Post on HBR: How an ecosystem mindset can help people and organizations succeed

Here’s something I wrote for Harvard Business Review back in May, thought I would cross-post here.

Greg Gopman has had an interesting two and a half years. In December 2013 he was an up-and-coming young San Francisco entrepreneur and CEO of an incubator, when he posted an offhand comment on Facebook about homelessness in his city. In part, he wrote:

In other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay.

Gopman’s post quickly went viral, was blogged about endlessly at media sites such as Gawker’s now-defunct Valleywag, and he became a poster child for everything wrong with the tech industry in the Bay Area. Overnight, his career came to a complete standstill.

But what Gopman did next was the interesting part: he threw himself at the task of actually trying to fix the homeless problem in San Francisco with the typical zeal of a startup entrepreneur.

See the full article on HBR here.

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What the New York Times — and all big companies — need to stay alive and grow over the next 20 years

(Note: this post originally appeared on Medium, and it later evolved into a new piece on Harvard Business Review.)

I worked at The New York Times from 2013 to 2015. My job there was to lead a team in the creation, launch and development of a new revenue-driving product that would help restore growth to the company’s bottom line — which as everyone in the world knows, has been struggling along with every other bottom line in the newspaper industry since practically the advent of the web.

My two years there was fascinating. Prior to The Times I had spent most of my career at startups — starting off as a front end coder, gravitating towards strategy, and ultimately co-founding companies. So The Times was a wild trip for me. I learned so much — about how big companies work, how to play the so-called political game, how to properly manage teams, and how to manage upwards and laterally — something you rarely think about at startups. And I believe we got a lot of worthwhile things done while I was there.

What we didn’t get done however was to launch products that grew new revenue for the company, despite a lot of effort, a lot of money spent, and an awful lot of gnashing of teeth. One year after launching the much-vaunted new products from the Times, two of the three paid products had been spun off as free offerings meant to attract new audiences, the third had been killed outright, and the focus of the company had moved on from launching new products in order to grow revenue, to deepening audience engagement.

The Times, in the span of a few years, took a big swing at being a company that can innovate successfully, missed, and then quietly moved on to the next thing.

But you can’t move on as a big company in today’s world — you have to keep swinging, or else you’ll be out of business, done in by all of the Buzzfeeds circling overhead — or whoever is the equivalent in your industry.

So what should the Times be doing to successfully innovate its way out of the obsolescence and financial doom that looms in the not-too-far-off future? The solution is actually fairly straightforward. It’s the same recipe for every big company, by the way — which makes it nice and tidy, though not necessarily any easier for anyone to implement. Broadly speaking, there are three things they need to do:

1. Train (or hire) employees to think like entrepreneurs

The Times knows they need employees who think like entrepreneurs. They knew this before I started there — that’s why they hired me in the first place. Most companies these days know this, have heard it, believe it. But there’s a vast difference between knowing and doing. How do you implement the “entrepreneurial employee” strategy effectively on the ground? It’s tricky, to say the least. The Times, after hiring me for my entrepreneurial instincts, immediately began instructing me to be less entrepreneurial. The more entrepreneurial I was, the more I clashed with the way things were done.

So the question here is: how do you overcome the overwhelming big company tendency to want to put everything into a tidy, square peg management hole, stifling entrepreneurial impulses in the process?

The solution, whatever else it is, has to be systemic — you need a CEO who deeply understands the value of entrepreneurial thinking, managers who do the same, and a culture that is not just tolerant but supportive of it. It’s not enough to bring in a few outsiders, or train a few employees to create a crackerjack team — without broader understanding, those people will only create chafing within the larger organization.

2. Train (or hire) Senior executives to think like VCs

Okay, so let’s say the NYT figures out how to hire and really support entrepreneurial employees so that they thrive and are not pushed into square holes. That’s great. But it’s not enough. That’s only one half of the equation. The other half is that you then need senior execs who think like VCs and can evaluate opportunities in the same way VCs do — understanding when to fund, when to pass, when to cut, when to accelerate, when to hold. The Times didn’t know this when I got there, but by the time I left they were beginning to get an inkling of it (I certainly played as big a role as I could in making them aware of it). They didn’t really grasp it fully though.

