I know a young woman who attends a very pricey public university that has plans to raise her tuition by another 25% next year.  It’s in one of those western states where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of available freshman openings.  You have to wonder what was going on in the alumni office when they were putting their quarterly newsletter together. It  proudly announced the latest institutional initiative, a million dollar branding campaign.

It would be one thing if it were a campaign to spread awareness of the university’s many great programs among prospective students.  It would even be all right to mount a a campaign to position the university as a driver of economic growth and social well-being for a balky state legislature.  But no, this was a branding campaign along the lines of  management book/landfill fodder classics like Why Johnny can’t Brand.  “It’s even worse,” said the father of the soon-to-be gold-plated sophomore.  His face was red and his hands were shaking as he shoved the alumni newsletter under my nose.

They are going to spend a million dollars — my dollars — on standard logos and common fonts.” No more nightmarish inconsistencies between physics and modern languages when it comes to business cards and PowerPoint presentations. And those press releases from the Athletic Director will now just have to rise or fall on their own merits. They won’t have serifs to hang onto.  Prospective employers will heave a sigh of relief knowing there has been no graphical hanky-panky in the registrar’s office when it comes to the forms on which student transcripts are printed.  Teams of litigators will have new weapons at their disposal as they fan out across the world to chase down the diploma mills that churn out thousands of knock-off degrees. As they cross the commencement stage, new graduates and their parents will be greatly comforted to know that every time their daughter is introduced from that day forward, the university’s branded,  descriptive tag line will have to be tacked onto the end, as in, “Meet Sally Smith who recently graduated from Western State University, the Mighty Blue Raiders, leading the force of change and innovation for the Rocky Mountains and beyond.”

OK, sorry.  I got caught up in the moment, but it struck me that a million dollar project to apply consumer product marketing tools  to a university that is raising tuition by 25%, closing academic departments, shutting down programs, and firing scores of staff was probably going to have some unintended repercussions. Marketing professionals would say it was not the best choice optics-wise. I remember thinking to myself: “This is maybe the dumbest use of university funds that I have ever seen.”

If you’ve seen my other posts (here and here for example) about college costs, you know that, optics-wise,  I am suspicious of any expenditure that does not add value to students. So I started to wonder about other really dumb ways that universities spend money.  I have a top five list.

  • An expensive “branding” campaign to standardize logos is at the top of the list.
  • Letting service units do research: Dormitories, IT facilities, bookstores, technology licensing, and public relations offices, are all service units. The problem is that mission creep results in an ever-expanding number of ever-expanding service units. No doubt inspired by institutional aspirations, they try to hire the best people.  Some of them have PhDs and academic career goals of their own, so they push very hard for a piece of the campus research pie. But, as we all know, university research seldom pays for itself. It is mission creep upon mission creep as service units with no academic mission whatsoever funnel resources into research programs.
  • Overhead forgiveness: Faculty members and research sponsors are equally suspicious of indirect costs on research contracts.  Professors see it as an unnecessary tax on their salaries, and sponsors confuse it with profit.  Both sides push to have it reduced or eliminated.  There are even federal agencies that make it a point to try to have it forgiven as they strong arm investigators into promising more and more for less and less.  Even full cost recovery does not pay the actual cost of research. Reducing or eliminating research overhead is an expense that robs the rest of the university, and is not a smart way to spend money.
  • Centralization: I once had a colleague — a fellow general manager — who effectively blocked any attempt to increase the size of his staff with “Where the f— do you think we are, General Motors?” It translated better back when General Motors was ranked number one in the Fortune 500, but it is nevertheless a good message today that administrative bloat is a dumb way to spend money.  The Spring 2008 issue of the UCLA faculty newsletter shows how bad it has become:

Over the past decade, the numbers of Administrators in the UC almost doubled, while the number of faculty increased by 25%. The sharpest growth took place among Executives and Senior Managers: 114%. Because Administrators command high salaries and benefits, any increase in their number higher than the expected growth rate for the University results in high costs: rough estimates of the costs of carrying extra administrators at UC range around $800M.

