Reflecting on Corporate Entrepreneurship: Can Mid-Sized Latin American Firm Play Ball? Part II

In the last post (Part I), we reviewed six lessons from established companies that can sustain innovation and harvest its promises in terms of increased profitability and market growth. While these lessons apply to firms of all sizes, untapped growth opportunities are possible when applied to medium-sized Latin American firms.

This post (Part II) first considers how medium-sized Latin American firms can leverage the ongoing start-up revolution[1] happening across Latin America, to retain their vitality in the existing markets and/or enter new ones with new emerging technologies.

Second, this post considers those medium-sized firms across Latin America founded in the 1980s and 1990s that have reached annual revenues between US$5MM and $50MM. These firms are likely to have leadership teams with average ages in the 50s and 60s. Their founding coincides with the opening of Latin American economies following the so-called “Washington Consensus” and all that it implied: increased levels of deregulation, liberalization and privatization of state owned enterprises.  These firms face unique challenges today.  While they often benefited from market opacity and asymmetries of information, they now face growing transparency.  Ironically, free trade promoted by the Washington Consensus has led to the entry of new, global competitors.  For example, few have been spared from China’s ascendance as a fierce competitor and top trading partner across Latin America.

The Problem

Mid-sized firms in Latin America, despite their remarkable achievements in the face of adverse and hostile circumstances, face significant challenges today.  Their technologies are aging, their management would prefer to operate on auto-pilot, their competitive advantages are eroding, and their customer loyalty is wearing thin as customers demand next generation products and services to achieve the increased productivity promised by emerging technologies.

These firms devote their R&D budgets to making incremental improvements to their current offerings and supporting their legacy clients. As a result, these firms rarely have sufficient resources available for internal experimentation in disruptive technologies or considering new business models. This presents a great opportunity to leverage the ongoing start-up revolution happening across Latin America.

The real question is whether mid-sized Latin American firms can be successful at both (a) executing their current business models with existing products while simultaneously (b) inventing new and disruptive businesses to address the emerging needs of customers with new products/services based on new technologies?

These firms are unlikely to develop both activities within the same organizational structure. The first task is optimized to manage known knowledge, which requires executing and incrementally improving current operations in a known environment, a solid understanding of the customer base and well-understood technology/products. The second entails managing unknown-knowledge, which requires experimenting, dealing with extraordinary levels of uncertainty, learning fast and coping with failure and dead ends, and pivoting as many times as required.

Could the mid-sized firm incubate young Latin American ventures?

Could the mid-sized firm incubate young Latin American ventures?

How do we organize these firms so that new and innovative developments can take form simultaneously?  Large firms will often have their own venture capital arm (e.g., Intel Capital and Google Ventures) to make strategic bets in young start-ups through minority equity positions. These investments have a “double bottom line:” (i) it should make financial sense in terms of valuation and anticipated IRR and (ii) it should be a strategic fit for the firm.

This model could be easily adapted to the mid-sized Latin firms.  Instead of staking out minority equity share participation in new ventures, these firms can provide in-kind contributions.  These firms can act as “incubators” for selected local start-ups and offer them support in areas where the firm has underutilized capacity across its many functions including finance, accounting, marketing and legal. The hypothesis I’m asserting is that, given the right incentives, these firms could support and incubate a nascent start-up by leveraging its departments while simultaneously giving them access to new initial customers, access to pilots, access to technological infrastructure, and even new markets.

This is easier said than done! There are many barriers to implementing this model. Some of the restrictions are objective while others are cultural and subjective.  Managing these young start-ups being incubated within an established mid-sized firm will require adjusting its operating culture, performance metrics and priorities.

While this incubation poses objective management challenges, devising clear policies properly communicated and followed through could enhance the chances of achieving a successful outcome. However, some changes that do not fit prevailing Latin culture could be more problematic to implement. Several of the key changes are identified below:

ISSUE

CULTURAL

NORM

NOT YET ALIGNED WITH THE LATIN CULTURE

Minority vs. majority participation of the mid-sized firm in the young start-up Negotiating the best possible terms in terms of percentage ownership.  “The more the better.”The higher percentage of ownership increases the risk that the acquired start-up’s entrepreneurs/founders will transition from owner to employees. Taking a 15% to 25% ownership leaving the majority of the ownership and consequentially the majority of the potential upside in the hands of the founders/entrepreneurs. This does not preclude the larger firm acquiring the start-up at a later stage, once the products or services are proven and its market developed. However, by then most of the value created will be in the hands of the entrepreneurs as a reward for their innovations and risk capitalized.
Managing a minority stake Start-up is neglected with minimum value added contributions. Not tuned into the company operations and synergies exploited.“Since I don’t own it, it can’t be interesting” Leverage firm resources to the benefit of the start-up. View the company being incubated as part of the brilliant future of the mid-sized firm.
Managing the possible failure of the start-up being incubated Start-ups are riskier and present considerably higher probability of failure. Since failure is culturally unacceptable, maintain distance. Any failure will be attributed to the founders/entrepreneurs, labeling them as losers! Embrace failure as a learning opportunity. Realization that the risk of doing business-as-usual represents even a higher long-term risk.The future will happen and the incumbents will be seriously threatened.
If the start-up is successful, could it integrate retaining its dynamic youth? If the technology and/or the market pilot is successful, the mid-sized firm will attempt to harvest the benefits immediately creating resentment from the founding team and potential departures and know-how lost. Nurture the growth of the start-up new technology base to deliver a series of products/services. If new market access is provided due to the start-up, develop this new segment to become a dominant force. Speed and customer satisfaction is more important than the % of ownership.

The Mid-Sized Latin American Firm in the Global Marketplace

These firms do not operate in a vacuum.  In fact, mid-sized Latin American firms are being subjected to increased pressure to innovate and compete in the global marketplace. As technology cycles shorten, the arrival of global competitors accelerates and more attention is focused on BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The “B” from Brazil has had a spillover effect to Latin America. Today, the developed world struggles to reach an “unthinkable” 3% GDP growth while many Latin American countries are sporting growth well over 3% and as much as 6% per year.