These execs can’t just be SVPs with a pet interest in new ventures and a friend who works at a VC firm. They have to be really trained to see things from the VC perspective and to have VC instincts.

Once you’ve got entrepreneurial employees AND a team of senior execs who think like VCs, then you’re in business. And the next step is to create a portfolio of new products, and evaluate them by growth and revenue potential, using the same metrics VCs use, and green light or red light them according to how they perform at regular intervals.

Note that I said portfolios. It doesn’t work to do this sort of thing with anything less than a full portfolio of products. In Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker suggests companies plan and develop three times as many new products as they eventually want to see succeed. So if you want 3 successful new products in 2016, you’d better be developing 9 along the way. That feels about right to me. The Times, by contrast, came up with three ideas, put all of their eggs in those baskets, and then watched helplessly as none of them panned out, financially.

As with #1 above, the problem arises: once you know this, how do you do it successfully? The Times was not doing it successfully, last I saw.

And again, there is no simple answer, but I think it starts with training and changing mindsets. I think you train senior management deeply in the VC arts. You embed them in your favorite venture firm for six months. You hire from Andreessen Horowitz. You really mix up the culture at the top. Anything less feels like playing games, and will end badly.

3. Build a company that acts like an ecosystem, not like an organism.

The Times doesn’t know this yet. And most other companies don’t either. But it’s the third thing companies need to do in order to successfully innovate and grow into the future.

Organisms are how most big companies think of themselves. They are bounded entities, with (generally) non-porous boundaries delimiting inside and outside. What’s on the inside stays on the inside, what’s on the outside stays on the outside. The only way to get new ideas, new DNA, inside is to ingest them.

Ecosystems by contrast are boundless, constantly able to grow, absorb new entities, adapt, react, transform. They don’t absorb new ideas/DNA/value by ingesting, but by adding new components at the edges of the network. And when they do that, they create new value for the whole ecosystem.

When you adopt this model of company, your mindset shifts from one of stasis punctuated with occasional absorption events (i.e. we hire someone from a competitor, we acquire a team, we get acquired ourselves) to a mindset of fluid new value creation marked by continual change and growth. Instead of acqui-hiring someone to ingest their DNA, you partner with them to create one larger network/ecosystem that grows value for both entities.

That last part is still over the horizon for most companies. It will begin to come into focus for them soon.

When you stand back and add this all up, what it spell out is that successful companies in the future will need to look a lot less like the companies they are now and a lot more like…

The startup ecosystem.

Which makes perfect sense when you think about it: the startup ecosystem is something that organically arose in a few short years to take advantage of new opportunities for growth. It has proven to be the best thing out there for that purpose. It’s only fitting then that it would become a model for all new growth in this era.

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A Few Posts From The Archives

Since I’m not actively posting to the blog right now, I thought it might be interesting to point any drive-by visitors to a few posts from days gone by.

There’s a lot more where these came from, and you can use the “Older posts” link at the bottom of the page to check them out if you want.

Let’s Talk About the Real ‘Taxi of Tomorrow’ – a post from 2011 (just 3 days before Uber closed its A round, it turns out) calling out the City of New York on it’s “Taxi of Tomorrow” campaign, claiming that new startups coming into the market would solve user problems of cab riding much better than the city’s own efforts. Near the end I say, “what we think of as “taxis” will be a lot different from what it is now in the space of just a few years.” Boy, that turned out to be truer than I ever would have guessed at the time.

Want to Revolutionize City Traffic? Open a Cafe In Your Neighborhood – another post from around the same time.

Note: There is a LOT of Money in the Local Web – a post from 2010 in which I talk about how much value is locked up in the local web, and suggest bootstrapping location-based efforts because VCs weren’t really ready to put money into them at the time. Again, I couldn’t foresee how much that would change in the space of five years. (Has it already been five years? That’s crazy.)

