How spending time with startups can lead to innovation

In Posted May 21, 2015

One of the most respected big company CMOs in the startup industry is Beth Comstock. Beth is GE’s chief marketing officer and the leader of the company’s newly formed business innovation unit. She is tasked with making a corporation of 300,000 more entrepreneurial. Her passion and devotion to startups runs deep, which is probably one of the reasons why you might find at random bars hanging out with startup founders in NY’s Lower East Side. I had the chance to discuss startups and their increasingly important role within large corporations.

Here are a few excerpted highlights. You can listen to the podcast on SoundCloud – you can also subscribe at iTunes and read the conversation in its entirety below.

“I’m a market discoverer. I feel like you can’t read a report, you can’t have a consultant tell you, you have to be out there. When I was in college, I majored in biology and minored in anthropology. I think at heart I’m an anthropologist. I believe that’s what good marketing is. You’re not really trying to sell someone, you are understanding a need. How do you understand what entrepreneurs are thinking unless you go hang out with them?” – Beth


“Part of the reason you enter into a partnership is that you want to share risk and reward and you want outcomes faster. Sharing risk and reward means sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You have to have that mindset. Not every venture you do is going to be successful. It is a portfolio.” – Beth


“I would say just start. That’s a mantra for me. We can analyze everything to death and do all the ROIs, but at some point, you have to just start. Start small, try a partnership. If you’re a startup, oftentimes you expect the gloryland immediately. But, you need to do the same thing. You need to take a bet on a company, you need to start small, pick one project, be patient and not put your whole business plan on one company. I think both sides – big companies and startups – have to just start.” – Beth



H: Okay, Beth, let’s do this. So, first, who are you?


B: I’m Beth Comstock. I work at GE. I lead our business innovation group and I’m also our chief marketing officer.


H: It’s somewhat unconventional that a lot of the venture stuff fits into the marketing team. How did that come about?


B: Well, it came about for a couple of reasons. I think if you really believe passionately in marketing, you believe marketing’s role is to help the company go where the markets are going and to be about what’s next. If you believe that, it takes you to hanging out with startups and figuring out how to partner with them and how to have a mutually beneficial relationship. What can they offer you? What can you offer them. Pretty soon, you start to think about investing, maybe you can help them commercially, maybe they can help us. So, it was really just a natural progression, saying where is the world going, how do you develop markets, and who are the partners that can get you there. Increasingly, startups are the ones who can get you there faster. So, if you follow that chain, it puts ventures in the marketing area.


H: A lot of companies seem to have a very tough time becoming more entrepreneurial. Why do you think that is?


B: Sometimes companies forget they were once a startup. You lose sight when you go to scale. There is a value in scale. Scale is about doing things well in a big way. Sometimes we forgot that is also important. You fail to focus. I think oftentimes companies try to do too many things. My colleagues hate when I say this, but in companies, frankly, we spend more money than we need to on these things. I think that’s what you learn from startups. In startups, you have a very limited amount of capital and resources, huge passion, aspiration and vision. I think we need to be more stringent in terms of how we fund ideas and get them to a healthier scale. We put money in before it’s ready, so it’s premature scaling. It’s a common issue. We just keep throwing money at it, when really what is needed are the right people and time. Often companies don’t want to give the time and patience that some of these ideas need.


H: I think that’s very true. Very often, when someone has a must-win area, they get 20 people in a room, have a brainstorming session and come up with 800 ideas. They invent these portals that take 18 months and 10 million dollars to develop, but by the time you are two-thirds through with developing them, the world has moved around, off to somewhere else and you’re stuck with this monster project.


B: They should have funded two and they funded five, because they don’t want to choose.


H: Or they should just fund one at the time.


B: No one wants to be accused of being an idiot because they let an idea go, but you have to pick.


H: When you work in a company like GE with 300,000 people and you really start to buy into this lean startup methodology, how do you get your head around the concept that you can’t always do the billion dollar thing that will change the world but you have to start with something small that could grow into something big?