Mid-sized Latin American firms need to insure the present by flawlessly executing their current lines of business. However, their futures will be assured only by their ability to perform limited experiments and accept controlled failures as the cost of doing business. The key will be for these firms to fail quickly and cheaply as they compete in the global marketplace! Can the start-ups sprouting across Latin America become engines of innovation and growth for these established mid-sized firms? Will the mid-sized firms adapt to selected start-ups and incubate them by sharing their knowledge, client base and infrastructure to pilot new technologies with their existing customer base and/or address a new market segment?

What do you think?

Until my next blog-post – Carlos B.


[1] LatAm Technology: The Startup Revolution, by Alternative Latin Investor. http://www.alternativelatininvestor.com/365/emerging-markets/latam-startups.html

Posted in My posts | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reflecting on Corporate Entrepreneurship (a.k.a. Intrapreneurship): Can an elephant dance? Part I

The rise of Silicon Valley and the wealth creation by early stage companies has increased the pressure on established corporations, as their shareholders demand to create similar shareholder value mimicking those of these young ventures. The global Innovation fever is forcing executives of large global firms to re-imagine their leadership style and management practices, their management and compensation policies for human capital, their organizational structures and their capital allocation with the aim to increase the firm’s productivity and global competitiveness. The overarching goal is to evolve the firm’s culture and regain the nimbleness of a young start-up. Often, this goal is elusive as they are too entrenched in the comfort zone, and continue operating within their traditional products (technologies) and/or in a deadly embrace with their legacy customers.

It is well understood that double or triple digit growth is more realistic when revenues are at $1MM/year than at $100B/year. But many corporations stagnate as they rest in their laurels of their glorious past. Their shareholder return tends to mimic those of a bank CD (Certificate of Deposit) than those of a vibrant high-tech enterprise. Over time these corporations become aloof, isolated from the market and technology trends, start suffering increasing doses of NIH (non-invented here) relying on their own internal departments for the innovation of the firm.

intrapreneur

“An enterprise that does not daily innovate, inevitably ages and declines … even in a successful business the disease of bureaucracy and complacency is ever present.”
Peter F. Drucker,
Father of modern management

This bleak picture does not need to be this way. Flip-flopping between the two extremes of internal R&D and desperate M&A (Merger & Acquisition) activity become insufficient to bring back its great glory. When one really looks under the hood at great companies that sustain innovation and growth, it becomes clear that innovation is not usually the result of an accident. It’s usually driven by the CEO and the TMT (Top Management Team) and defined by the following actions:

1)    Innovation needs to be nurtured by constantly examining which initiatives to triage and which to focus on. Leading development companies regularly review their R&D pipelines with senior management and reassess and reprioritize each project based on its revenue and profit potential, the odds of success, the timeline, investments required and other key variables to focus their limited R&D resources on the highest return opportunities.

2)    R&D needs to be managed to focus on value added outputs. While many small and mid-market companies only focus on incremental development projects that will lead to product improvements for existing products, it’s important that the CEO considers disruptive technologies that can solve (probably future/new) customer’s problems better, faster and/or cheaper. If the choice is between your company being a disruptor or disrupted, what would you pick?

3)    Innovation starts with your Human Capital strategy: who you hire, how you measure, how you compensate, reward and motivate them. Make sure your Human Resources team is looking for the right attributes/attitudes and that you consider bringing in “digital natives” who possess new technical skills, approaches and attitudes that reflect your emerging customers.

4)    Innovation touches all functions of the firm beyond R&D and engineering, including PR, accounting, human resources, legal/regulatory policy management, marketing, etc. Each department needs to reimagine its role across the firm and leverage the latest technology such as cloud computing, mobility or social media, etc.

5)    To innovate means to take risks and requires the open acknowledgement of the possibility of failure. Clearly, these risks can be managed and mitigated. Don’t expect to succeed 100% of the times. If you want to foster an innovation culture, do not punish the failures, but learn from mistakes and dead ends. Dead ends and failures can’t be avoided in an innovative environment.

6)     CEO and the TMT need to created and reinforce innovation in their culture. The CEO, supported by the TMT, is the C”I”O (Chief Innovation Officer) and innovation cheerleader.

Established firms are challenged to constantly disruptive innovations. However, they cannot do it within their core businesses organization. They need to create a parallel organization that enable experimentation, ability to fail quickly with minimum customer impact, and if required pivot.

Established firms are challenged to constantly disruptive innovations. However, they cannot do it within their core businesses organization. They need to create a parallel organization that enable experimentation, ability to fail quickly with minimum customer impact, and if required pivot.

These firms need to insure the present by executing flawlessly their current businesses. However, their future will be assured only by their ability to perform experiments and accept failure as the natural cost of doing business. The key is to fail quickly and cheaply in the process of inventing the future!

In Part II of this blog-post we will address how the principles of corporate entrepreneurship reviewed in this Part I could be applied to medium size companies across Latin America. In this upcoming article we will explore how we could take advantage of the on-going Start-up Revolution in Latin America leveraging these young ventures by selecting strategically few to incubate.

Until my next posting – Carlos B.

Posted in My posts | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Reinvention Driven by Constant Discomfort

This past weekend I was invited to moderate a discussion organized by my son Federico. The group brought together young professionals with varied yet complementary backgrounds and sought to catalyze a discussion centered on a few key themes relevant to this group.  Below I summarize my salient points to the discussion which are also broadly relevant to other young emerging leaders.

In the weeks prior, I had reviewed the gathering’s five key themes listed below with Federico and his former law school colleague Alejandro which, in essence, aimed to offer food for thought for a lively discussion among this group of brilliant young professionals:

  1. Envisioning the future
  2. Being disrupted or becoming a disruptor
  3. Managing success and failure
  4. Building a community
  5. Managing risk

Envisioning the Future

Two elements are clear for today’s young professionals: (1) their lifespan will likely extend beyond their nineties, and (2) they will coexist on a planet with 9 to 10 billion other people by the time they reach their mid-careers.

The implications of these two simple facts are manifold.  Importantly, their retirement age will pass well beyond their seventies, meaning that compared to my generation theirs will have an added 10 to 20 years to their careers.  At the same time, as our world becomes ever more interdependent and interconnected, they cannot ignore but must leverage the other 9-10 billion people that reside on our planet!