  • Entertain yourselves: We call it many things.  Networking. Teas. Receptions. Faculty meetings.  For most of the world, lunch means a five dollar sandwich from the cafeteria. At too many university gatherings, a catered buffet is the lure that induces professors to attend. Whatever we call it, the world sees it as a free lunch, and professors spend university funds to feed themselves at the drop of a hat. Long-time viewers of the NBC comedy series The Office know the drill.  If there’s a reason to entertain ourselves let’s do it:

Jan: You already had a party on May 5th for no reason.
Michael: No reason?! It was the 05 05 05 party…
Jan: And you had a luau….
Michael: …it happens once every billion years.
Jan: And a tsunami relief fundraiser which somehow lost a lot of money.
Michael: Okay, no, that was a FUN raiser. I think I made that very clear in the fliers, fun, F-U-N.
Jan: Okay, well, I don’t understand why anyone would have a tsunami FUN raiser, Michael. I mean, that doesn’t even make sense.

Paring the list down to five was not easy, and I am sure many of you have lists of your own.  What was number six? Well, Rutgers’ decision to pay Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi  (star of MTV reality show Jersey Shore), $10,000 more than the annual cost of attending the university was a real contender. It was $2,000 more than Nobel Prizewinning author Terri Morrison received.  It was a problem.  Optics-wise.

I’ve been spending more time with alumni.  Zvi Galil, the new dean of computing at Georgia Tech — my successor — has been on a national tour to get acquainted with recent graduates. I accompany him whenever I can to make introductions and to generally help smooth his transition.  Not that he needs it.  Zvi was dean of engineering at Columbia for many years and knows how to get alumni to talk honestly about their undergraduate experiences. We were having lunch with a group of recent graduates when I heard Zvi ask someone at the end of the table, “What’s the one thing you wish we had taught you?”

The answer came back immediately: “I wish I had learned how to make an effective PowerPoint™ presentation!”  If the answer had been “more math” or “better writing skills” I would have filed it away in my mental catalog of ways to tweak our degree programs. It’s a constant struggle in a requirement-laden technical curriculum — even one as flexible as our Threads program — to get enough liberal arts, basic science, and business credits into a four year program, so I was prepared to hear that these young engineers wanted to know more about American history, geology, or accounting. After all, I am a former dean.  I had heard it all before.

But PowerPoint? Everything came to a stop.  Zvi said, “PowerPoint!” It was an exclamation, not a question.  Here’s how the rest  of the conversation unfolded” “Look, the first thing I had to do was start making budget presentations. I had no idea how to make a winning argument.”  From the across the table: ” Yeah, we learned how to make technical presentations, but nobody warned us that we’d have to make our point to a boss who didn’t care about the technology.”  “It’s even worse where I work,” said a young woman. “Everybody in the room has a great technology to push.  I needed to know how to say why mine should be the winner.”  And so it went.  This was not a PowerPoint discussion.  We were talking about Big Animal Pictures. If you understand Big Animal Pictures, you understand  how to survive when worlds collide.

David Stockman directed Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1981 to 1985.  He was a technician.  A financial engineer. He had a Harvard MBA, and spent the early part of his career on Wall Street with Solomon Brothers and Blackstone. It was a checkered career, and if you take seriously the accounts in his memoir of the Reagan years, he never really understood that he was caught between colliding worlds. Which brings me to Big Animal Pictures.

Stockman was a conservative deficit hawk who thought his job was to restore fiscal sanity.  Reagan had beaten Jimmy Carter in part by painting the Democrats as financially irresponsible.  David Stockman’s job was to fix that, and that meant budget-cutting.  Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger thought that Reagan had been elected to restore America’s military might. Weinberger’s job was to pump more money into defense budgets.  Stockman and Weinberger were on a collision course, and for a year they traded line-item edits to the federal budget. This was a technical duel. Stockman and Weinberger both had considerable quantitative skills. It was a bureaucratic game that Weinberger had learned to play when he worked for Reagan in California, but there was a deepening recession. In the end, it appeared that DoD would have to make do with the 5% increase that the White House was proposing. It was a spending increase that Stockman believed was unwise and unaffordable.

Weinberger’s proposal was 10%.  Stockman could barely contain himself. It set up a famous duel in the form of a budget briefing with Reagan playing the role of mediator. It was going to be a titanic debate.

