From industrial design to developing an entrepreneurial training program to helping launch a corporate commercialization program for startups, the common thread throughout Carie Davis’s varied career has been helping people learn how to think. The co-founder and partner of innovation consultancy Your Ideas Are Terrible, Davis found her own product-market fit by utilizing the experience she gained while teaching innovation within a corporation to, now, helping entrepreneurs connect with those corporations to solve problems.
Davis and her co-founder Shane Reiser lead workshops and trainings within corporations to help employees learn agile thinking, as well as to entrepreneurs looking to level up their companies. Their biggest project is the BridgeCommunity, an Atlanta-based startup commercialization program spearheaded by Coca-Cola in 2016.
Last year BridgeCommunity accepted 22 startups into the program. This spring, after iterating on feedback, they’ll take on 10 more companies who will be able to connect with business leaders at Coca-Cola, Mailchimp, Cox Enterprises, Capgemini and The Weather Company.
Davis took the time to share her story, what the BridgeCommunity is looking for when selecting startups, and why it’s worth it to let your employees talk to customers. Above all, whether you’re a corporate team member or a one-man startup show, she wants you to learn to think faster — better.
Talk us through your background — how did you get into entrepreneurial training while working at a big corporation?
My major was industrial design and that’s how I got into Coca-Cola — I was working in R&D. A lot of bigger innovation projects started to pop up in that role because they were getting moved into the design group. My background in design helped me see that constraints are really critical when you’re designing for a company like Coca-Cola, or a company in general. Where do you start? How do you make sure you’re not designing things that aren’t going to go anywhere? It helped me see that there was a big opportunity to start training people in how to communicate what they’re looking for — how do you get these designs into production and out in the world?
They [Coca-Cola] gave me the opportunity to start a design program, which we launched in Latin America. The whole purpose of that was to expose primarily the marketing and engineering teams to design thinking methodologies. Then, that led to an opportunity to create a new group to look for disruption in the industry and figure out, how do we get ahead of that? It was an opportunity to design a new way to think about innovation, and it was a nice transition to teaching a design thinking process to creating what became an entrepreneurial innovation platform.
That training led to what I would characterize as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence platform where we hired people in cities around the world to build startup ideas for Coca-Cola. The last element that we started to do was that our CTO at the time said, I think it’s great that we’re looking at how startups can help our core business, but I think people could also use this startup method to do the everyday work of the company. How can we help people work faster, with better insight? So we developed a platform for people to learn entrepreneurial thinking, grounded in lean startup methodology and design thinking. We ended up reaching about 1,000 people across the business.
After working on all this within the company, how did you transition into startup world?
When we started doing the entrepreneurial training inside of Coca-Cola, we thought it would also be helpful to partner with people within the actual entrepreneurial ecosystem. We partnered with Startup Weekend, an organization that was running these incredible opportunities for future entrepreneurs to learn, over a weekend, what it’s like to start a business — all the skills, the research methods we touched on, customer discovery and experimentation. We actually started to run a Startup Weekend inside of Coca-Cola. The employees loved it — it was really empowering and frankly, pretty emotional.
After we ran that for Coca-Cola, my Startup Week partner, Shane Reiser, and I thought it was time to start spreading that training to other corporations. Cox Automotive was our first client here in Atlanta. We created a consulting practice called Your Ideas Are Terrible which is focused on helping innovators, mostly inside of big companies.
We teach customer discovery, empathy, behavioral economics, how to ensure you’re getting the right ideas to market. How do we make we have the capabilities to move faster, how do we make sure we’re talking to customers in the right way? We also help corporations to collaborate with startups, so once you know what kind of ideas you want to build, you can actually go to startups to partner as a way to skip a lot of time.
How did the BridgeCommunity program start?
Coca-Cola was looking to create more innovation in IT and, originally, partnered with startups in Tel Aviv, because they felt like Silicon Valley was too high-profile but they wanted to go to a place where there were a lot of startups. That’s where The Bridge was born. After running it in Tel Aviv for a couple of years, they decided to bring the platform to Atlanta, slightly altering it recognizing that Atlanta’s startup ecosystem is not Tel Aviv. They reached out to Shane and I because we were working in that corporate entrepreneurial space.