That’s all for now. Enjoy.

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A Quick Update On Me For The Blog

Anyone visiting this blog can see I’m not making an effort to meet any sort of schedule for posting to it. I post when I see a reason to do so, and when that reason disappears I stop writing. You get a burst of posts close together on a topic for a while, then nothing for a while more. It’s been going on like that for years. It works fine for me, and I think it works fine for those reading, too.

Anyway, it’s been so long between those bursts that I thought I should post a quick update here, for anyone who happens to be driving by.

First, I left the New York Times a while back. I had a great two years there as Director of New Products, felt like I made a contribution, and learned a ton during my stay, but it wasn’t ultimately the right fit for me long-term. I am currently making my way through the world of new ventures again, which is where I really want to be. That’s where my ideas are, where my instincts are, what I find exciting, and where I believe I add the most value. And since I left The Times I’ve felt like I’m coming back into my own natural space. I can’t say enough good things about the people at The Times – super smart, super dedicated, totally team-oriented people. But of course hindered by all of the challenges of being a big company, as well as dealing with the headwinds of being a legacy media company in an era when legacy media has been totally disintermediated and disrupted. That’s a tough spot to be in. I could go on endlessly on this, but ’nuff said.

Next, I’ve been working lately with the “venture development firm” Prehype as Entrepreneur in Residence, helping them come up with exciting ideas for new ventures with various partners. They are a great bunch, really smart, fun to work with, and a perfect place to transition from working at a big, slow company back into the world of small and fast. And I’ve been learning a lot from them about how to create, build and evaluate new ventures quickly and without fanfare. They do it continuously, so they are good at it. I’ve already learned much I can apply elsewhere, and am already applying lessons from them to my own ideas.

Which brings us to the last part of the update: I’m also working on something of my own that I’m pretty excited about, and bringing some others in on it too. But it is way too soon to post anything about it here. If it crosses a certain threshold I will post about it, if not I won’t.

So that’s the update for now. I probably won’t post again here for a (long?) while, as my focus right now is much more on execution than on writing. At some point maybe I’ll see some reason to start blogging about something again, and you’ll see more posts from me here. Until then, enjoy the archives, and feel free to say hi to me at john at johngeraci dot com.

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Looking At New Product Ideas At The New York Times

I’ve been talking to people around the organization this week and last about their great ideas that could become possible new products for the New Products team here at The Times.

First, let me say that this is so much fun and such useful stuff for me and for the organization, I could be happy continuing to doing this on a part time basis forever.

But what I wanted to talk about is how useful, and how essential, it is to examine lots of very different ideas simultaneously like this whenever you’re thinking about possible new products.

One idea by itself will always seem like a great idea. How could it not? Compared to nothing, it is something – and something always looks better than nothing. It’s only when you put an idea next to multiple other ideas and compare them along different axes – potential market size, risk factors, costs, etc – that the ideas and the opportunities they represent really start to come into focus. Each opportunity becomes like a 3-dimensional model whereas before it was 2-d at best.

When I was in grad school at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, inventing and launching new ideas for each class I took, most of my classmates would seize on the first idea they came up with and turn that into their class project. I always thought that was crazy. I liked to come up with five ideas, totally different, one after another, put them side by side and see which one stood out from the rest. Or maybe blend a few together to get a new idea. And invite all my my friends and family to weigh in on the process as well. That’s still the method that I’m convinced works best for new product ideation.

When you think about it, the decision that will have the single biggest impact on the eventual success of your product is the the very first decision you make – the decision about which opportunity or idea to focus on in the first place . That’s the point of maximum leverage, maximum flex. It’s all increasingly incremental from there.

Which is all to say: this is a fascinating and worthwhile process, and I think it’s going to lead to good things.

(Also: if you have an idea, and we haven’t met, reach out to me – I want to hear from you.)

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What Does Your Company’s Innovation Portfolio Look Like?

When people talk about innovation, they usually have one particular idea in mind. And that idea depends on who they are and what their function is in their organization.