B: That is a challenge in companies. Sometimes there are ideas that are just too small for us to take on. That’s sad if you’re the one that has that idea. That’s why you partner with startups, that’s why you fund ideas outside yourself. If you are a company at scale you have to have some sort of path to achieve scale, or it has to be part of a family of ideas, or it has to be opening a whole new market space that you believe in. But, also if you’re running a big company, and you’re an innovation junkie and a believer in innovation, you have to have a portfolio. And you have to know that there are going to be some ideas that you’re investing in that aren’t scaling now, that you believe are going to scale at some point. That’s why you have to give them room and you create space for them. That’s why we have incubation in our venture teams. You have to create a protected class of ideas. That’s something I believe passionately about. You have to fund them, you have to care for them, you have to say it’s okay when you don’t make your numbers for a quarter. You have different metrics, different toll gates and different expectations. But, there comes a time when you have to have accountability, because you have to have a customer at some point.


H: One of the things we do in the startup space, is that the accountability is having a limited amount of cash. If we spent $250K in our seat round and we haven’t created traction, then it’s game over. Traction can come in a variety of forms  – users love it, or users pay for it, or a lot of new users join. In many ways, you often link time and budgets, but you could just link it to budget. You have $250K and if you haven’t reached certain milestones, then it’s game over.


B: We’ve tried to adopt that growth-funding method to incubating internally and that has helped a lot. But, you do have to create room for those things. I often say to my colleagues inside GE that they have a different risk profile. That’s why you came to work here, first of all. You don’t know what it’s like to go home and tell your partner I can’t help pay our mortgage or rent. Most people who work in big companies don’t have that personal anxiety of putting it on the line every single day. Starting up is hard.


H: As you know, I’m a big fan of they way you work with startups because I think it’s very generous. I don’t say that just because you’re sitting here, but at Prehype we interact with startups and the big companies. Often I find it’s very much on the corporation’s terms. They say come to our place, tell us what you do, and we might throw you some money. But, one of the things you seem to do is interact with the startup community. I went to this dive bar on the Lower East Side with 12 entrepreneurs, and suddenly you popped up. I was surprised to see you. Why do you spend the time doing that?


B: Two things. One is our company has been on a journey to partner more. Historically, in a company like mine, what happened is a partnership meant let’s do it our way. At best, you were 50/50 partners but you always had to fight for controlling interest. The world just doesn’t work that way anymore. I think companies like mine have become very humbled. We have had to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and we can’t do it all ourselves. When you go through that process, you become a better partner.


The second thing is, that’s just the way I’m wired. I’m a market discoverer. I feel like you can’t read a report, you can’t have a consultant tell you, you have to be out there. When I was in college, I majored in biology and minored in anthropology. I think at heart I’m an anthropologist. I believe that’s what good marketing is. You’re not really trying to sell someone, you are understanding a need. How do you understand what entrepreneurs are thinking unless you go hang out with them? So that’s really why you saw me hanging out on the Lower East Side. It has been my job to go where things are happening and understand them. Then I bring it back to the company and translate it in a way that makes sense.


H: GE is such a big organization and I’d imagine your to-do list is very long. Yet, you consistently show up at industry startup events, you organize dinners for entrepreneurs, you seem to spend so much time on it – do you feel you have to justify that internally?


B: Yeah, sometimes. I recently had someone at another company ask me how I managed to get my job to where I have no operating responsibilities. First of all, I have huge operating responsibilities and expectations. My neck is on the line for a lot. Fundamentally, it’s partly my job to say where the world is going and who is making it happen. Secondly, I think you make time for what is important to you. Discovering, connecting and hearing what is on the mind of Henrik at Prehype, for example, is important to me. I need to understand it; that’s just the way my brain is wired. I spend a lot of what would be my personal time out doing that.