Figure 1: Envisoning the future is a skill that can be developed over time.

Figure 1: Envisoning the future is a skill that can be developed over time.

Interesting take-aways from this first discussion theme include:

  • Access to knowledge and information is ever easier because of the democratization process due to the world flattening.
  • Great value creation opportunities arise when the interests of the developed and the emerging countries are aligned.
  • Every 5-7 years you must re-invent yourself through constant discomfort while surfing the waves your career for once you become comfortable others are passing you by.
  • Longer life expectancy offers an opportunity for constant re-invention but demands that one also do so more frequently to compete.

Nonetheless, the ability to “connect the dots” and envision the future is a skill that can be learned and developed over time—and indeed mastered.  The beauty is that the future will happen and we can compare the future that we envision to reality.  In other words, one must become a “trend-spotter” that applies a model-reference approach, whereby you “see” what is coming and use that as a reference to continually adapt your own model to today’s reality.  But our ability to develop different scenarios and identify different options is hard intellectual work. More often than not we tend to give up because we lack the discipline to compare and contrast, thus missing the opportunity to train our “gut” overtime.

Disrupted or Disruptor

As the pace of change intensifies and the number of participants in the knowledge economy increases from the developed as well as the developing world, chances are that every single industry, human activity, and business endeavor will be re-examined for disruption opportunities, thereby creating new value and demolishing old paradigms. As a result, each one of us will likely either be disrupted or choose to become a disruptor.

Health care, government, education, and religion are ripe “industries” for disruption.  In other words, inherently protective “big” models should be targeted and revolutionized.  In doing so, one must leverage technology to optimize processes and reduce the buy-in price for consumers and suppliers.  Importantly, opportunities to become a disruptor are not limited to just scientists and engineers, for example, but rather, passion, interest and networking are more central to that process. Furthermore, innovation, often, happens on the margins or in other words where two different disciplines (i.e. computer science and art or electrical engineering and health) overlap.

I reflect upon my own career in the telecommunications industry, as I moved from one value creation wave to the next: From digital switching to end-user equipment, from transmission and access loop to mobile, and from wireless to the mobile web––all that in a span of less than 30 years. My example goes to show how each wave of value creation was followed by a wave of value destruction. Similarly, I observed first-hand similar trends in the much younger and far less regulated computer industry. In fact these waves were the similar but just faster and the ups and downs more abrupt! In other words observe broadly the patterns. Experienced “trend-spotters” are able to map trends from one industry or area of human behavior to another.

The most important conclusion of this part of the conversation was the need for personal reinvention. Throughout our careers, the nature of our work will change as we change jobs and shift between industries––sometimes we will welcome the chance while other times it will be an unwelcome surprise.  Well-paid activities will become completely commoditized as satisfying jobs will become obsolete because of new technologies or business models or both.

As my youthful audience pondered on my words, their solemn silence was not completely different from that of my students in class.  Were they concerned, or in disbelief?  My response would be to accept the process of reinvention as the new norm and thrive in it!

Managing personal success and failures

Waves of value creation largely driven by technological innovation and market disruptions will challenge our professional careers. This will happen either because we have embraced a new venture, and thereby becoming disruptors, or because others are disrupting us.  Either way, one’s professional journey is ever riskier.

Figure 2: Every career transition represent an opportunity for failure, though the cost of avoiding the transition could be higher.

Figure 2: Every career transition represent an opportunity for failure, though the cost of avoiding the transition could be higher.

Throughout one’s own journey every transition is risky and it is exactly during those transitions that the opportunity for failure is greater.  For today’s young professionals, it will require 5 to 10 reinventions to remain competitive (unless we accept commoditization –and hence lower compensation– or early retirement). Then, the question is not if but when you will fail. Hence, the ability to manage one’s own personal failures is a necessary skill.  Using the metaphor of a surfer, falling off as we tackle a new wave is bound to happen.  What becomes really important in that process is how quickly we get back on our feet and surf the next wave!

Building community

As I reflect on my own experiences, I recognize that life for my generation was simpler and more predictable.  At the time I finished my PhD at the end of the 1970s, America provided the comfort of being the unchallenged world power as it dominated industries and global markets. Its financial resources and military might provided cover for the American “belle époque” and one’s search for their own American Dream.  Indeed, family, religious and community institutions thrived in America in times past and reinforced one another.  Unfortunately, today’s society is more rooted in vanity than in shared communities.

These rooted American institutions also helped provide opportunities to experience a shared sense of responsibilities in the success of the common enterprise and a genuine sense of belonging to many. However, for a multitude of reasons the strength of these institutions has declined significantly in the last 40 years.  Nonetheless, a fundamental human need, I believe, remains the same: the need for most individuals to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Figure 4: Community building depend on the sense of shared responsibility in the common enterprise.

Figure 3: Community building depend on the sense of shared responsibility in the common enterprise.

Current generations, however, must reformulate their communities as they combine their physical presence with their virtual one.  In doing so, they must engage in the hard work of not glossing over the differences but addressing and confronting them in search of the liberating experience of finding truth. If conflict arises due to the dizzying pluralism of choices, values, beliefs and visions of life, we must engage in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue as we all search for truth and understanding[1].

These communities will constitute our support network during our failures while keeping us accountable in the construction of the common enterprise during our successes.

Managing Risks

Evaluating and mitigating risk is central to personal re-invention.  Indeed, those who have already risked and succeeded are leading the charge in industries throughout the world.  This call inherently recognizes that what was once the American Dream is eroding and that, as the American “belle époque” becomes more uncertain, our professional journey becomes riskier.  As a result, we have no choice but to embrace risk as an inherent part of the journey and, in so doing, reject a “herd-follower” model and instead build a society of risk takers.

Individually and collectively, we are not predisposed or well trained to take risks.  It is in our nature to seek safety and security. One must only reflect upon how they oscillated to the life, personal and professional choices they have taken.  Even such notions of free-will neglect the fact that even formal careers and employment inherently hinder risk taking, as if such institutions brainwash or lock one in a utopian predictable path of career progressions.

