There’s a dirty little secret amongst those who know how to run corporate incubators/accelerators/labs and it’s one hardly anyone would openly discuss. The lifespan of these departments is always finite. Some may only make it one or two years. Some may make it to ten years. Nevertheless, none will survive much longer and very few will ever get past five years of existence. If we go back a couple of years you’d be hard pressed to find even one that is ten years old and still doing what it initially set out to do. Many have pivoted away from their original goals and have either become business units still labeled as such yet behaving just like any other unit. Or they have absolutely nothing to do with startups or pursuing innovation. They are marketing and PR at best or where tired executives are put out to pasture. The days of a Bell Labs or Xerox PARC are long gone and very few managers at large corporates are even able to think and behave in a manner that would allow them to plan for long-term existence of these units.
Yet there is also another reality that one has to accept when involved with corporates nowadays. The times have changed. Just as I wrote in my previous post about VC behaviour, so too have the corporates changed. Further, their innovation efforts have had to adapt. Hence it is not all doom and gloom when you look at it….it’s simply inevitable. Cycles have compressed and the speed of innovation has increased to such an extent that you can hardly plan more than a couple years out. The majority of these labs/incubators/accelerators are so closely tied to the people running them as well as the management championing them that even the slightest change throws everything for a loop. Further, the compensation schemes often put in place within these organisations are bound to fail, regardless of success or failure. It’s unfortunately a Catch-22 because if you don’t perform, or don’t perform fast enough you will be shut down. If you do perform, the expectations get out of whack and you are ultimately again failing instead of succeeding. Or you’re initially a threat to the organisation and everyone works against you until you perform. Once you perform though, everyone wants to stick their fingers in your success. Regardless, you constantly are pulled away from what you were initially mandated to do…innovate.
The tragedy of this situation is that in order to survive as one of these organisations, you have to constantly be adapting and cutting off limbs or mutating. There is only so long where you can successfully pull this off without tripping up. Your team will eventually tire and therefore you have to be continually replacing people. Finally, you as management ride the emotional rollercoaster daily and will burn out. You have to accept that the gig has a set lifespan and avoid focusing on all the hurdles. If you want to start one of these organisations or plan to join one, shut off your rational brain and become completely focused on the task at hand. You have to be able to see the end goal, innovation, as the main driver and filter out the noise. “Noise” will be politics, the legal department, accounting, HR, the Board and the endless myriad of corporate activities. I am not advising you to break the law but you have to be comfortable living in the grey area. You need to believe that you are a special ops group who will be sacrificed if necessary to achieve the corporates goals. When you realise that you will ultimately only be measured on the innovation that you deliver will you be able to focus laser-like on the task at hand ignoring the noise. Finally, make sure that if you aren’t “killed” along the way, you know when to get out. Simply be aware of your own limits…go beyond them. Yet know when you will snap. Taking it out on management or your employees (or with drink, drugs or excessive sports) will only shorten your time with this organisation or will just get the whole thing shut down.
Not many people are made out for this kind of role. If it is your task to set up this organisation, make sure you know what kind of people you are looking for. They are not your typical corporate animal. They’re also not your typical startup person. They are a hybrid of someone who likes to accept new and different challenges constantly. They know how to navigate in the startup world yet are comfortable with corporate boards. They can go from product meeting to contract negotiations to a stage presentation all in the same day. They know how to be a part of a team yet can thrive as individuals alone in the field. And most importantly, they have proven most of this in previous roles at multiple organisations. These are not folks who have spent too much time at any company because they tend to get bored by the norm.
Update: in order to avoid any confusion, no, this is not my departure note from Liquid Labs. I, as well as my team, remain just as dedicated to what we set out to do as ever. Nevertheless, I live what I preach and we strive to focus on innovation and performance at Liquid Labs and not on simply surviving in the corporate environment. We continue to learn and adapt our approach to what we do and have mastered not being too distracted by the noise.