Online Courses @ Elite Campuses: Heading for the Exit

MOOC platforms are the new startups. Nobody really knows how it will all turn out, but  these are experiments that need to be given time, space, and dollars to to incubate innovation.  But what exactly does that mean?  And what models are available to institutions that want to try to create such safe spaces for innovation?

The vision of  Al Capp’s Skonkworks, perched on the edge of Skunk Hollow, belching the byproducts of producing exquisite joy juice has been a metaphor for three generations of inventors. When it comes to skunkworks, there are ideas to try out and ideas to avoid.    New developments like MOOCs exist to bend perceptions and blur boundaries, so using traditional perceptions and boundaries to explore MOOC potential doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This is the third in a series of reposts that talk about lessons learned from other startups — in particular startups that are born within existing organizations.  The first post put us face-to-face with an oftentimes hostile culture.  In today’s post we talk about successful exits from hostile environments and how to make sure that what began in a skunkworks has a chance of succeeding once the thrill of invention has subsided.

What constitutes a successful exit in Online Education? The question that is always asked is “How will all this investment in online courses be monetized?”  I think most people who ask don’t really know what they are asking for.  They are really asking a different question: what is the value of what you have created?  How do I extract value? A successful exit needs to answer this question.

***

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.

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