But there are of course many kinds of innovation, all the way from enacting best practices (I consider that a kind of innovation if your organization is lacking them) to incremental and sustaining innovation, to new market innovation, up to to disruptive innovation.

Rather than seeing your company through the lens of one particular kind of innovation at any given time, organizations need to see themselves as having an innovation portfolio. They need to be aware of all of these different kinds of innovation, what the returns can (and can’t) be on them, what the costs are, and what the risks are. Once you begin to see innovation as a portfolio, you start to realize you need a bit of something in each one of those slots at all times, and you think about how to structure your bets. You may re-balance the portfolio (and you should periodically to reflect your current needs and appetite) but you always keep your resources spread.

We at The Times tend to focus most of our energies at any given time on one aspect of innovation. We’re kind of an all-in type organization. I suspect a lot of companies are like this. It tends to create a lot of energy and focus, which can be exciting, then an “everybody on to the next thing” vibe when that focus starts to change.

If you think about that from the context of a portfolio though, that’s the equivalent of putting most of your money on a single stock or bond, hoping for the best, and then moving that money on to another stock at some point down the line. Not the best strategy.

What’s the answer? Diversify, stay diversified, understand what each part of your portfolio can and can’t get you, and understand how all of those pieces add up to more than the sum of their parts. And if it turns out they don’t, re-balance.

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Where Do Good Ideas Come From At The New York Times?

I’m doing a bit of work currently indexing the ideas that have been floating around the organization here at The Times, to see if they’d make sense as possible future new products. Yesterday I wrote about the question that always pops up when you do this, of “should new ideas be a top down or bottom up thing?

This morning I woke up with a broader question in mind: where do ideas come from at The Times? How do they emerge, take shape, become good? And how could we enable that, supercharge it, and bake it into the company permanently?

I’m lucky because my friend Steven Johnson has written a book about this exact topic (about the world, not about The Times), called Where Good Ideas Come From. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to download it tonight and have a look.

My guess though knowing Steven is that his answer, at the highest level, would be that good ideas aren’t the product of a lone genius who gets struck by a bolt of inspiration, but are rather the product of dense and open networks of people, with ideas getting passed freely from one to the next. Some ideas get improved upon as they move, some get discarded, some are totally useless to one group but the perfect answer to another group’s biggest problem, etc.

That squares with my own gut feeling about ideas, which is why in addition to talking with people about the existing ideas that have already been registered, I’ve started setting up lunches with small groups from disparate parts of the organization to have open, unscripted, low-stakes talks about their new ideas. I had my first yesterday with a few folks around “what’s your most dangerous idea?” and some very good things came out of it.

I’m going to read Steven’s book as soon as I’m done with my current read, Zero to One, and will report back here on how it relates to new product ideation at big companies. My bet though is that the best ideas for future new products at The Times are going to come from good, open networks and a lot of cross pollination.

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New Product Ideas: Should They Come From The Top Or The Bottom?

When you talk with people about ideas for new products, one question comes up repeatedly: where do ideas for new products come from?

Often this quickly gets boiled down to: should ideas come from the top, i.e. the executive offices, or should they come from the bottom, i.e. the people actually working on the product, making the product, contributing to the product day in and day out?

Not surprisingly, you often (but not always) get a different answer depending on who you’re talking to. Some people would have the top run the show (a “top down” system of new product ideation), other people would have the bottom run the show (a “bottom up” system of new product ideation).

My take on the question is this: you need everyone to have meaningful input into the new product ideation process for the best results. More specifically, and more importantly, you want people to give input according to their strongest area of expertise. And critically, you don’t want people running part of the show that is not their strongest area of expertise.

Executives are of course very good at seeing the broad visions of strategy and opportunity. They see where the company has to go to grow, get market share, fend off competitors. That’s what they focus on, and that’s crucial. That, by itself though, isn’t a product idea, it’s a direction for product. And a direction by itself is not a successful new product – in fact a direction that doesn’t come tightly bound with a real user need can be a recipe for disaster.