Overcoming the temerity to take risks requires recognizing that we will always have a limited understanding of the unknown.  An apt analogy to this conundrum is that of a labyrinth: as we overcome life’s travails, we must find an exit while under resource and time constraints without knowing if an exit actually exists!

As we approach the entrances to our own labyrinth we must ask ourselves whether we are personally prepared for failure. Too often we trumpet our successes, but by highlighting failures and the lessons learned we may better arm ourselves for the unknown labyrinths that lie ahead.  Indeed, in doing so, one will find that often taking that first step, such as starting a new venture, is often less risky and challenging that typically imagined.

Closing Comments

Personal and professional lives pose many labyrinths.  The growing complexities of modern life make certain that such challenges will increasingly present themselves.  Your communities will help you traverse and learn from similar experiences, and provide you with trustworthy partners that want to join in and support your personal and professional ventures. Along that journey, humility is central as is the ability to ask questions and to reach out for a helping hand.  Ultimately, our ability to embrace the discomfort zone and proactively seek reinvention and renewal are central to our success in both our personal and professional journeys.

Beating the odds of success is greater than you think!

Until my next blog-post – Carlos B.


[1] This paragraph was adapted from the paper by Nicolás, Adolfo, “Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today.” Remarks for “Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe.” Mexico City. 23 April 2010. Available online: http://www.sjweb.info/documents/ansj/100423_Mexico%20City_Higher%20Education%20Today_ENG.pdf.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflecting on the Art of Pitching – Part II

The capsules

While the prior posting presented an overview to the importance of the pitch, this blog-post develops a pragmatic approach to the construction of the Elevator Pitch.

The Elevator Pitch capsules’ development, step by step

It is much harder than you think to describe a complete business with multiple moving parts in a brief rapid fire sequence of statements that display your enthusiasm and commitment (a.k.a., passion) for your venture. My proposal is first to organize the script as a written set of perfectly crafted sound-bites that you can reuse multiple times in different settings to communicate your venture. By reusing the same, highly refined content adapted to the requirements of selected media campaigns: web presence, company brochures, venture one-pager, e-mails, product descriptions, etc.; you will ensure the consistency of your message and enhance your productivity.

Objective achieved. The next meeting is assured!

Objective achieved.
The next meeting is assured!

Step 1: WHAT IS THE PAIN? HOW BIG IS IT? AND HOW DO YOU SOLVE IT?

What are the opportunities emerging from alleviating such a pain?

Think of headaches… migraines would be even better, and show me that every person on the planet gets one at least twice a week!

  1. The problem you solve
  2. Why you?
  3. Why now? Too early or too late?
  4. Key opportunities
  5. Key challenges
  6. Any dominant force in the market?
  7. Current or future competitors?

Step 2: HOW DO YOU INTEND TO DEVELOP THE SOLUTION AND CAPTURE THE OPPORTUNITY?

Tell me about your “improved” new aspirin and how you intend to reach the billions of people who get migraines twice a week.

  1. Product/Service development status,
  2. What follows to the initial offering — v1.0,

Product road-map — Note: no one invests in one-trick ponies,

  1. Timetable
  2. What is your “unfair” advantage,
  3. Competitive differentiation,
  4. Current sales and sales potential,
  5. Market size and growth,
  6. Target customers: initially and later,
  7. Customer anecdotes,
  8. Distribution channels

Step 3:  EXPECTED BENEFITS

How this “improved aspirin” will benefit all the stakeholders of the venture?

Cheaper, faster action, no side effects, easier pill to swallow, easier to manufacture, higher margins, cleaner process, etc.

  1. For the purchaser
  2. For the user
  3. For the payer (a, b, and c may be the same or different people)
  4. For the employees developing/manufacturing the product
  5. For the shareholders
  6. For the community
  7. Identify all the benefits across all product dimensions:
  • Initial cost as well cost of ownership. Quantify savings
  • If used as a tool. Quantify productivity increase.
  • If used as part of a process. Quantify the improvements in term of time, throughput, maintenance savings, energy savings, etc.
  • Identify sustainability and community benefits.
  • Are all benefits delivered at once? Or phased over time?

Step 4:  THE IMPLEMENTATION PLAN

Great ideas are a “dime a dozen”. It is all about superior execution.

Manufacturing billions of aspirins every day with the quality and cost targets are not an easy task. Persuade me that you can and will deliver superior results.

  1. What are the key activities required to launch the business. Can you distinguish the trees from the forest? Every business is complex and new ventures cannot address all of them. Can you simplify and prioritize the few essential ones.
  2. Who are the stakeholders and their needs? Do you know their needs? Are their interests aligned?
  3. Which are the key partnerships you need to develop? How do you intend to leverage each one? What type of partnerships? Are they sustainable?
  4. What are the critical success factors? Can you obtain them?  Is it realistic?

Step 5:  SHOW ME THE MONEY:

Will your aspirin make all of us richer?

  1. The selected business model? Why?
  2. Funds you need to launch your venture,
  3. Cash you will generate
  4. Founding sources? How many rounds?
  5. Total funding required to break even?
  6. Profitability of your business
  7. Expenses you will manage
  8. You confidence that you will never ever run out of cash!

Step 6:  WHO IS IN YOUR TEAM? CAN YOU BUILD AND DEVELOP A GREAT ORGANIZATION?

  1. Founding/Management team & track record
  2. The extended team (mentors, advisers, board members. etc.)
  3. What critical positions are you missing? Can you recruit them?
  4. How have you and the other members of the management team built great organizations before? Do you have the management strength required?
  5. Have they performed at peak over sustained periods of time?

Step 7:  HAVE YOU IDENTIFIED THE RISKS AND THREATS?

  1. What are the key risks you will confront?
  2. How do you intend to manage them?
  3. Contingency plans?

Step 8:  THE EXTRAORDINARY CLOSING REMARKS

Do not over do it! Please.

  1. How do you intend to sustain your “Unfair Advantage”?
  2. Your Grand Vision about the industry/the world and how you will dominate!
  3. The “greed” factor: Appeal to it, most investors are greedy!

 Step 9: THE ASK

Build momentum to ASK:

  1. If customer, for the PO,
  2. If investor, for the $$$,
  3. If a relationship, for the intro. or the referral,
  4. If a future employee, for coming on board,
  5. Etc.