Stockman showed up with charts, graphs and projections.  The stuff that the OMB Director is supposed to have at his fingertips. Weinberger came armed with a cartoon, and walked away with his budget request more or less intact.

Weinberger’s presentation was a drawing of three soldiers. On the left was a small, unarmed, cowering soldier — a victim of years of Democratic starvation. The  bespectacled soldier in the middle — who bore a striking resemblance to Stockman — was a little bigger, but carried only a tiny rifle. This was the army that David Stockman wanted to send to battle. The third solder was a  menacing fighting machine, complete with flak jacket and an M-90 machine gun. It was the soldier that Weinberger wanted to fund with his defense budget.  Weinberger won the budget debate with Big Animal Pictures.

Stockman was appalled:

It was so intellectually disreputable, so demeaning, that I could hardly bring myself to believe that a Harvard educated cabinet officer could have brought this to the President of the United States. Did he think the White House was on Sesame Street?

Stockman and many analysts concluded that the episode revealed something deep about Reagan’s intellectual capacity. Maybe so, but I think it revealed more about Weinberger’s insight into what it takes to carry an argument when the opposing sides can each make a strong technical case for the correctness of their position: argue for the importance of the end result, not for the correctness of how you will achieve it. It is a classical colliding worlds strategy.

Michael Dell’s 1987 private placement memorandum for Dell Computer Corporation was a Big Animal Picture. Buying computers was a hassle when Dell started his dormitory-based business in 1984.  By 1987, PC’s Limited had sold $160M worth of computers based on a simple strategy: eliminate the middle man, get rid of inventories, and give customers a hassle-free way to buy inexpensive, powerful IBM-compatible computers.  In the midst of a stock market crash, Michael Dell managed to raise $21M based on a short document that ignored the conventional view that private placement business plans had to be highly technical:

Dell has sold over $160 million of computers and related equipment on an initial investment of $1,000. The Company has been profitable in each quarter of its existence, and sales have increased in each quarter since the Company’s inception.

Tacked onto the memorandum, almost as an afterthought were letters from customers — inquiries from people who were interested in buying computers from Michael Dell and testimonial from owners of his made-to-order PCs who wanted to buy more of them.  It was short (45 pages with the letters attached) and, aside from a few pro-forma financials to explain what would be done with the new money, it was almost entirely devoted to painting a picture of what success looked like to Michael Dell.

A copy of the original Dell memorandum wound up on my desk in late 1998.  At the time, my Bellcore department heads were struggling to define businesses that could either be spun out of the company or funded as internal startups. I was drowning in  highly technical market forecasts and details of patent disclosures. Each new spreadsheet screamed: “Idiot! Just look at this equation.  It’s obvious why our approach is better than everyone else’s.”  One afternoon, in exasperation,  I threw Michael Dell’s private placement memorandum on my conference table and said “Make me a presentation that looks like this.” The room got very quiet as they realized what was going on.  I was asking for Big Animal Pictures.

We started four businesses within 18 months.  Three were spun out  and made a modest amount of money for the company and the founders.  We ran one as an internal start-up. It did not do nearly so well. One of the key factors was that we could not duplicate Michael Dell’s Big Animal Picture.

This is not a lesson that engineers and scientists learn easily. In fact, when presented with overwhelming evidence that business decisions are seldom made on the basis of technical elegance and correctness, engineers retreat to the safer ground staked out by David Stockman: “Do you think we are on Sesame Street?” The answer is “Yes!”  Successful engineers and scientists know all about Big Animal Pictures.

Paul R.  Halmos was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century. He studied the most abstract topics imaginable. One of his crowning achievements, for example, was to create an entire algebraic theory to describe mathematical logic, which was itself an abstract mathematical theory to explain symbolic logic. Symbolic logic was, in turn, an abstract explanation of the kind logic used by Aristotle, and Aristotle’s logic was the formalization of correct patterns of human  inference. Halmos did not deal in uncomplicated matters.

How did Paul Halmos counsel young mathematicians to present their work in public?

A public lecture should be simple and elementary; it should not be complicated and technical. If you believe you can act on this injunction (“Be Simple”) you can stop reading here, the rest of what I have to say is, in comparison, just a matter of minor detail.