I’m able to devote the time I need to doing the important things my company expects of me, but I have also been able to prove that this is also important. I’m able to connect with people who might not think of GE as a partner. If my company, my colleagues and my boss, Jeff Immelt, hadn’t seen the results from my work, they might wonder what I’m doing. But, I think they have seen enough results and interesting mashups, that they value it. At least I hope so. Well, I’m still there, so I hope so.


H: It seems like you get a lot of personal enjoyment out of being embedded in the startup scene. What do you think you take back to GE? I’m sure the partnership with Quirky came out of your involvement. It is very visible and considered a big success. Can you talk about the tangibles of these partnerships?


B: I personally get a lot of energy out of it. You are mostly learning a lot. The company I work for is big on development – they expect you to develop yourself and to develop the company. It’s the kind of place where you wake up every day and say: “What are we here for? We’re here to get better.” I believe that. That’s my ethos. If you believe that, you are constantly looking for people who can help you get better.


While we have dozens of others, Quirky has been a very visible partner. My colleagues and I in the marketing and development space are all about big experiments. There is no guarantee that any of these are going to work, but hopefully there is enough good that comes from them. What has Quirky helped GE do? When we first aligned with Quirky it was with our appliance and consumer business. They helped us learn speed to market in product development. Most recently, together we launched a connected light bulb. It took Quirky three months to help us do that. We were working on it for three years and didn’t get there. Already people can start to see tangible results. It was designed in a beautiful way; the community of Quirky helped make it better. As for other results, I can tell you that I got a product to market faster and we have a new customer relationship that is much stronger – all of those kinds of benefits are just huge for a company. Then there is the cultural piece of having Ben Kaufman, the founder and CEO of Quirky, come in and agitate a little bit. To say to people: “Why are you doing it that way? There is a different way to do it.” And I think we have been helpful to the Ben Kaufmans of the world.


H: Is that tough to manage sometimes? We see that when we build something very quickly with a big company, it slightly pisses off people within the organization. Is that just something you need to do – to create a little bit of tension sometimes to make people move a little bit quicker?


B: I think you hit on a really important point. The more I work, the more I’m convinced that tension is essential for creativity. Timing is also a big issue. A lot of what we set up is tension between the technical innovation and the market innovation. Sometimes technology creates opportunities that you never thought possible. Sometimes you can take existing technology and create new benefits just from combinations and business models. We try to create that tension a lot to encourage better innovation. I think tension is key.


And, yeah, sometimes we use our entrepreneur partners to create that tension. I’ll give you a good example. I’m not sure I helped Ben Kaufman much, but he helped us a lot. We brought him to a big leadership conference. He had just gotten back from one of our divisions where he toured the manufacturing floor. I asked him what his impressions were from the tour. He said, “I was really impressed that you guys are going to have new hinges in three years.” Well, he was being very blunt and the reaction from the room was interesting. It was a filter and a test. I goaded him to say it. There will people who hated that he said it, who were really annoyed and thought he was putting them down. And then there were people who said they needed to be around people who think like that. It became a filter. It was amazing the people who came forward and said they wanted to work with him. It was also a for us chance to say, “Hey Ben, it’s easy for you to think like that, but do you know what it’s like to do tooling at scale, do you know what it’s like to have this type of factory automation at this kind of output?” I think he was able to learn something, too. There is a real opportunity to take some of these disruptive models and challenge yourself by questioning if you really know everything.


H: But is there also benefit in failing with a partner? Let’s say a relationship with some partner doesn’t work out, you don’t get the numbers. For example, another company you work with that I really like is PolicyMic or  If you do a content marketing experiment with them and if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t really matter because it’s just a partnership. Is that something you think about? That partnerships are a good playground for experimentation? Or is it just because you can get talent externally that you can’t get internally?