Step 10: PRACTICE, PRACTICE AND MORE PRACTICE.

  1. Alone,
  2. With your family, friends
  3. With C level executives,
  4. In coffee shops, noisy bars, over Skype, in board rooms, etc.;

Until you feel confident that you can deliver in every situation the perfect pitch in the eyes of the audience.

Manage the audience; anticipate most questions and every question must be answered, even if it means “I will mail you the answer in 24 Hrs.”.

Remember again the onion metaphor described in Part I. Pursue your discussion layer by layer, each one completely self-contained. The challenge is starting at the outermost layer and keeping the explanation whole while also consistently at the right level of abstraction. You might find it difficult to resist the temptation to dive deeply into the heart of your idea and go all out. You’ll want to show how brilliantly you can take deep conceptual dives into the heart of the business or the underlying technologies and then return safely to a more surface-level discussion.

How long is the perfect pitch? It should be few seconds less than the allocated time. Sometimes the allocated time is fixed by external circumstances out of your control. If it is within your control, it has to be a bit shorter than what you think would feel like a monologue. Just say enough for your audience to ask for more.

Untitled2

Perfect Pitch = Content + Structure + Delivery[1]

After everything is done, through your script away and let it flow naturally. Deliver a personalized message, customized each time to your audience. Keep it brief and clear. Time yourself to the 15 seconds you may only have to the 90’ or so when it starts feeling like a monologue. Keep in mind that this is NOT a lecture, but a conversation. Hence, keep it concrete and consistent. Furthermore, you are establishing your credibility. There are few things more emblematic of credibility than an impeccable synthesis of complexity, layering, dividing and conquering, through a sequence of sound bites of neatly assembled building blocks.

Entrepreneurs DO care about the first impressions, and your elevator pitch is one of the key tools at your disposal to make the positive impact you seek in the first 30 seconds.

Keep on pitching until you master the art! And do not forget the ASK! The responses you get may surprise you, and you will never know unless you ask.

Until my next blog-post – Carlos


[1] The delivery depends on the public speaking and business communication skills of the entrepreneur. This compounded by the fact that for most foreign entrepreneurs English is the second or third language. For this reason the development of written capsules are of paramount importance.
Posted in My posts | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Reflecting on the Art of Pitching – Part I

I often find myself explaining to foreign entrepreneurs the concept of an elevator pitch[1]. Since some of you have never heard the term before, I will explain it here today. The metaphor borders on the comical or childish, and the initial first reaction of my foreign visitors to the term is often disbelief. However, they learn quickly that ‘pitching’ is an art difficult to master, especially for some of us––the talkative Latinos!

B1The proverbial elevator pitch gets its name from the opportunity to tell-and-sell your idea/story during a 30-second elevator ride with anybody who you believe needs to hear it. The elevator only has two passengers, you and the target audience of your dreams. You will have their undivided attention for this brief span of time. You must seize the moment. How will you take advantage of it?

The 30-second parameter is based on the typical attention span, resulting from the research published by M.O. Frank in his book, How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less. This is one reason why politicians, celebrities and media outlets routinely deliver their messages in sound bites fully encapsulated in 30 seconds or less each!

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 7.38.21 AM

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are always pitching all day long. We do so when we introduce ourselves to new acquaintances we meet in social or business contexts, during sale calls, while recruiting new employees, soliciting support, requesting funding, asking someone out on a date, etc. In each situation we need to identify a “pain”, problem, or personal difficulty, and then respond in kind with a solution.  In that process, we need to establish ourselves as credible actors, people that can be trusted to convert proposed visions into actual solutions.

Let’s be clear. No multi-million deals are sealed after a 30, 60, or 90-second pitch. Multiple meetings and activities take place for the customer to give you that big order or a venture investor to agree to provide millions of dollars of funding. However one pitch leads to the other and so on.

The metaphor of peeling an onion is useful to illustrate an excellent approach for structuring a pitch. Pitching is like peeling the layers of an onion. Each layer exists independently of the ones that supersede it. Each layer can be removed cleanly and independently of the others. Similarly, the multiple layers of your business concept should be explainable/approachable and offered in this tiered manner. As we remove each conceptual layer, we reveal some additional complexity of the business idea, progressing from a high level of abstraction to a low level of abstraction, where the nitty-gritty details emerge in their full glory. This evolution in abstraction needs to be clear and properly managed. Each layer has its own hook and corresponding conclusion that leaves your audience craving more, waiting eagerly for you to peel the next layer of your onion, revealing refined strategies, agendas, and implications.

Can you do this? Yes you can, but it is hard work. It requires preparation and there is no room for improvisation! It is working long hours fully understanding your business in detail first and then organizing your script as a sequence of dynamic sound-bites.

Your pitch isn’t about you. It is about your audience, and oftentimes making intricate conceptual dives (no matter how profound) will probably bore, confuse, or induce apathy in your audience. Instead, just focus on making the complex devastatingly simple to keep your audience engaged, interested, and asking quality questions. In other words, you want them “buying” your proposition and moving in the direction you want them to move in!

Finally, retain control of your audience, because you have a story to tell. Take queues from your audience, and do not be afraid to deliver two hard answers: (1) I do not know the answer YET; and (2) you will have to wait a few minutes for the answer. And do not forget to ASK questions! You have been delivering the elevator pitch of your venture for a purpose and your audience has invested their time in listening to you for a purpose… So do NOT forget or be afraid to ASK them for their insights, responses, musings, etc. If they’re a prospective client ASK what it would take to win their order, if they’re a future employee ASK them to apply to join the start-up team; if they’re a potential partner ASK them to partner with you; if you’re seeking funding ASK for it; and then ASK some more. Just a willingness to ask will bring you immeasurably closer to your goals.

Entrepreneurs DO care about the first impressions, and your elevator pitch is one of the key tools at your disposal to make the positive impact you seek in the first 30 seconds.

Next week, I will publish the second part of this blog-post. In the next installment, I will describe a novel methodology of developing the elevator pitch, by developing a set of reusable capsules.

Until my next posting – Carlos B.


