“Big businesses are designed for certainty,” says entrepreneur Sam Reid. “All their processes are optimised for that thing they know how to do really well.” This makes sense in a world where companies can plan ahead. But there is very little certainty in a world where whole industries have been disrupted by startups, which dare to do something differently.
Large corporations have reacted by trying to cosy up to startups in the hope that some of the entrepreneurial magic will rub off on them. Banks have set up accelerators in an attempt to find the next big thing in financial technology. KPMG has shipped workers into a freelance co-working space, offering free advice to new businesses. Even John Lewis, the 150-year-old retail giant, has an incubator for startups.
Reid and his business partner, Scott Morrison, the former marketing director for Diesel, now hope to add their venture to the mix. ThinkSprint connects large corporations with hand-picked teams of entrepreneurs to solve specific challenges. It carried out its first trial in May and has several new clients in the wings.
Samsung is one of the companies on the trial. Its European strategy director, Thomas Fawcett, says: “There is so much pressure on global businesses to be more innovative and think like a startup but actually it’s very hard, when most of us have been in global businesses all of our careers, to suddenly change the way we think.”
What is it that entrepreneurs do differently? Reid at ThinkSprint says they always put the users first. “If you are a startup, your whole reason for being is to prove that you’ve got a business model, so you’ve got to design around needs,” he says.
ThinkSprint’s business model is a work in progress. The clients – which include Travelex and Santander – paid a fixed fee to be part of the trial, while the entrepreneurs are paid £100 per hour for their time. Reid and Morrison assembled teams of up to 10 people, sourcing a mix of skillsets to address specific challenges.
They are reticent about where they find their entrepreneurs. “I’m not going to tell you too much about the method because it’s our secret sauce,” says Reid. He was “gobsmacked” by the response when they ran tests at Christmas, which produced around 30 applicants within 24 hours.
Reid says the combination of different disciplines makes it a more efficient way of working. “When you mix skillsets together you get rid of pointless stuff really quickly, because the tech guy says you can’t do that; you sense-check more quickly.”
ThinkSprint uses a market research tool provided by another startup to validate ideas that come out of the session. Reid says: “A philosophy of ours is ‘Good today is better than perfect tomorrow.’ It’s better for us to get something that is good and we test it, validate it, rather than trying to make it perfect and then testing it. Because we don’t spend too long on something before we test it, we can constantly course-correct and then go back again.”
Following the session, the team produce a report of just two or three pages. Morrison says: “From my experience, whenever you went off and did this stuff you’d get 150-page documents back that took six months to be delivered and cost you a load of money. When you’re a [chief marketing officer], or sales director you have this level of information but two minutes with your CEO to sell it in. You need to have the least, most powerful amount of information.”
Some of the challenges clients have set for ThinkSprint are straightforward, operational issues. One focused on increasing registrations to a product over a certain period of time. “Some of it can be quite common-sense based,” says Reid. “It feels like a fresh pair of eyes works really well because you spot things that might have been missed.”
Others are more forward-looking. Fawcett at Samsung says he wanted ThinkSprint to come up with thoughts on how to shake up the shopping experience of one of their traditional product categories. “We were looking at this category thinking it was ripe for disruption. All the different management consultancies weren’t really offering the right solution. We felt it was much more of a startup challenge than a consultancy challenge.”
He viewed the experiment as a way of refining his thinking at an early stage of the project, but adds that it won’t replace the consultancies Samsung already works with. “There will still be an advertising campaign, there will still be different ways of doing things in the shops and I’ll still need specialist agencies for that.”
He was impressed with the results of the trial. “I liked the fact that what they were coming up with was really workable. It brought it to life for people in marketing, logistics and retail. And it was quick; the speed of turnaround is what’s really important, especially in such a fast-moving environment as Samsung.”
The difference in pace between ThinkSprint and the companies it is working with has been one of the trial’s teething issues. Reid says that clients are “really interested in what we’re doing, but you’ve got the inevitable inertia of global corporations; they’re just slow.” Morrison adds that they have refined their processes to take the pressure off the client and speed things up.
Ultimately the pair hope to level the playing field for skilled workers across the globe. “It creates a world where the best people, regardless of age, or location, or sex, can work on the most interesting projects,” says Reid. “The notion that you could be a really smart female coder based in Peru, and get access to work on really interesting projects for people like Samsung.”
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