Ep. 313 – Big Companies Navigating Innovation with Tom Daly, Founder of Relevant Ventures

Ep. 313 – Big Companies Navigating Innovation with Tom Daly, Founder of Relevant Ventures

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Tom Daly, founder of Relevant Ventures. Tom and I talk about the challenges big companies have when trying to navigate technology and market changes. And what you can do to avoid some of the common obstacles and barriers to innovation and transformation. Let’s get started.

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Interview Transcript  with Tom Daly, Founder of Relevant Ventures

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Tom Daly. He is the founder of Relevant Ventures. Welcome Tom.

Tom Daly: Thank you very much, Brian. Pleasure to be here, speaking with you.

Tom DalyBrian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you on the show. You have had a lot of experience in this innovation space. You worked with companies like UPS and ING and I think most recently, Coca-Cola and a lot of the innovation efforts around that world. So I am excited to have you on the show to talk about some of the new things you’re doing and I think more importantly, some of the things you’ve learned over the years.

Tom Daly: I started doing this work before people called it digital transformation or innovation. The Earth cooled, at about the same time I began getting my head around this. I’m an advertising guy to begin with, and I can’t prove it, but I think I created the world’s first dedicated 30 sec TV commercial to a website. UPS.

In that process, I picked up some vocabulary and I learned some things about how websites, quote unquote work, so that when people started calling, you know, back in the mid-nineties wanting to talk to somebody about the web or the internet, the calls came to me. And it was during that process where I started to build new networks within UPS, learn about new things going on at UPS and discover some of the opportunities. It’s been a while.

Brian Ardinger: You talk a lot about this ability to turn big ships in small spaces. Talk a little bit about what that means to you and, and what the challenges really are for corporations in, in this whole innovation space.

Tom Daly: The idea of turning big ships in small spaces actually goes back to my boss’s boss at UPS who noticed I was toiling. UPS has a reputation as a conservative company. A little bit unfair, there’s some truth to that, but not quite what people think.

It’s actually a very, very innovative company and has been for its entire history, but it is collaborative. There’s a lot of debate and a lot of discussion. So getting new things done, driving new ideas that my boss to encourage me, you’ll get there, Tom, but it’s like turning a battleship in the Chattahoochee.

I don’t know where listeners are, but imagine a pretty darn small body of water and a really big ship that you’re trying to turn. So, a lot of back and forth, a lot of kissing babies, shaking hands, and just getting, you know politics, but in a good positive way to kind of really understand interests and concerns and build a better program, a better idea.

That’s the idea, and it was encouraging to me. So, this notion of turning big ships in small spaces, it seems to be, to the degree I have any superpowers, that’s the one I’m able to kind of figure out how to help larger organizations figure out how to extract value from, you know, kind of what’s coming up around the corner.

Brian Ardinger: Obviously you’ve seen a lot of changes, whether they’re technology changes or business model changes that have happened over the years. Where do companies typically run into the problems when they see something on the emerging horizon and they’re saying, we’ve gotta do something about this. What goes through their mind and what can they do to better prepare for some of these drastic changes?

Tom Daly: The thing companies can do to help themselves most be prepared for big ships in the world that we all live and compete in, is, you know, the twin keys of openness and acceptance. Being open to an idea is really important, but it is only half the battle.

Being accepting of the implications of those ideas is really key and the classic example would be Kodak. You know, Kodak early in, open to the idea of digital photography. But equally unaccepting of its implications. So they didn’t jump in, they didn’t do the things they needed to do, and as a result, very different company Blockbuster would fit in that category.

Certainly, they understood the implications of streaming technologies and the web and the ability to distribute content. Given the retail heavy business, the land heavy business, they just weren’t accepting, or at least not accepting fast enough to be able to secure position in the next evolution of how people consumed content. So those two ideas, being open and accepting both in equal measures is critical to getting yourself in a good spot.

Brian Ardinger: Well, you touched on an interesting point. You read about the stories of companies failing or being disrupted, and from the outside it looks like, well, they didn’t pay attention, or they didn’t know what was going on.