B: It’s all of those things. Part of the reason you enter into a partnership is that you want to share risk and reward and you want outcomes faster. Sharing risk and reward means sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You have to have that mindset. Not every venture you do is going to be successful. It is a portfolio. You have to have other things that you are getting out of it. This was a bit of a sell at GE to say we aren’t just doing this for financial returns. There may be a project that financially isn’t a big success, but culturally, or speedwise, it achieved things that weren’t possible before. Strategically, it keeps us from making a mistake. You have to have a really interesting scorecard. It has taken us awhile to get everyone comfortable with the idea that the scorecard isn’t just financial returns. Yeah, you want some of that. You have to have earnings to keep doing inventions, right? It’s like that old Thomas Edison line, “I make money so I can keep inventing.” We are not a nonprofit. But, we are at the size of scale where you can take risks and look for other kinds of returns, that aren’t purely monetary.


H: Do you see yourself as an internal marketer? I would imagine a lot of people share your vision but feel they are restricted internally. They might have a CFO that’s very powerful, or a risk-compliance team, or tech team, or brand police that are often compensated to make sure tomorrow looks like today. How do you navigate those types of obstacles internally?


B: That’s a great question and leads to another benefit of doing these partnerships. It creates role models and examples. We recently completed a partnership focused on drones with the team at Airware. We are working together to figure out how to bring drones into the service arena. The ability to light people’s imagination by allowing them to have a partner and try new ideas without getting 500 approvals is crucial. I’ll tell you a couple things. In companies – big, medium and even small – innovation is often a journey into yourself. It’s easy to say you can’t do something because the CFO won’t let you or because you have restrictions. Yes, they exist. Yes, there are processes. But, sometimes people need to be given a little bit of permission and they need to give themselves permission. They need to say, “If this guy can do it, then I can do it.”


H: I was talking to somebody the other day about the idea that negative emotions and energy are actually very useful when you’re an entrepreneur. For example, you go out, you tell your partner that this time is going to be less hard, you tell your investors that you have everything figured out, you tell your staff that they should leave their good jobs and come and work for you because it’s going to be worth a lot. Then you have all of this anxiety build up. But, that is one of the things that keeps you sharp. What do you think are some of the negative elements of entrepreneurship that would actually be useful to have more of in big companies?


B: I actually think it’s too easy for an entrepreneur to get money these days and I actually don’t think that’s a good thing. There is venture capital everywhere. I like to see an entrepreneur who can actually make some money. I think the real test should be: Is your idea working? Can you actually generate revenue from it? Sometimes entrepreneurs underestimate the value of scale, access to markets and other things established companies have. They tend to look at an established company and think they are boring and slow. I don’t think we’re boring. Yes, sometimes we are slow, but we also know how to do things at scale and how to do them repeatedly. We have processes that may not be very exciting, but they help reach goals. If entrepreneurs are open to adopting some of these methods, I think it makes them go faster in the long run.


H: I think a lot of entrepreneurs have had some negative experiences working with big companies, either because the decision-making process is so slow or whatever else it may be. Do you think that is changing because big companies are becoming increasingly willing to work with startups and even a little bit more on their terms?


B: They have had to. For one, it has become a little bit trendy for big companies to work with startups. We went through a startup-envy phase. Everyone wanted to be a startup, but, then big companies have to pause and realize they have some good things.


H: Also, I don’t want my plane engine to be done by a startup. I want that to be done by GE.


B: Right, the business model around it might be okay, but there are certain things that big companies do really well. For partnerships to work, companies, like mine and others, have to dedicate partner resources. If you show up from Prehype with one of your companies, you want GE to make it fast. You want a partner who is going to help you navigate GE, not throw up roadblocks. Historically, companies got a bad rap because it had to be on their terms. Now, you have relationship managers who help the startup navigate the company and help the company navigate the startup. You are invested in making the startup succeed. You need a shared vision. I’m not sure every company is there yet, but more and more I think companies are realizing it’s important.


H: You guys have done a lot with startup methodologies internally. How do you attract entrepreneurs to work with you as partners but also to say with your organization?