[1] The word pitch or pitching comes from baseball. Often American business English adopts sport lingo to capture the essence of certain business situations or activities. For many of us who grew up with soccer and are now immersed in the American business culture, it has been an experience to learn about “home runs”, “doubles”, “singles”, etc.

Posted in My posts | 3 Comments

Flattening the Global Innovation Landscape — Part III: What is next?

Constructing the landing platform for foreign entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley —  From dream to reality! 

During Part I of this three part series blog-post, the pain in flattening the global innovation landscape was framed as follows:

The pain: Young ventures born in emerging countries lack access to the enabling and proven processes that will increase the probability of scaling-up quickly successfully. This is due to the lack of maturity of their own ecosystems and the barriers to entry or limited access to a network of peer innovation ecosystems around the world.

The objective is to provide efficient global scaling mechanisms to enable those ventures possessed of the “right stuff”: a team of entrepreneurs, a value proposition, investors, huge potential markets, etc., to reach their full potential globally.

Implicit in this problem statement is that the Innovation & Entrepreneurial (I&E) fever will continue in Latin America and is not a passing fad. In addition it is expected that the global commodity boom will continue providing the resources to support the development of local entrepreneurial ecosystems. Implicit is also a hope that within a finite amount of time there will be a number of success stories from local entrepreneurs and investors who will become “rock stars” and regional role models, sustaining and adding fuel-to-the-fire of the I&E fever.

If these assumptions are correct (I believe they are), then the opportunity emerging for alleviating the identified pain is as follows:

The opportunity: Create an efficient “landing experience” for entrepreneurs from emerging world regions to increase the odds of their success in the global scaling of their ventures. Implicit in the development of this landing platform is the creation of economic value for all the stakeholders involved in this activity. Equally important is the development of an intangible value or “mystique” of the landing platform, through the formation of a community and its culture, customs and bridges forged between Latin America and Silicon Valley.

First follow the Money

The starting point is the foreign entrepreneurs, their ventures, and their early local investors. A fundamental key assumption is that entrepreneurs and local investors have a global mindset and aspire to scale their ventures globally. It is of equal importance that their value propositions have already been proven in local markets and that they have grown in the conviction that their solution extends competitively to other world regions, including the developed world. Therefore, the fundamental selection criteria for these young companies targeted for global scaling are:

  1. Global mindset of their participants,
  2. Obtained funding from local investors, and
  3. Proven products and services with paying customers.

The activity of this proposed platform hinges on the local angel groups and/or VCs. These organizations are sprouting up across Latin America and are taking multiple forms (i.e., local accelerators, angel groups, leveraged VC funds, public/private partnerships sponsored by economic development agencies, etc.), as they have adapted the best practices from the US, Israel, and other advanced entrepreneurial ecosystems from around the world to their local reality. The local angels and VCs are fundamental because they have elected to place their investments in a selected group of portfolio companies from a large number of start-ups from the local ecosystem.

Local angel groups and VCs make investment decisions from the pool of local companies based on their investment philosophy, management experience, track record, area of expertise, etc.

Local angel groups and VCs make investment decisions from the pool of local companies based on their investment philosophy, management experience, track record, area of expertise, etc.

Typically the local angels or VCs are successful business executives and entrepreneurs who are most likely philosophically grounded in the “old” economy paradigm but nonetheless tempted to participate in the new wave of internet and mobile platform ventures. They are the pioneers in the ecosystem participating in an activity that at large did not exist 5 to 10 years ago. They are risking their own money as well as the funds of other business associates who have been persuaded to participate. In many respects they are learning how to become an angel or VC investor in the incipient industry of risk capital. A good deal of their prior experiences will apply however many of the rules of the old (atom/physical) economy do not. Furthermore, they bring with them a number of “bad habits” since historically they have benefited from information and access asymmetries, which in many of the advancing Latin economies are being eliminated due to an increase of transparency and rule of law.

As their portfolio companies progress, soon they realize that the true opportunity of adding real multiples to their initial investments exist by scaling to international markets, particularly the Bay Area. This is a quantum challenge since the typical Latin fund lacks the resources to have a meaningful presence here in the Valley. Therefore, the proposed solution in this blog-post is to pool the resources of many of these small funds dispersed across Latin America,[1] contributing/sharing the three key assets at their disposal:

  1. The most successful portfolio companies that are ready for global scaling,
  2. The collective business experience of the investors and limited partners, and
  3. Financial resources

As portfolio companies are selected from many local funds (Angels/VCs) a number of key questions are triggered: where, when, how, how long, cost, etc. An equal set of questions are also triggered of a more personal nature affecting the daily life of the foreign entrepreneur(s) emerging from the possible relocation.

The Landing Platform

For the landing platform to be a sustainable enterprise it has to be economically viable and meet the needs of all stakeholders. It is envisioned that there are 5 key stakeholders:

  1. Foreign Entrepreneurs,
  2. Foreign Investors,
  3. US based VC/Corporate Investors,
  4. Landing Platform, and
  5. Community of which the Landing Platform is located.

As the Landing Platform is designed, the expectations of the five stakeholders are at its center. Interests must be aligned and centered with the success of the start-ups scaling globally quickly and efficiently. The success criteria could be different for each company: increased sales, wider markets, increased profitability, patent protected technologies, sufficient funding, excellent advisors, etc. Great success will lead to the creation of extraordinary economic value to the benefit of all stakeholders.

The Stakeholders: each one has unique set of needs and should be matched against clear expectations. Five key stakeholders are identified: the Latin entrepreneurs, the Latin investors, the US/Bay Area based investors, the Landing Platform and the surrounding Community.

The Stakeholders: each one has unique set of needs and should be matched against clear expectations. Five key stakeholders are identified: the Latin entrepreneurs, the Latin investors, the US/Bay Area based investors, the Landing Platform and the surrounding Community.

Some of the resources made available to the entrepreneurs are: The Landing Platform is the place where the resources are available just-in-time as required, and the advice is provided to empower the entrepreneur throughout the initial steps and beyond. To be effective, this resource delivery needs to strike the right balance of supporting while leaving the entrepreneur in charge, and in the process developing a sense of community with shared responsibilities and accountability as well as shared benefits. At the core the platform should retain its Darwinian character and never intends to create a process that could guarantee the success of most. However, foreign entrepreneurs have embarked in a very demanding personal and professional journey, which is hard enough and it should be not made any harder!