The mistake, Paul Halmos noted in his essay How to talk Mathematics is thinking that a simple lecture talks down to the audience. It does not. Halmos (or PRH as he sometimes called himself) seems to have understood worlds in collision.   Of course, a simple lecture in PRH world might open with the phrase “…as far at Betti numbers go, it is just like what happens when you multiply polynomials,” so it’s a sliding scale.

No matter what you’re doing in the technical world, learning how Big Animal Pictures work is a valuable thing.  I sometimes sit on review panels to decide on research funding.  I recently advised a young scientist to use Big Animal Pictures.  She had five minutes to present her work and I knew that the competition would be strong.  Her first instinct was to jump into the technical meat of her research to give the reviewers a feeling for why her approach was better than other approaches. My advice was to not do that.  I wanted her to literally give a BAP presentation that would inform the panel about the importance of her research and why they should care about it.  I later found out that other colleagues had given her identical advice, which she apparently followed with great success.

And it doesn’t matter which of the colliding worlds you are on.  BAPs are always a good idea. My colleague Wenke Lee was recently called upon to give a presentation on the state of computer security research to a  group of mathematicians.  It was all about how powerful mathematics can be used to exploit security flaws and vulnerabilities. Wenke resisted the temptation to dive into the technical details of botnet attacks.  It is, after all, a subject he knows well and he probably would have had fun demonstrating his prowess. But here is how Wenke began his lecture.

He went on for another twenty minutes, but he really didn’t need to. Everyone got the point in the first thirty seconds.

The technical presentations were over and a distinguished panel of inventors had given the audience some take-away messages, when Bob Lucky began his trademarked summary of the 2010 Marconi Prize ceremony. There were already empty seats as some of  the locals started heading for the SRI visitors lot when I was roused from a cookie-induced, end-of-conference stupor.  I had heard someone up front call my name.

Bob announced to everyone who was left in the room, “Rich DeMillo is writing a book on the subject.  Rich, how do you know when innovation has occurred?” There’s a mental “passive-to-active” switch that needs to be tripped in situations like this, so it took me a second or so to respond.  In the meanwhile, I said something witty to fill in the time.  “Thanks a lot, Bob,” as I recall. But it was obvious what the answer should be.

Every speaker had said it, and most of them were Marconi Prize recipients themselves.  I have said it many times here: invention without  impact doesn’t count as innovation. And this was a conference devoted to impact on telecommunications.
  • John Cioffi had described the insight that  inserting modems on both ends of a normal telephone lines allowed you to bypass switches and get direct access to the Internet. It was the key innovation in the development of  DSL .
  • In addition to telling the story of how he and  Whit Diffie invented public key cryptography, Marty Hellman talked about the “Who am I to do this?” moments of self-doubt that all inventors experience.
  • Federico Faggin made it pretty clear that the real invention in creating the first integrated circuit (the Fairchild 3708) with self-aligning silicon gates was not having the idea, but actually making it work.
  • Adobe Systems co-founder John Warnock–who shared the Marconi prize with Charles Geschke, the other Adobe founder–said that it often boils down to one person: “Apple without Jobs cannot innovate,” he said.

It had also been a day of sharing stories about Guglielmo Marconi. According to Warnock, Marconi could not stand John Ambrose Fleming, the inventor of the vacuum tube diode, whom Marconi had hired to design Marconi Company’s power plant.  In fact, Marconi was trying to  figure out a way to fire Fleming.  Marconi’s grandson, journalist Michael Braga, was there as well,  so there were also intimate and sometimes surprising family stories.

But everyone had said that you can tell when innovation has happened by its effect on people. In the world of industrial innovation, the impact that matters is economic, so I shot back to Lucky, “Wealth creation!” It was something I believed in deeply and I knew Bob felt the same way. I had worked directly for him at Bellcore.  In Bellcore’s research labs just publishing another journal paper didn’t count for much: everyone was held accountable for translating their ideas into inventions that would matter to the company, its customers, or their customers.

