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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.

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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.

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 second 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 see the conflicting agendas of important stakeholders.

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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.

Next: Heading for the Exit

This post was originally published on When Worlds Collide on 9/29/2010

MOOC platforms are the new startups.  Literally. We are closing in on a half billion dollars pouring into online education companies like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Tens of millions of dollars are flying out the door of places like MIT, Stanford and U Penn to produce new instructional materials.

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?

When the residents of Al Capp’s mystical, mythical Uncertain Hamlet of Dogpatch needed to brew up a batch of Kickapoo Joy Juice, they did on the edge of town.  It was a smelly, messy process and the factory was better suited to the environs of Skunk Hollow — “worse than the badlands” — than the otherwise proper City of Dogpatch.  By the way, being worse than the badlands is a real black mark because in the Badlands “it’s no good here.”

The vision of Skonkworks, perched on the edge of Skunk Hollow, belching the byproducts of producing exquisite joy juice has been a metaphor for internal innovation ever since.

The approach at Georgia Tech has been to create an internal laboratory to try things out. Other places have tasked educational technology groups, CETLs, or distance education departments.  They are all  Skunkworks.  Just don’t call them internal startups. That is a sure path to failure.

When it comes to skunkworks, there are ideas to try out and ideas to avoid.  A colleague of mine once started a discussion by saying, “Let’s begin by figuring out what the administration will allow us to do.”  What a terrible idea — a rookie error. It defines your design space by all kinds of parameters that have nothing to do with success.

But it is easy to fall into this kind of trap.  There are plenty of examples of “internal startups” that failed in exactly this way.  It’s not just that online courses at elite campuses are brewing their own brand of joy juice.  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.

I want to repost a series of articles I wrote last year about this topic.   I think the lessons apply to academia.

Next:  The Internal Startup

I am not above false equivalencies. I know that the “liberal” in “liberal arts” has nothing to do political liberals as in “Don’t vote for that tax-and-spend liberal”. But it is ironic  that virtually all of the negative comments that  Jeff Selingo’s article about giving engineers a chance to innovate in higher education came from my colleagues in the liberal arts and humanities.  That’s also been my experience with Abelard to Apple reviews and comments on this blog. The general form of the rebuke is

Ewww! We don’t want engineers running things.  Engineers are [insert your favorite stereotypical character flaw here]

I imagine that conjured images of pocket-protected geeks, possibly wearing glasses that have been recently repaired with white adhesive tape, making decisions in isolation of every true human emotion are supposed to rise from the printed page:

Engineers indeed have experience and skills solving problems, engineering problems, that is. These are the identical, limited skills that can make them exceptionally poor organizational leaders.  “Turn the crank and out will pop the solution” is good engineering but is not leadership.

Academics are deadly serious about this sort of stuff, and it infects decision-making at all levels of a university. It is a meme that pushes search committees away from candidates with technical credentials, for example.  The conversation that takes place out of earshot ends something like this:

I have to admit that this strategy is efficient .  It lets you separate the good ideas from the bad ideas before even hearing them. What about the pesky counter-examples? “Never mind the success of Silicon Valley.  Engineering leaders and their innovations probably played no role at all.”

There are some on my side of the fence who have a similar reaction to the humanities. I was in a Silicon Valley meeting a few weeks ago when an engineer went nearly apoplectic over the idea that the liberal arts would claim any academic legitimacy: “What do they do that’s useful?” he demanded to know.  “They’re trained circus performers!”

But this kind of reaction is relatively rare — perhaps because so many of us had liberal arts backgrounds before we became engineers. I wish the reverse were true for the humanities and the liberal arts, where it is frequently a badge of honor to proclaim ignorance of technical matters.

Back to my false equivalency. It is not worthy of the  “liberal” in “liberal arts” to pick this kind of fight. It is certainly not worthy of John Kennedy’s famous definition of a “liberal”

Someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions,

On the other hand, false equivalencies abound on the the other side, too.  Here’s my favorite: “The value of the liberal arts is self-evident and, since we are the only ones who know how to teach this stuff, so is the value of our liberal arts curricula self-evident.”  If you think I’m kidding, you might want to watch Stanley Fish defend exactly that position in the video above.

I can understand a certain amount of  defensive wagon-circling when the conversation veers toward value. Especially when a first-rate liberal arts education costs $200,000. I don’t think it’s a smart fight for the humanities faculty to pick.

Join Abelard to Apple author Rich DeMillo and hosts Allen Cardoza and Melody Foxx to discuss the changing landscape in American higher education:  What’s behind rising college tuition?  How should families select colleges?  Will a college degree ever pay for itself?  What does it mean to be a university in a world that’s been flattened by technology and economic interdependence?

Listen live or download  the complete show. here.