By contrast people who work on the products all day long often see real problems for users, and have ideas for better ways of doing things as a result – real product ideas that could satisfy user needs. The problem here is that these ideas can be mismatched with the overall strategic needs of the company. Sometimes these real solutions are solutions to problems that aren’t actually big enough to be worth solving – the ROI wont be there. Or sometimes they will lead the company down a path it ultimately would be better off not going down.

If either one of these groups leads the way too much or overpowers the other, you end up with new products that miss their mark. If the groups work together well on the other hand, you get new product ideas that tap into user pain points and also perfectly meet the strategic needs of the company. That’s what you want of course.

Getting there is tricky. There’s always the temptation on all sides to want to control the show, and a general feeling that “we know what is best”. The best organizations though are able to overcome that temptation and create a real, functional feedback loop between top and bottom for the best possible new product creation. That’s the culture companies like The Times should work on creating.

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Making It Easier To Say Yes / Making It Easier To Say No

Here’s a fact about starting new products within companies: it’s hard to say yes to them initially, but then once they do get started, it’s equally hard to say no to them, to keep them from growing and taking up ever more resources.

This is all due to uncertainty – there’s always a ton of uncertainty around any new idea, and uncertainty works to maintain status quo. If a new idea hasn’t gotten a green light, maybe it’s safer not to green light it. If that idea is already started, maybe safer just to keep it going.

That’s exactly the opposite of the environment you want though. What you want is an environment where it’s easy to say yes to new ideas – easy to get them started – and then also easy to say no – easy to stop them, or not give them more budget – if they aren’t proving out.

There are three things that make it easier for you to say yes and say no to new ideas. They are:

1. Measurable goals

2. Timeboxing

3. Competing ideas

Measurable goals – if you have stated concrete, measurable goals for every new product you’re considering, that becomes the milestone by which you can then judge that idea. For an initial “yes” the milestone must be significant/worthwhile yet also plausible. And then of course hitting goals or not hitting them gives you the basis you need for saying yes or no easily at varying points down the road.

The goals have to be set, written out, and agreed on by all in advance.

Timeboxing – setting firm start and end dates to the effort – allows any idea to keep from creeping along indefinitely. It creates a finite runway for achieving those goals. If a new idea doesn’t achieve the stated goals within the stated time, that makes it easy to say no to continuing to fund it.

Competing ideas – without other ideas waiting in the wings to get a green light for resources, points one and two above have no teeth. Product ideas that miss their target, or overshoot their runway, tend to keep going because there’s just nowhere else to put that budget. Having competitive ideas vying for that budget keeps the pressure on those new products to meet those goals within those timeboxes.

When you get this all set up right, it’s easy to say yes and easy to say no to ideas at the right time and sleep easy at night, confident that you’re making the right choices. That’s what you want in any new product environment.

When it’s not set up right, uncertainty prevails, and status quo sets in for good. And that’s the death of new ideas.

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Disruption: When You’re The Incumbent

I came across this snippet about disruption and incumbents yesterday on Andreesen-Horowitz’s blog.

It feels strange for me to be approaching the idea of disruption from the position of “incumbent”, but there you have it – I work at The Times. And the fact is, when you are an incumbent your relationship to disruptive innovation needs to be different than when you are seeking to be the disruptor. So I found this to be particularly insightful, and something for us at The Times to think about. See full piece on “The Four Stages of Disruption” here.

When you’re the incumbent, your key decision is to choose carefully what you view as disruptive or not. It is to the benefit of every competitor to claim they are disrupting your products and business. Creating this sort of chaos is something that causes untold consternation in a large organization. Unfortunately, there are no magic answers for the incumbent.

The business team needs to develop a keen understanding of the dynamics of competitive offerings, and know when a new model can offer more to customers and partners in a different way. More importantly, it must avoid an excess attachment to today’s measures of success.

The technology and product team needs to maintain a clinical detachment from the existing body of work to evaluate if something new is better, while also avoiding the more common technology trap of being attracted to the next shiny object.

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