Resource Area

“Light” Services

Mastering the Art of Pitching Learn by pitching then more pitching and the capsule development process (stay tuned on future post on pitch development)
Business Formation Foreign incorporation, capitalization table, accounting, banking, governance, etc.
Venture Acceleration Marketing, competitors, business development and intelligence,  intellectual property, etc.
Communication and Connectivity Networking, events directory, connecting with peers, community of learners, etc.
Partnership Development Distribution, technology, market development, funding, etc.
Community Formation Events, community calendar, activities and services scheduling, network/printer, etc.
Personal Housing, immigration, Bay Area navigation, gym, wellness, etc.

Having covered the first two services of the landing platform, the hosting space and the resources made available and the companion “light” services; now we need to ask for what purpose? It is clear that the ultimate goal is the creation of the highest possible valuation. This success can come from different sources based on the current or expected future performance of the venture. A great entrepreneurial management team complemented with a unique technology, supported by an innovative business model and large addressable markets constitute the fundamental elements to fuel an exponential valuation. However, the story has to be well told (pitched) to the relevant audiences.

So who is this relevant audience? The output of the landing platform needs to connect with corporations and VCs who are interested in a unique deal flow of Latin ventures who have succeeded through two selection funnels (the local and the global scaling funnels) and are ready to go through a third one. The expected benefit of the cascade of these three funnels is a higher yield and geographical diversity to enable finding the “right” Chilean or Colombian start-up in a very cost and time efficient manner.

The Landing Platform provides hosting facilities to the various stakeholders, makes resources available empowering entrepreneurs with the needed knowledge for the quest of scaling-up their ventures. Furthermore, it provides the opportunity for those successful ventures to pitch to corporate investors, large global customers and key technology or market partners.

The Landing Platform provides hosting facilities to the various stakeholders, makes resources available empowering entrepreneurs with the needed knowledge for the quest of scaling-up their ventures. Furthermore, it provides the opportunity for those successful ventures to pitch to corporate investors, large global customers and key technology or market partners.

Closing Comments

As I was formulating these ideas, I discussed them a few weeks ago over lunch with Elton Sherwin (Ridgewood Capital) at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto. As we ordered coffee he posed the following question; if given the opportunity between two choices:

a)    Bringing an exciting start-up from Latin America to Silicon Valley and participating in their scaling up into the USA and/or other global markets, or…

b)    Bringing an equally exciting start-up born here in the Bay Area to Latin America and assisting them in accelerating their south-of-the-border expansion…

Which of these two scenarios would I pick?

It was a disarming question because of its simplicity and yet I had never before dichotomized the two scenarios in my mind. While he was picking up the tab, I paused to reflect and thanked him for the question and its timing (and lunch), and promised Elton to develop the answer in this up-coming post.

The proposed structure enables both, since most of this posting has been devoted in how the landing platform will enable a soft landing of Latin American start-ups here in the Bay Area, it will create a flow of knowledge in the opposite direction enabling Bay Area investors to connect with foreign peers and their portfolio companies enabling the scaling of the SV born companies to explore growth opportunities in the Latin American markets. And so my answer is, why choose? The Landing Platform can support global scaling in both directions, creating a win-win north/south partnership.

It is all about connecting quality individuals with aligned interests: let the music happen, “and the sounds will take care of themselves (from Alice in Wonderland).

Until my next blog-post amigos! – Carlos B.


[1] Spain and Portugal are added to the Latin America geography. The focus in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in the world is retained; bringing together their cultural affinity, shared values and historical roots.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Flattening the Global Innovation Landscape – Part II: Scaling-up Globally

Reflecting on the optimal time for foreign start-up’s to come to Silicon Valley

If the world were truly flat, many innovation centers would already be developed around the globe and each one would be distinguished by a unique competitive advantage given its location, industry addressed, type of venture, participants, level of funding available, government incentives, connection to trading partners, market access, etc. However, this Global Valley is still a work in progress. In the meantime, high potential entrepreneurs with fast growing ventures are probably well advised to test their mettle in the “World Olympics of Entrepreneurship” and come to Silicon Valley (SV)[1]. I am reminded of Frank Sinatra’s song, New York, New York, only exchanging SV instead of the Big Apple.

 “…If I can make it there 
I’ll make it anywhere 
It’s up to you 
New York, New York…”
 

Former USA president John F. Kennedy in his visionary Man-to-the-Moon speech at Rice University Stadium (Houston, September 12, 1962 – (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwFvJog2dMw ), also glorified the idea of striving for seemingly unattainable goals—emphasizing that this was intrinsically valuable, not foolish:

“…But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountains? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?…We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Coming to Silicon Valley is a decision that cannot be taken lightly. This is a great challenge that will require many sacrifices for entrepreneurs (and their families), as they parachute into a foreign territory with different customs.  They  will be pushed to compete and perform at the highest level, in a different language, surrounded by some of the smartest innovators on the planet, and challenged by very sophisticated investors and experienced partners. To commit to Silicon Valley means that the entrepreneur will have to invest months and possibly years, spending tens of thousands of dollars just in living expenses, and for what purpose? This is a question that requires a thorough answer.

Often successful entrepreneurs bring their start-ups to Silicon Valley to benefit from the extraordinary resources of this leading ecosystem.

Often successful entrepreneurs bring their start-ups to Silicon Valley to benefit from the extraordinary resources of this leading ecosystem.

My personal experiences, and those of my colleagues—suggests that less than 10% of those foreign entrepreneurs arriving here are prepared to perform and take advantage from the Valley resources upon arrival. Over half of the remainder, 90+%, has no business of coming here other than for techno-touristic reasons. The rest have probably arrived prematurely, as they have not yet prepared for this challenge.

