get permission from corporate where you think you have enough of the same set of users that you can get to some degree of validation that is applicable to Procter and Gamble once it starts to work?
What’s the ‘Procter and Gamble Lite’ that might be local to your local geography?
The other thing is you can cobble together. This is sort of going into the weeds of user testing. But you asked so we are going to go there, Procter and Gamble may not give you permission but people on LinkedIn who work for Proctor and Gamble will definitely respond when you say, “We will offer you a $150 if you would be willing to participate in a user test for an hour.”
“You can cobble together the right roles and responsibilities within those organizations.”
You can have a district manager, a field officer, a field technician, a sales rep, whatever, and you get all of the people that represent the different users.
That you need to interact, and you are just doing that guerilla style. You are approaching them and you’re offering money and you can run a user test outside of office hours with the same people and the same roles.
If it works, eventually they’ll say, “This is awesome! I can see how my boss would need this, would you be okay if I introduce our product to him?”
So you can work your way up from a very grassroots beginning when you are running those user tests. It requires money, though. You have to pay people to participate.
Connect with Gregory Larkin
Charlie Hoehn: How can our listeners get in touch with you or follow you, connect with you that sort of thing?
That used to be the address of CBGB’s, which is the greatest punk club ever in the world. I thought it was apt when I left Bloomberg and started my own company that I embrace my inner punk or they can follow me on Twitter, which I am getting better at tweeting but I don’t do it as much as I should and that is @innovationpunk.