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Startup Engineering The Coca-Cola Company

by Kevin Burke

Kevin Burke is the Sr. Global Brand Manager for Glaceau vitaminwater, smartwater and Aquarius at The Coca-Cola Company.  He recently completed the Startup engineering & corporate innovation track at Flashpoint at Georgia Tech. Kevin and his team participated as part of Flashpoint at Georgia Techs 5th batch of Startups and recently completed the program in June 2015.  We caught up with Kevin after a recent afternoon of focus groups around his new beverage product ideas that were generated through the Flashpoint program

Can you give us some background on how you, your team and Coca-Cola came to get involved in Flashpoint?  
About two years ago, Carie Davis, who was leading Global innovation and entrepreneurship at Coke, started hosting classes and events around entrepreneurial thinking and new ways of working. I was fortunate to be one of Carie’s early adopters for these courses. Startup Weekend at Coke was my first taste of bringing an idea to product quickly and I personally caught the entrepreneurial “bug” from there.

We then started implementing these new ways of working back into our brand team. My manager pointed out a whitespace opportunity around new beverage innovation for our Glaceau brands and tasked me to seek a new way to innovate to solve that problem.

We wanted a new way to look at innovation, we wanted to learn new skills that could be applied back to our day to day jobs at Coke and we wanted to solve the problem by creating something new or building on an existing opportunity.

We looked at multiple agencies, programs and partnerships and ultimately the team at Flashpoint offered a great opportunity to partner on our problem, so we became part of Batch 5.

What was it like being a corporate team amongst other teams while at Flashpoint?
It was challenging getting to know and work around new people and processes. Our team was fortunate in that our Managers trusted us, believed in the program and gave us permission to have the first 8 weeks away from our jobs to get immersed in learning about Startup engineering.

I think once the other teams recognized that the Coke team was going all-in everyone started to work well together. We learned a ton of techniques, tricks and new ways to look at problems from the Startups in Batch 5 . I also believe we were able to give the other teams advice ,tools and introductions to people in our “corporate” networks that helped them with their Startups.  Ultimately everyone worked well together.

I think being having corporate teams blended with Startup teams is a great model as long as everyone is open to share, learn and teach each other. It certainly was great for us to be with other teams, I think the other teams in Batch 5 would agree with that statement

What about the Flashpoint program was most valuable for you?
Merrick Furst and the Flashpoint team are onto something different and exciting that I haven’t seen other accelerators try. Flashpoint is part education, part discovery and part accelerator. That is unique compared to other programs around the country.

For me two phases of the program really stood out.

First, learning to find authentic demand for your product was a process and set of tools that were really valuable to learn.   Flashpoint required us to act like a detective investigate and listen to our customers.

We were taught a set of tools and then required to have primary interactions with people who are critical to our products success. After 250 of these “d.p.i’s” (documented primary interactions) you begin to see if potential customers actually have a need for your product. You also clearly learn how to define who your customer is and what your value is to them. As a corporate team this was a new way to get at what our customers really want versus doing hundreds of thousands of dollars of research. We had to get out of the office and do the work ourselves and that was really valuable learning.

The second phase that was valuable, was the Immunity to Change courses Flashpoint provides. It would take another article to explain it fully but that tool taught me how to recognize the confirmation bias and behavioral factors in myself and those stakeholders who are important to making a new business or idea successful. Once you can recognize those behavioral factors you can build your product and talk about your product in a way that will overcome those immunities to change. This was a breakthrough for me personally.

How did Flashpoint change you and the way you work at Coke today?
The successful brands, products, startups, apps, and businesses, whatever you want to call them, did not become successful by accident. Successful startup companies understand who their customer is and what their customer needs. Then they build a product to fulfill that need.

That is much more clear for me now and I try and take that learning to work every day. If I can be more aware of who are customer is and what their needs are , we can build products that meet those needs  and we have a much better chance to be successful with our innovations.

Of the other companies in Flashpoint, who should we look out for?
The guys from Florence Health Care are really onto something, you should check them out.  Gayle and her team at the Gallium group have a real business working and a bunch of customers already.  I also like what James Harris and his team at VISIT are going after, they are tapping into the mega trend around the maker movement have a chance to win in that massive market.

The other entrepreneurs in the program are also up to some cool stuff. Get Lawyer has a for profit for good play going on that is interesting. The Vault stem cell guys are tapping a unique market around athletes and stem cell storage…All in all I think this group has a chance to make some things happen.

I was happy to get to know them all and I’m still supporting some of them with branding, marketing and storytelling as they raise funds and grow their customer bases.

What advice would you give other Corporate employees who are seeking are interested in Startups and innovating at their companies?
I would tell them to “DO” something about it. Don’t just sit in your desk and dream about it or wait for it to come to you.  Get out into the entrepreneurial community in Atlanta, go to the events, meet people, and participate.

You will be surprised how many opportunities there are for corporate folks to lend a hand, give some advice and make connections with Startups. Give something to the community and you are guaranteed to get something back. Make some time for coffee with folks. Do something about it. Don’t talk about it.

I try and meet at least 3 people from my Flashpoint Batch each week. 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there. I can give advice but I also learn something new from these entrepreneurs every time I meet with them.

I also recommend participating in area Startup Weekend or hackathons in the area. Participate, Coach, Sponsor these events, they need support. You can go as far as Hosting a Startup Weekend or entrepreneurial event inside your company, I’d be happy to help someone who is interested in doing something internal at their company get that get started.

Do something about it, get involved. It all starts with “doing”

Ok, I have to ask, what is the latest with the new drinks you created during Flashpoint? When can we taste them?
I cant say much about them specifically, but I can tell you that 5 of the 9 new beverage ideas we devised during our time at Flashpoint are officially moving into the development process.

We spent some time testing the ideas further and got some positive results…which helped validate the consumer insights we discovered during Flashpoint. If all goes right we could have one or more of these products on the shelf somewhere in the world in 2016.  My fingers are crossed and we are still working hard to get it right. Flashpoint for us hasn’t ended, we are just continuing the work back inside the big red machine

Applications for Flashpoint at Georgia Techs Batch 6 are now open. http://flashpoint.gatech.edu/apply/ 
You can follow Kevin Burke on twitter @Kevn_Burke

[Photo Credit]


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