But it seems like, from the stories and the people that I’ve talked to, it’s not that they weren’t aware of what was going on. Or the fact that it was going to have a major impact or that they should do something about it. It was more to that line of it, like you said, acceptance of, well, how do we actually do this knowing that we’re going to have to change our business models, change the way we make money, change everything about what we currently do to make this radical shift. And it’s that classic innovator’s dilemma.

Are you seeing that changing nowadays, now that people are kind of more familiar with the concept of this and, and as more and more changes hit corporations, so you’re getting faster at having to adapt to this. Are you seeing the world changing or are you still seeing the same problems exist?

Tom Daly: You know, anybody in this space, Brian, doing what I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been doing it, you need to be an optimist. You need to believe that, you know it’s all going to happen. That said, the conversations I’m having today in 2023 are pretty darn close to the conversations I was having in the middle, you know, of the nineties, right?

So, whether it was the dawn of, you know, this graphical overlay on the internet, the web, and when browsers enabled, or the introduction of now advertising and marketing opportunities on the web, which didn’t really happen at the beginning of the browser era, that followed a little bit later. Or the introduction of mobile phones and then smartphones and all the, it’s the same conversations. And they all come from a place of gaps.

I won’t say a lack because in some places there is confidence and acceptance and alignment with what’s going on. But it’s not uniform within organizations. Right. Then there are pockets of people within departments, IT people, marketing people, salespeople. They see the same opportunities. But there are also folks who do not see the future in the same way. And that’s where that acceptance problem comes in.

So I ask questions, I do a little survey. And I ask people really fundamental questions, one of them having to do with innovation. Now, where do you put your company in terms of new technologies and how quickly they would be used. Like you see yourself among the first to use emerging technologies?

I’m asked almost around 2000 people this question. And interestingly, overall, 16% of people would say, yes, our company is among the first. But if you drill down into that, you see CEOs of the C-suite at 36% believe they are the first to use technology, but only about 19% of VP and director level. So that gap needs to be studied.

It could be that CEOs are both open and accepting, but just can’t bring their organization along with them. And get people to the same head space. Or it could be that the, you know, VP director level folks see something different. We’re not among the first, and it’s this overconfidence among the C-suite, who happen to believe, but it may not be the reality of what you don’t see it. What you’re looking at C-Suite is really not what’s going on. Regardless of how you interpret that gap, there is a gap. And understanding it, managing it, dissecting it, interrogating it is kind of what’s really important.

Brian Ardinger: You know, a lot of this change and the, the ability to accept change and, and adapt to it comes down to incentives. What are you seeing or what have you seen that’s worked when it comes to incentivizing teams or even the C-Suite to put new things into place and to react and adapt to new changes?

Tom Daly: It’s going to happen; it’s going to change. My technique, it may be more patient than others. I don’t know how to make it go super-fast. I just know that lots of back and forth. You know, I think that the thing to do is demonstrate that this is real.

I’ll tell you an example, a little technique that I used back before the advent of mobile payments. Before people using their phone to buy things was really as prevalent as it is today. It was possible, but not a part of many people’s experience.

So, at the time I was at Coca-Cola, our products were sold in a lot of retail environment where these capabilities were being slowly introduced. But I was also working among a group of people, none of them are ignorant, they just didn’t believe it was happening. I organized what I called a mobile payments safari.

I got a local little tour bus. And planned out a route to Coca-Cola Company customers. Dunkin Donuts, local Burger Joint, Home Depot. All of these companies using Mobile payments in one way, shape, or form. And I made everybody kind of get the appropriate app, sign up for the appropriate services.

They paid early days of Square. I didn’t pay for this bus ride out of my own budget. I had each participant use Square to see how that worked. Took them to Dunkin Donuts to go get their coffee or Coke and donut. Talk to the counter, see customers, so on and so forth throughout the day. Now, by the end of the day, it wasn’t Tom’s opinion, my language I gave everybody the same inputs that I had.

With the benefit of those same inputs. They reached the same output. They reached the same conclusion, alignment gaps closed. People started to realize, oh yeah, that’s, it is happening in the world, you know where I live.

Brian Ardinger: That’s a great exercise, and I think more and more folks need to pay attention to that. You know, we talk a lot about the customer discovery process and that. Especially when we’re working with startups, because at that early stage, they’re trying to figure out who their customers are. Is their market and everything else.