So what have you learned over the last two years in the program? What have you changed?
One of the biggest lessons is, though we definitely shy away from calling our program matchmaking, we do do a lot of work on both sides finding the right people in the corporation and choosing the right startups. It’s an art. We’re doing a lot more this year in our interview process to allow business owners inside the corporations to chime in on who are the right startups. We’re always doing more work on the back side — how do you get the contracts that are not going to cripple the startups and make the corporation feel like they’re getting what they need out of it?
What does the selection process look like before the program even begins?
Over the last couple of months we have been talking with each corporation, corporate strategy groups, people who have goals they’re trying to achieve for 2018. We’re asking them things like, if you had more time, what would you want to get done? If you had the opportunity to partner with a startup, what would you do? What would be just out of reach, where is there a gap that a startup can slot in there?
On the startup side, we look for the stage of the startup as an important thing. We have the most success when the startup pretty much knows their product and their market, because we can help guide them to the right person within the corporation. It really helps when they have a straightforward way they can explain how they can pilot what their technology or product is.
What do potential applicants need to know about this year’s program?
Always, in the application, focus on thinking about which [company] you can help. It’s being as clear as possible to help them understand what you do, recognizing that they are a customer and not talking to them as you would an investor. That’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks — for people to realize that they need that application to come across easily.
Last year we had 22 startups in the program. This year we’re going to do the first round of applications online, interviewing about 40 startups. From there we will select 20 to do video interviews, which are going to each of the corporations. Then we’ll select 10.
You’ve seen both side of corporate innovation — on the one hand, teaching employees how to innovate and, on the other, working with outside startups for innovation. What’s better?
In my experience working on a lot of innovation projects on the inside, and then seeing how fast you can run those on the outside, I tend to think that if there’s already a solution out there, working inside can be much slower. I think it’s useful for corporations to try to build their own things, because employees like it and it has a host of other benefits. But the ability for a startup to build something without having to adhere to a decades-old brand and regulations, to literally go and sell something out of the trunk of your car, a company just can’t do that.
The ideas that come externally are also often much more innovative. Inside a big company you work in big functional areas where it’s often difficult to just connect the dots. It just happens faster on the outside. Something that I would suggest to any corporation trying to develop new solutions is: learn how to explore a lot of ideas faster, in a very light-touch way. Get more ideas into your pipeline — and then find the ability to search outside for the solutions. Maybe it’s done by partnering, maybe investing, but having those connections is critical to your innovation strategy.
You mentioned that even inside of big corporations, employees just like to learn to innovate. What’s the value of having these training programs?
The thing that I continue to read and that I noticed is that employees really want to work on things that they feel are important. When we teach things like innovation and they are able to bring their own ideas to the table, it’s very inspiring and motivating to them. Maybe there’s no budget for it, maybe it’s not strategically aligned with what the company is trying to do, but having the opportunity to do that is really engaging for them.
Actually talking to customers, which isn’t a common approach for regular employees in a big company, creates a connection that is also inspiring. We had an engineering team at Coca-Cola that, after they had done one of our workshops, went out for customer discovery, and the team lead said they were literally teary.
If you’re a startup who wants to go work with a big company, how do you even go about doing it?
When I was at Coke I had this job title of “Innovation”. Well, a lot of startups who wanted to work with us would see that I had this job title and assume I was the person to reach out to — but I actually was not the right person. It’s critical as a startup to know exactly who your customer is; there are a lot of different innovation groups that exist even inside one company. That’s where you have to get really good at digging into org charts and LinkedIn, talking to people at these organizations. Programs like the Bridge certainly help, but even early on, have the ability to talk to people for customer discovery and to refine your product offering to make sure you’re reaching out to the right person.
Find out who your exact customer is and find a way to talk to as many of them as possible. And if you’re not finding them, you’ve got to ask yourself, do they really exist?
This interview has been condensed for clarity. Photos provided by Your Ideas Are Terrible