But as with any successful journey, it is best if started with the end in mind. So why come to the San Francisco Bay Area? In short, the answer is to play with and learn from the masters. Specifically, the foreign entrepreneurs will benefit because of the opportunity:

  • To share experiences, compare and learn from others,
  • To practice pitching in a variety of forums and receive feedback,
  • To explore potential clients and channel partners,
  • To find technology partners and identify the technology trends,
  • To learn about different business models and market trends,
  • To meet investors: angels and VCs,
  • To find mentors and advisors,
  • To obtain legal, financial or management guidance,
  • To explore partnerships with established or young ventures,
  • etc.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, obtaining funding is just one of the (many) reasons to come to the Bay Area and the one least likely to provide positive outcomes. Hence, if this is the primary motive of your visit, it is probable that you will be disappointed. What is really important is the concentration and density of all these actors, who are often only a short drive across town away, or in the same neighborhood, or even the same building! Furthermore, referrals are extraordinarily easy to obtain and most entrepreneurs here will give you thoughtful recommendations based on your venture’s needs. Therefore, all you have to do is ask and explain your needs based on the state-of-development for your venture. In other words, just a different type of pitching focused on networking.

Some of the main reasons why a large number of start-ups are ill advised to come are:

  1. The value proposition does not apply outside the home country/region where the entrepreneur lives and/or the local market where the venture was originally conceived (i.e. a unique market friction, regulatory mandate, etc.),
  2. The business concept and/or technology are still immature or not proven,
  3. The venture has not received funding from local angels/VCs,
  4. No demonstrable business traction in the local/regional market,
  5. The entrepreneur(s) do not speak English or they are highly uncomfortable outside their own home environment,
  6. The entrepreneur is secretive or unable to engage in win/win relationships,
  7. Insufficient funds to cover living expenses beyond a couple of weeks,
  8. And many others,

For entrepreneurs that are in this category, there is nothing wrong with coming to the Bay Area for techno-touristic reasons. Typically a one/two-week visit, if well planned, can provide a “taste-of-the-valley,” allowing entrepreneurs to attend lectures, networking events, visit some of the co-working spaces, meet with other members of his/her own diaspora, etc. Some organizations and institutions offer a variety of programs of varying lengths, prices and characteristics, similar to the immersion programs I created at the University of San Francisco. An experience of this sort, all costs included, ranges from $3K to $10K US dollars for a 1 to 2 week visit, depending on many factors, in particular whether you decide to rely on an organization to plan your trip for you or make the arrangements yourself. Guess which one I would recommend? As a touristic experience you will be visiting one of the places ranked in the top ten spots in the world and likely will not disappoint you.

Some entrepreneurs rush to come to San Francisco. Even if their young venture presents enormous potential, it is often advised to delay coming to SV until such a time when a number of conditions are met to maximize the venture’s chances of success as well minimize the cost and time invested. Below I have outlined some of the key reasons why many start-ups come here prematurely:

 

Start-up Issue in moving to SV

 

Rationale

 

Failure to do as much preparation as possible while still in the home country It is of vital importance to do the maximum preparation possible while still in the home country. It is cheaper in cost and avoids burning introductions or unwisely using key meetings due to being unprepared.
Entrepreneur is ill-prepared to start pitching from day one, either because has not mastered the complexity or is able to communicate with the simplicity and clarity required. Pitching in SV is a way of life. One needs to be ready to pitch, compare, and contrast your venture with other similar or less similar models. Be ready to pitch for many different audiences, starting with those who you will need favors from and introductions to other key contacts.
Lack of clarity on the purpose/ reason to be here? There are multiple reasons to come to the San Francisco Bay Area: Probably the first is to validate the product concept with potential customers, peers (other product or technology developers in the same space), technology partners and investors. Obtaining market intelligence and trends (including the competitive landscape) is initially the single most important activity to validate the product.
Failure to obtain funding from local angels or VCs Even if local funding is one order of magnitude less than what typically is obtained here, it will provide credibility and referrals from your local investors. As we often call early investor “smart money”, the smart part is the contacts they may provide here in the Bay Area, among other things. Furthermore, this funding will be very much needed to cover the expenses incurred while accelerating the venture in the Bay Area.
Failure to obtain a meaningful level of local/regional sales Domestic sales will be an additional proof of market acceptance, revenue generation and customer feedback, even if they are relatively small to the venture potential.
Unwilling to make the time and cost commitment to move here for several months and more To really benefit from the ecosystem of the Valley, it takes time, even if you arrive prepared to hit the ground running.Furthermore, the cost of living in the Bay Area is high and continues increasing. Therefore entrepreneurs are well advised to start preparing several months (3 to 6 months) before coming here.

The true benefits/opportunities that result from becoming a part of the SV ecosystem are:

  1. Access to the latest innovations and technologies and, more importantly, the talent behind these.
  2. Experience in connecting these innovations to markets and customers
  3. Being able to explore the “right” business model(s) to maximize the short, medium and long-term value creation of your young venture.
  4. Access to funding: Angels and VCs
  5. Becoming part of the global conversation by just being here: “…In 2011, nearly two thirds of Silicon Valley professionals with higher education  working in the science and engineering fields were born outside of the United States…” from the 2013 Silicon Valley Index
  6. The “address benefit”. While some clients would be concerned with purchasing products or services from a young company located in Lima, Peru; a San Francisco or Palo Alto address can make the difference!
  7. And more!…

In any case, before coming to SV, make sure your pitching abilities is world class. Ideally your pitch must be adaptable to a timespan anywhere between 15” (seconds) or as long as 300”, must be customizable to any audience, purpose and context. You must be able to pitch with slides or without, standing or sitting, in quiet conference rooms or in noisy bars. Your ability to synthesize what you do, your track record, your value proposition, your mastery of complexity and why you will succeed with clarity and passion will be the currency for acquiring higher access in the Valley circles. Level of access highly correlates with pitch quality (and of course a compelling value proposition), and as we all know, good first impressions are very helpful. And while you are developing your pitch develop your venture’s one-pager as well. In fact, that one-pager is far more important than your business card, to leave behind at a meeting.

Finally, this blog subject will have three parts instead of the two I initially promised. Stay tuned for the next one, in which I’ll propose a novel structure to make a step towards flattening the global innovation landscape.

Until then – Carlos B.


[1] The terms Silicon Valley (SV), San Francisco Bay Area (SFBA), the Valley and the Bay Area are all used interchangeably.
Posted in My posts | Leave a comment