B: Getting them to work as partners is easier because they can keep their own identity. They can grow their business and can hopefully choose the best of what GE has to offer. But, not everyone is going to be a successful entrepreneur. I think the success rate for founders is like .4%.


H: It’s very low. I heard somewhere that entrepreneur is just French for being stupid.


B: There is a high failure rate.


H: It’s not for everyone. Everyone watched “The Social Network” and saw it as the promised land because you are your own boss. There are a lot of downsides to being an entrepreneur. Obviously, I’ve chosen it.


B: It is really hard.


H: To spin on that point, I also work with a bunch of intrepreneurs who sit internally in an organization. They tend to have all the same properties of people I’ve met in the entrepreneurial space who are incredible. But, intrepreneurs just really understand how to navigate the political system and they get a lot done. Interestingly enough, I don’t think they get a lot of credit. Especially the people who bet on entrepreneurs. Some of the breaks I’ve gotten are when people, like yourself, have taken a gamble because they like the vision. Is that something you guys encourage? Or is there a way to encourage that?


B: It’s hard because you have processes. I’d say a couple things. In order to get entrepreneurs to come work for GE, you have to create the right mechanisms. We are hiring entrepreneurs and residents to help us incubate and telling them if they like it, to go run it. You have to set up different incentive compensations and different mechanisms not tethered to some of the metrics we talked about earlier. You also need to allow them access to all the goodness of the company. It means you have to do a lot of work to make them succeed and want to grow there.


Internal entrepreneurs don’t need a lot. They just need to be left alone and told it’s okay. They need to be given some air cover and some resources. Often, the best thing a leader can do is to identify those people and give them the courage and then have their back if they fail. That goes a long way. I think you’re right, companies need more people that recognize it is essential. Not everyone in the company can be that kind of risk taker, but you need a few of them.


H: I think GE is considered to be on the forefront of doing these partnerships and embracing entrepreneurial culture. What would be your advice to people who feel that is something their company should do more of but don’t know how to start?


B: I would say just start. That’s a mantra for me. We can analyze everything to death and do all the ROIs, but at some point, you have to just start. Start small, try a partnership. If you’re a startup, oftentimes you expect the gloryland immediately. But, you need to do the same thing. You need to take a bet on a company, you need to start small, pick one project, be patient and not put your whole business plan on one company. I think both sides – big companies and startups – have to just start.


You need a good leader at the top of the company who believes it’s important. Who is willing to try and fail and to allocate resources. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it shows it is an important idea. Symbolism really matters. You have to allow people to fail and make them heroes. You need to acknowledge that it didn’t work but you still learned and took something away from it. Sometimes you have to take those failures and turn them into wins.


Companies don’t always think this through. They expect to go to Silicon Valley, find a partner and get an incredible outcome. But, it’s really hard. What are you trying to do? If you are trying to just get return, then set up an equity fund. If you’re trying to move your culture, there is a different kind of path. If you’re trying to get strategic insights to the market, there is another way. You first have to decide why you want to partner with startups. Look, we have made a lot of progress, but we have also made so many mistakes. There are going to be so many failures in our portfolio.


H: That’s such a good point to determine what you are trying to achieve and then decide what tool is needed to achieve it. We see people who don’t know if they want to make their existing business better, or if they want to extend into new platforms, or if they want to create a new adjacent business, or if they want to have culture change. They need to just pick one and then find the tool that fits. What are some of the things that you haven’t managed to do yet that you would like to do?


B: I don’t think we’ve spread it as far and wide across the company as we should. I worry sometimes that these things become trendy and then people move on to the next thing. These things take time. Some of our hardest startup partnerships have gone through times when they are not doing well. You have to believe that you are going to get there. So, there are ups and downs. There is tension. We haven’t cultivated it as much in the system. I think about how you incentivise people. You have to start to say to people within your organization,  “Do you believe so much in that idea that you would bet some of your salary on it?”

