“Fail fast, fail often; we try to bring more of this thinking inside the organisation.”

Julia Doll, Senior Manager responsible for the start-up power team at Vodafone GmbH

Corporates need to set up an internal ecosystem before they are ready to work with start-ups

Innoboard: There is no generally accepted definition of innovation. Every industry and every department perceive it differently. How do you define innovation at Vodafone and in your position as Senior Manager responsible for the start-up team?

“The value of an idea lies in the using of it.“ – Thomas A. Edison

Julia Doll: Stating Edison here and transferring this to our business, innovation means to us connecting new ideas with our customers’ needs. Innovation is much more for us than just an invention. It is bringing a new product, service or process to customers in the right way in terms of customer experience and at the right time in terms of market adoption and readiness. Transferring this definition to our start-up team, we focus on identifying the right start-up with the right idea, the right team and the right business model to us within the right timing.

“Everyone is currently looking for an appropriate model to deal with start-ups.” What do you think about this statement? What is the start-up team at Vodafone about and which strategic goal does Vodafone pursue with the start-up team?

I totally agree with this statement. Foremost, it is key for an organisation to think about its objectives and strategic roadmap, when dealing with start-ups. Why does the organisation would like to work with start-ups? What is its ambition? What might be the most suitable way for my own organisation to approach start-ups? There is no “one fits all” rule when dealing with start-ups. I am moreover convinced that every organisation needs to find its own way. However, beforehand it is key to have a strategy and a clear methodology outlined which makes it also easier for the start-up to understand you.

Within Vodafone, the work of the start-up power team is one pillar of our innovation strategy. Through cooperation with start-ups, can either be a technology or a distribution partnership, we aim to bring more external innovation inside Vodafone. In clear distinction to most other corporates we don’t do any financial investments in start-ups. We are convinced that our distribution network in consumer as well as enterprise, our technology centres across Germany as well as our experts in different areas will help start-ups we are looking for alike or even more appropriately.

What are the three biggest barriers in a cooperation between a big company and a start-up? How do you deal with potential problems at Vodafone?

The biggest barriers are

  1. Clear objective: First of all, it starts with a clear mission statement of the company’s strategic objectives why they would like to work with start-ups and what do they expect. Based on this mission statement, clear process and structures can be set-up internal, transparency and clear communication rules will be ensured to the outside. In parallel, corporates need to understand not only the mentality of founders, their needs but also the differences in working habits and forms. To sum it up, start-ups need partners that are fast, simple and reliable.
  2. Missing ecosystem: It needs good preparation and internal education before a corporate is ready to work with start-ups. Corporates need to set up an internal ecosystem. That requires all departments being affected by the work with start-ups (legal, purchase, testing, marketing, integration teams) need to be informed about the plans and prospected changes when dealing with start-ups. It is fundamental to have a direct contact person in each department for the operations later on.
  3. Central point of contact linking both worlds: It needs one direct contact person within the corporate who guides both parties, the start-ups as well as the business unit, through the whole process. This contact person acts as a membrane, bridging both worlds. For the start-ups this contact person is tremendously helpful guiding it through the whole process of different business units within a big corporation.

How does the cooperation with start-ups influence the innovation culture at Vodafone?

Internally we have a claim for the work with start-ups, we call this “make a bet”. We don’t know whether the start-up fits to Vodafone, whether our consumers accept the product, or whether it is the right timing for go-to-market. One main aspect of innovation culture and our work is the “acceptance of failure”. Definitely, the failure rate compared to our daily business is higher and not predictable. But as the mantra for Silicon Valley stated it: “fail fast, fail often”, we try to bring more of this thinking inside the organisation.

This results in a “trial and error” mentality. We always define a pilot phase when working with start-ups. During this period, we run tests in our innovation park labs or conduct customer surveys in order to achieve first indications for a market readiness or feasibility. After the pre-defined pilot phase, we decide together with the relevant business unit whether we see potential in a long-term cooperation with the start-up and to integrate the product or the technology in our portfolio.

Networking, sharing knowledge and experience is key in this environment – it’s a people business. One incremental part of our work is to have a large network within the organisation, bridging people and departments. It is also during the pitch of a start-up at our campus, in discussions about upcoming trends but also detecting what great innovations we already have, but don’t talk about. That is the contribution from the start-up team to foster innovation culture.

What are the biggest trends in the telecommunication industry, and how will they influence Vodafone?

New developments in technologies, the digitalisation of all industries and the entry of smart and intelligent services in our customers’ daily life are already happening. These changes will first of all influence the telecom industry, but as technologies are more and more converging these trends will impact all industries in the near future.

The Internet of Things is a good example for this development. The combination of sensors and actors with big data will enable countless new business opportunities, some of which we already have a clear picture, and a lot of which today we have no idea. Smart Cities with intelligent traffic management, smart energy solutions enabling intelligent energy management and self-driving cars will become reality within the next few years.

All these developments need reliable, high quality connectivity with maximum bandwidth and lowest latency. At Vodafone we are already working on these 5G technologies, in cooperation with the best universities and the experts from different leading high-tech companies. One of the most exciting developments in the last 15 years in my perspective – and we are part of it!

 Thank you very much for this interview!

About the interviewee:

Julia Doll is Senior Manager at Vodafone GmbH and responsible for the start-up power team and the associated tasks to screen & scout appropriate start-ups for a potential cooperation with Vodafone. Julia Doll was previously project lead for the mobile Wallet at E-Plus Mobilfunk GmbH within the Strategic Business Development. She started her career at PwC in the business development practice and focused on foresight research and scenario planning for strategy consulting.