I think the challenge when you get to a kind of an established company is they think they know who their customers are or they, you know, read about it or hang out with the same competitors. And so, there’s a natural tendency to think they know what’s going on in the world and that ability to step outside the office and see what’s really going on.

And, you know, firsthand knowledge I think is so important for whether you’re launching a new product or just trying to, like you said, understand a new technology set and how that’s impacting or could impact your current business.

Tom Daly: Brian, I think there’s a lot to that and it’s incredibly helpful, but the other thing that you need to be able to do is tell the stories around that and help people understand it in a way that’s digestible. Before I organized this local payments safari, I circulated a couple of case studies, one of which super impactful I think you know, that again, back to a square example, the, Salvation Army, you know, that famous red kettle collecting coins around the holidays.

There was a early and really interesting experiment where Salvation Army was using Square to accept payments. Why? Not because everybody was using their phone to buy stuff, but they were using credit cards. They were not using cash. So, they didn’t have change in their pockets, and you know, felt bad in the Red Kettle. So, they said, well, we got to find a way to get some money. You know, the storytelling that I created was, you know that the coins that go on the kettle in December, are the coins that go on a vending machine in July.

And if people don’t have the money to put into that red kettle, they’re going to be the same dilemma. And we just got to catch up with us. So, we have to find ways to remove that payment friction. Then I happen to be focused on mobile technology at the time. The point is the storytelling and finding ways to connect these trends and whether it’s super easy. Nope, no language, no technical stuff. You didn’t have to understand just, oh yeah, I get it. No coins.

Brian Ardinger: So, I’d love your insight into how important it is to get buy-in across the organization, or how difficult is it for the average manager within a company to help push the transformation agenda forward. Versus having corporate buy-in and, and everybody aligned. Can you talk a little bit about what are the skill sets, tool sets, things that people need from a manager level to make this stuff happen?

Tom Daly: I wish I had the one silver bullet to tell you some new blinding revelation. I don’t. It’s the usual suspects, Brian. You know, you need to be informed. You kind of need to know a little bit about how the watch is made. Not just sort of the superficial part of kind of what you saw. This, your technologist is probably more likely to understand a little bit of the underlying technology, but you may not have the language or experience or vocabulary to talk about how that interacts with people.

If you’re a marketing person, you probably have the skillset to talk about the stories and the like, but you don’t have the technical knowledge. Whether you’re coming at innovation, regardless of the perspective that you’re coming at an innovation discussion or transformation discussion knowing both is important.

You can’t just kind of say, oh yeah, and well payments, you kind of have to know a little bit about how the watch is made. So certain amount of curiosity, critical, tenacity, perseverance. You know, we’ve captured my personal style, that big ship, small spaces constantly creeping towards the destination.

Other people will have different styles at different techniques. But it is all captured by the same notion of perseverance, tenacity, persistence, et cetera, et cetera. So, no unique, I do have a couple of resources though that would be helpful for folks.

You know, first thing folks might want to do is wherever they buy their books, great book written by a fellow named Kumar Metta, who wrote something called The Innovation Biome. And the Innovation Biome is a book capturing case studies from cultures of innovation, big companies. You know, Amazons of the world, Apples. What do they do culturally to enable these environments?

You know, you’ll use a reference, a culture will Yes, within Amazon. So it’s not the manager’s job to say no. Sort of the manager’s job to say, okay, but yes, but let me help you get this through so you can get the information that you need.

So, you know, I’ve worked with folks in the past, you know, who facilitate meetings that allow executives to get together, break out of the day-to-day. Some of the techniques we’ve already touched on, talk to customers, walk around where people are living and doing their day-to-day thing to see where your ideas fit. Where there are problems that you can solve. Simple stuff. But if you don’t do it and you spend your time looking for that silver bullet, you’re gonna miss it. Just do it.

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. The last topic I want to talk about is, obviously again, you’ve been in a lot of different industries and that. You pay attention to a lot of the trends that are going on. Obviously in the, in news this week, in, in the past few weeks, the whole AI movement and chat, GPT-4, and I’m, I’m talking to a lot of different companies saying hey we see this thing coming, we have no idea how to attack it or use it or whatever.

What are you seeing when it comes to the AI trend and what is your input for helping companies try to navigate that early stage?