Lucky has a way of nodding when he is processing information, but it’s not necessarily because he is agreeing with you.  Sometimes it takes a little while to find out what his verdict really is. After few seconds of nodding he repeated: “wealth creation.”  I had given the right answer. I really had not intended that to be the closing line of the meeting, but it was. It was true, but it wasn’t the most creative insight of the day. Almost immediately, I thought of a much better answer to Bob’s question, but it was too late.  The SRI auditorium was emptying out.  The moment had passed.

Here’s what I really should have said:

You’ll  know that you have innovated when there are LIARS!

It was a term that John Cioffi had thrown into the discussion at the start of the day.  A L.I.A.R. is a Large Institutional Autocratic Resister.  John had said that you knew when an innovation was real when LIARs said it was their idea. Faggin had said that bringing something important into the world generates resistance.  You have to plan for it in advance. Hellman had talked about the wisdom of foolishness.

Fiber optics pioneer and winner of the 2008 prize, David Payne, said two things that were especially insightful.

  • If you innovate, someone will make a lot of money and someone will lose a lot of money
  • Innovation thrives on being different.  A manager wants efficiency and conformity

In fact, everyone had talked about the biggest impediment to innovation: large established organizations.  John Warnock and his colleagues at Xerox PARC had been charged with creating the office of the future.  They succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  PARC created color displays, mice, networks, word processors and email. But Xerox was obsessed with the quality of the printed page, so LIARs dug in their heels. They would not adopt PostScript until all Xerox printers could use it, for example.  In other words, it was never going to be adopted.

LIARs are everywhere.  It’s even worse in academia. A couple of years ago, I was an ed-tech panelist at a large trade show when a vendor of software for higher education told me that in his industry university faculty members are called CAVEmen: “Colleagues Against Virtually Everything.” I wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

Pat Crecine died a few years ago. He was the innovative Georgia Tech president who was instrumental in bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta. Crecine recognized the future impact of computing on science, engineering, and technology and created the College of Computing where I was employed as dean from 2002 to 2009. When it was created in 1990 it was only the second such school in the world.

Crecine reshaped Georgia Tech and the LIARS had to lay low while he did it.  He was just too effective at changing large institutions. But it caught up with him. He was unceremoniously booted out a few years later.  It was a devastating personal blow to Crecine, and I don’t think he ever really recovered. At his memorial, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said of Pat: “He was always right, and he always got everyone mad.”

A few weeks ago, I reminded Andrew Young of this remark, and he said that it was a role that Martin Luther King had given him.  He was supposed to be the irritant that kept them focused on a change agenda.

He said also that it was Jimmy Carter’s concept that political innovation is the result of three ten-day cycles.  First, everyone who is going to have to give something up, gets their forces aligned to kill a new idea, predicting that it would mean the end of civilization as we know it.  That lasts about ten days.

For the next ten days they grudgingly disect the plan, acknowledging that parts of it  actually make things better but that overall it will be a disaster.

The final ten days is spent taking as much credit as posssible for the plan, with a special effort to make it clear that the original idea was something completely different and remains truly awful.

I had drinks in Menlo Park  with Chuck House a few days before Thanksgiving, and we eventually got around to trading stories about Hewlett-Packard innovators we had known and worked with. Chuck is working on a case study of an intense, disruptive,  strategic refocusing of the company that occurred when it was about one tenth its current size.  I said I didn’t think it would be possible today, that there is very likely a law that limits innovation of that kind.

I brought up the idea of  LIARs and he started laughing immediately. Stamping out LIARs was one of the reason Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett tried to keep business units small: the biggest impediment to innovation is large established organizations.

It’s not only the clash of investment cultures that tends to doom internal start ups. At least that’s what I told the Bellcore and SAIC CEOs at the post-mortem for the internal division that we had tried to run as a venture-backed business.

It’s also what I said to Bob — who you will recall — wanted to incubate an internal venture inside his Fortune 10 company that would match in excitement and star power the coolest gang of Sand Hill Road funded misfits. He would have to be willing to sacrifice a boatload of management principles that had served him well in his career. I didn’t think he would do that.

Like a generous parent, Bob was in a position to give the new kids everything they needed for success: mentoring, time to succeed, and ample resources. What he did not have was a clear idea of which exit to take. Bob’s idea of a venture failed the value test.  A new venture succeeds when the right leadership team focuses on a market need with staged funding.  The idea was doomed as soon as Bob said,“Look, I’m in charge of new technology and platforms and I’m going to be the venture capitalist funding a new product, so that when it succeeds we’ll be able to fold it back into our current business.