H: When Mike Volpi, who is now a partner at Index Ventures, was at Cisco he used to tell employees that he couldn’t finance it internally, but he told them to leave, set up their own company with the idea and then if it worked, Cisco would invest in the idea. It might not work, and then they would be out of a job. But, the reality is that a lot of these companies then spun out, made amazing stuff and then Cisco bought them back. Cisco made a lot of entrepreneurs very rich because they basically said, “Put your money where your mouth is and we’ll pay really good money if you succeed.”


B: We have gone so far as to assign Eric Ries and David Kidder as coaches for executives, engineers and sales and marketing people. The points we want to make is that it’s important, they have to make time for it, and we will have someone would hold their hand through the process.


H: That’s funny. We were talking to the McKenzie guys about the idea that a lot of senior executives shouldn’t be mentoring startups, but they should have a young, smart entrepreneur, mentor them.


B: It goes both ways. I think both learn from that pairing. You’re absolutely right.


H: If you’re a startup and want to work with a company, what’s the way in? It seems like people from the outside are protecting the access to someone like you.


B: I see this a lot. I will meet an entrepreneur who thinks they are set because they met the CEO or CMO of some company. I wouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket of any company. Oftentimes the CEO can give you an introduction, but if the people you are introduced to aren’t champions, then forget it. The first thing you need to do is find a champion. You have to do your homework. You have to understand what a pain point is in the company and how you can help solve it. It really is a sales job: “You have a problem, I can solve it. I have a need, you can solve it. Let’s get together.”


More and more companies, like ours, as well as CitiGroup, Walmart and Samsung, are setting up partnership teams. It’s a place for startups to begin. They have filters. First, you have to make sure you are aligned. What you are offering might not be of interest to the company. If I’m a startup, I would ask for clear, crisp communication. Ask if your pitch is good. Ask them to be honest, not just nice. Too often companies are just nice and lead startups on forever. You have to be very clear with a company about your time window. Tell them the deadlines and feedback you need.


There has to be a real honest discussion and not too much magical thinking. Your future is not going to be determined by just one company. I see that a lot, too. Startups often put all their efforts into one company. Instead, head your beats and go to a few different companies. Then, a final comment, in regard to the marketing and brand type of companies. I always say that while our brand team at GE, might not have the biggest budget, we are a really good development partner. So come to us, we want to be creative together. Out of that, you will have a blueprint that you can sell other places. Sometimes it may not be for big bucks, but it is for huge intellectual property that you can go scale. Be clear with what you can get out of the company.


H: I think that makes a lot of sense. A question I always like to ask at the end is: Have you discovered an app or service lately that will make your home screen or that you wish other people knew about?


B: I really like an app called Random that I’ve had for maybe six months. It does a random curation of content. It’s sort of an anti-movement. Also, I’m constantly in search of productivity apps. I’m a lifehacker from way back, so I’m always trying out new calendars and new to-do lists. I haven’t found anything yet, so if anyone has one, let me know.


H: I found one the other day called Captio. It sends an email to yourself. So, instead of opening an email client and having to write your own email address, it does that for you, saving you maybe eight seconds a day.


B: That’s a good one.


H: Final question: As we are beginning this Prehype podcast we are asking people what would be an interesting podcast they haven’t heard yet. What’s a subject matter that isn’t being discussed or somebody who is interesting that isn’t being heard and would make an interesting podcast? Do you have an area that doesn’t get enough air time?


B: Yes, one. I’ve actually started a dinner group and we get together every now and then and discuss philosophy. We look at how ancient wisdom applies to modern life. I think we are all looking for a better way. I’m finding there are a lot of digital entrepreneurs startups that are intrigued by ancient wisdom and philosophy. How do you life a better life? I think that’s a subject that never gets old.


H: And with that, thank you so much for taking the time to hang out.


B: Great questions, thank you.


H: Thank you so much, Beth.


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