Tom Daly: We would agree. A generative AI overall kind of a a big deal. Going be super transformative. This book that I mentioned, the Innovation Biome. The author Kumar Metta talks about the fallacy of the next big thing, and he picks apart you know, the first fallacy is that, you know, it’s the next thing.

So generative AI is here. But it’s like day one, right? I mean, not literally, but you know, broadly speaking. So, what it will truly become, who knows, right? I mean, so don’t get too fixated on it as a thing at this moment in time. Allowing yourself to just project forward and imagine scenarios down the road of what a future could look like, because eventually it will get there.

Lots of folks you know, back in the day of 56 K modems. Nobody will ever buy you anything. Music won’t ever happen. And this blockbuster streaming thing. Well, 56 became 124. 124 became EF whatever. And you know, here we are on our phones doing things that were unimaginable really not that long ago. Generative AI is only important if it turns into a billion-dollar idea for you.

If you set that standard, you’re going to miss it. Right. Think about small, quick little wins things that you can do today. Learn the technology. Introduce it into your organization. Become familiar with it, and don’t worry about the long ball, right? Singles and doubles. Three yards caught. Where are your sports? Whatever you’re thinking.

Start with what you can do and don’t despite what I just said about learning how the watch is made, you’ll be overly focus on a specific thing, right? Chat Gpt, GPT-4, whatever it is, open up the aperture. Think more broadly about where these things, what’s the real root essence of it? Not a specific manifestation of it.

If you give yourself that latitude, it’s important to you even if it only saves two seconds a day for somebody. If it saves two seconds for somebody, maybe it saves two seconds for everybody. A company that matters. It’ll magnify itself if it’s real.

Brian Ardinger: I also find that you mentioned opening up the aperture, and I think a lot of times when I’m talking to C-suite folks or team leaders and that they oftentimes think that they have to have all the answers. And especially in larger organizations, you have a lot of people in the depths of the organization that I believe are curious and restless in and around these particular topics. Sometimes all it takes is opening that up and saying, hey, who else in the organization has access or information or insight or a desire to help us figure this kind of stuff out?

If you opened up the conversation, I think that sometimes takes the pressure off of the lead team to have to have all the answers or figure it out all themselves. I think what you’ll find is there are people and pockets within the organization that can help you move faster if you just allow them to help you do that.

Tom Daly: Brian, that’s what I was trying to get to with the kissing babies and shaking hands and politics isn’t a bad thing. It’s not a bad word. It is people. It’s sitting down, grab a cup of coffee with your colleagues, you know, share your idea. Why you might be enthusiastic or excited about a particular opportunity, but be open and, and listen when they tell you why that might work.

Big organizations, a lot of specialized skills and capabilities and these are intricate machines built over a long time and my clever little idea looks like a bit of grit. No, it’s just going to come up the work style. They’ll do it. Tell me why. Partner? Why is it going to go up the works? That’ll help me think about it more deeply.

Come back to you and say, well, I think I’ve solved that problem. What’s next? Oh, okay, you have. Good now. Hey, let’s go rope in this other person. And then you just build that consensus. Now again, in smaller organization, that cycle goes faster. But the principles say if you just show up with an idea when you went home on Friday, we did it this way.

Here we are Monday morning. We’re doing it a totally different way. Gaps in alignment, confidence and trust are going to come back and bite you. My analogy is turning a big ship. That’s the rocks. Those are the rocks that are going to sink you. You’re going to get stuck. It’s just a lot more work to get unstuck. And had you just charted the course a little bit more methodically?

For more information

Brian Ardinger: Makes a lot of sense. Well, Tom, we live in fascinating times. I appreciate you coming on and, and sharing your thoughts and insights over the past couple decades of how to navigate this changing world that we’re living in. If people want to find out more about yourself or about relevant ventures, what’s the best way to do that?

Tom Daly: Best way would be just to visit relevantventures.com website. Of course, you’ll find me, you know, a couple of Slack channels here and there. You’ll find me on LinkedIn. I am wide open to sharing these ideas. It’s how I learn and how I get better. And I hope someone has an idea that they want to discuss, because I love to share what I’ve learned along the way.

Brian Ardinger: Sounds great. Well, Tom, thanks for bringing on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Tom Daly: Thank you.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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