The moment someone in a large company forms a thought like this, the options for maximizing the value of the investment are narrowed to one.  The only exit is one in  which access to internal resources can be used to shoehorn a fit into existing businesses. I had seen the danger of this kind of investment strategy at other companies, and the results were not encouraging. This thinking had infected our Bellcore start-up, but I have been in the executive suites of a dozen West Coast technology companies when the discussion turned to how the value of an internal start up was going to be captured by an existing business line.  It always turned out the same:  because there were no choices to a successful exit, backers literally threw money at the new company. They were thinking way down the line about how to succeed.

There are other options, but they do not necessarily align well with Bob’s goal of internal commercialization:

  1. Sell the technology: it’s always possible that the upside does not justify continued investment.  But if you’ve made a large up front commitment–as opposed to small increments that are tied to market tests– it is hard to execute this option and capture value.
  2. Licensing: the main reason for choosing  licensing as an exit is that there are differing value expectations in the marketplace.  The technology may be used in many different applications by many different players, for example.  You can maintain a central IP position and benefit from this diversity.
  3. Resell your R&D effort: if the technology is a critical product component, there may be other vendors who would like to benefit from your near-term “deliverables.” An R&D contract gives up a little IP in the short run, but you not only recover your development costs, you also continue to expand what you know about the technology and its applications. This is such an interesting–and seldom used–exit strategy that it deserves a post all by itself.  Watch for it!
  4. Sell the right to market or form a joint venture to market and sell: this is a range of exit possibilities that allow you to keep the option of bringing the technology in-house at some later point.  Of course, the attractive thing about such partnerships is that they generate revenue while spreading the risk around several players.
  5. Spin-out/IPO: the obvious counterpoint to the internal start up is to kick the baby bird out of the nest to see if he can fly on his own. I don’t know why our Bellcore start up was not conceived from day one as a spin out.  Bellcore, after all, had a history of spinning out companies to commercialize research technologies.  Some of those companies (Telelogue for voice menus, Elity for CM analytics, and a host of companies for communication network traffic monitoring and tools) were quickly picked up by angel and venture investors who went on to ride the businesses to their own successful exits.

Why Bob was determined to retain ownership in an incubated business says as much about internal corporate culture and priorities as Bob’s own approach to innovation. What seems to be missing when managers fixate on internal startups is the recognition that there are other worlds involved in the success of a new business, and they often  have very different rules.The internal start up is an opportunity for worlds to interact rather than collide. Here is the value chain that Bob had to work with:

  • Creative engineering: internal R&D interacts with a larger, external innovation community.  It  is very good at coming up with gap-filling concepts that need to be externally validated
  • Venture funding: is useful for establising performance metrics based on value and focusing funding to meet performance goals based on those metrics
  • Corporate resources: the company itself is in the driver’s seat.  It sets out the strategy for value capture and makes the option calls that start chains of transactions that are key to success. And by the way, the creative engineers call it home.

This all started because Bob was worrying that normal, internal product R&D would not lead to  “breakthrough product ideas that do not align well with their core business.”  It is a common problem, but there are three fatal errors that doom most attempts to solve it. Here’s how to avoid those errors.

First, don’t set the new venture up for failure by limiting the end game to only those ideas that align well with the core business.  That was what got you in trouble in the first place, and can be avoided by considering up front the full range of exit options.

Second, don’t pretend that you are a venture fund.  The fundamental belief systems are different, and it is simply not possible for a large corporation–one that has to worry about quarterly results and long-term growth–to capture value in the same way that a VC does.

Finally, recognize the role that interacting worlds will play in the success of your venture.  External innovation networks, market-validating communities and the relatively heavier weight corporate resources and processes have a tendency to collide, when what is really needed is a strategy for working together.

Internal start-ups have all of the usual new business challenges.  They need products, customers, and a profitable way of getting customers to pay for the products.  But above all, they need cash, because even the best strategy will crash and burn if money runs out too soon.

[Production note: at this point investors should enter, corporate investors stage left, venture capitalists stage right]. They speak the same language and are genuinely interested in incubating  great new businesses, but don’t let that fool you.  They are from different worlds.

promised to talk about some of the things that doomed the Bellcore internal start-up which I briefly led.  There is no way of  knowing whether a VC-funded company would have fared any better. In fact, one of the companies that we might have merged with was a venture-funded operation that lasted only a few months longer than we did.  Nevertheless, we did learn a lesson or two about corporate sponsorship of start-ups:

Corporate sponsors of new ventures and VCs have different belief systems.  They are fundamentally incompatible, and without early, explicit steps to stop it, corporate attitudes, practices, and beliefs will overwhelm the fragile culture of the start-up.

Let me set the stage a bit.  In 1999, Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies) was a small company (revenue creeping up on two billion dollars) that was trying to ride the internet wave, but it had inherited a corporate style from its previous owners that was, well, hierarchical.  Big deals dominated the business mix, and internal investment decisions were obsessively analytical.

Bellcore’s new owner was SAIC, a big company serving a hierarchical marketplace that was paradoxically entrepreneurial. Bob Beyster, SAIC’s founder, had insisted on a flat corporate structure in which managers were encouraged to develop independent business.  When my little start-up failed, I  made my wrap-up presentation to the CEOs of both companies.  One of them tended to believe that Bellcore’s internal investment machinery was the right way to grow a new business.  Here’s how it went.

  1. We spent a lot of  money on extensive analytics to gauge market potential.  It was how the investment decisions for Bellcore’s big operations support systems were made and every new round of funding was based on a rosy prediction of a complex market study. In reality, market behavior was unpredictable.  We should have evolved our concepts in the market.
  2. Except for the few top  technologists that I could steal from my own research staff, corporate investors would not permit top talent to be redirected from existing projects — where the  big customers were —  to this risky venture with uncertain prospects. Once both scale and success were clear, we could recruit internally, but until then, we had to rely on good-natured volunteers to help us out.  The only thing we could do was hire externally, but there was little upside to attract the kind of business team that we needed.  A VC sponsor would have known that new ventures do not succeed without a highly talented team.
  3. Speaking of success: the corporate sponsors were only interested if the likelihood of success was high, so we spent a lot of time on the success factors that would be convincing to them.  An angel investor or a VC would have known that, since the likelihood of success of a given venture is quite low, it is better to fail earlier rather than later.
  4. Corporate culture was a culture of ownership, so many business planning meeting focused on patents and intellectual property rights that would build walls around the business.  It was an unfortunate mindset.  This was a time of open standards and sharing, but shared ownership was not part of the equation for our start-up.
  5. Internal sponsors wanted to see scale.  Niche markets were simply not interesting. The business had to embrace all of telecommunications, so part of the operating strategy was to place many product bets simultaneously, a disastrous choice given the meager resources for product development and the lack of real experience on the part of our business development team.  A VC would have told us that a narrow, easily explainable, product focus was key to success.
  6. The corporate sponsors were all senior Bellcore executives, and they were focused on building the core businesses.  They believed that value creation had to be demonstrated by earnings. A VC would have told them that the market recognizes value well before earnings are even possible — it’s the single most obvious characteristic of early-stage investors to constantly seek those kinds of  market signals.

There were ways through this thicket.  That is one of the lessons for corporate leaders who want to launch internal start-ups: avoid colliding worlds by choosing the right corporate role.  Corporate sponsors need to be responsive to the needs of the new venture, but proactive support is just one more opportunity to infect the start-up an alien culture.  An internal start-up needs to be managed, but managing for value makes much more sense than managing to artificial revenue and earnings targets. And freaking out over the possibility of failure is also not helpful.  New business creation is a portfolio game, and any corporation that does not take a portfolio approach is betting against high odds.

An overlay to the story of every internal start-up is corporate machinery.  The milestones that mark the calendar for corporate sponsors are timed to fit the needs of much larger — and more visible — core businesses.  No billion dollar company can afford make its processes dependent on external business and market events.  But that is exactly what a start-up needs to do.  So, even if the new venture survives the Investor vs. Investor duel, it needs protection from the calendar, the  topic for my next post.