Digital transformation specialist Regine Haschka-Helmer started her career in the early 1990s at I-D Media AG, one of the fastest growing digital agencies in Europe. After being named chief operating officer she managed I-D Media’s initial public offering in 1999 and became the youngest woman to be added to the managing board of a German public listed company. She went on to become the company’s CEO and to setup and manage international subsidiaries in London and Vienna. After leaving I-D Media Haschka-Helmer began investing in and advising European startups. She also started helping corporates from a wide range of industries develop their digital strategies. In 2010 she founded Seedlab in Berlin which focuses on helping large companies with digital transformation processes and digital business development.Clients include SBB, Switzerland’s national railway, Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway, Volkswagen’s Financial Services group and companies in the e-health, real estate and energy sectors. Haschka-Helmer is a lecturer at the HWZ (Economic University) in Zurich and a member of the IOTA Foundation, which is building a backbone based on blockchain technology for the so-called Internet of Things, applications that connect to the Internet everything from factory floor machines to home appliances and humans. She recently spoke to the Innovator about what big corporates should think about when planning their digital transformation and which mistakes to avoid.
How and why did you start consulting corporates on digital transformation?
R.H.H. : When I started working with startups I saw they had a totally different approach to innovation than my corporate customers. Startups know how to go to market very fast. Big corporates on average were spending three years developing new products and services and they often lost a lot of money because at the end they would discover that it didn’t work. They needed to learn how to do rapid prototyping and to connect with startups. That is why I founded Seedlab in Berlin. Our goal to identity pain points and new ideas and products and services connected to customer’s needs. We help corporates connect with startups, develop an innovation roadmap and new business models.
Can you cite some examples?
R.H.H. :We worked with SBB, the Swiss railway, over two years. We helped them establish a digital department, called SBBdigital and worked on a lot of projects. For example, parking near train stations is expensive and limited in many places. We helped them develop a peer-to-peer parking app that allows people who live near the stations to rent out their parking spaces when they are at work or away. With Volkswagen Financial services we are looking at new ways to finance cars and buy insurance. We scout trends and technologies and new services and new business models and also screen the startup market in a strategic field. During the innovation process we decide how the startup should get engaged with new startups. Sometimes it is better for the corporation to own a startup, sometimes it makes sense that they create products together.
What are some of the most frequent mistakes corporates make when working with startups?
R.H.H.: A lot of corporations are turning to accelerators to solve all their problems and make them more innovative. It is never going to happen. Accelerators are like an island. They are good for learning and getting in touch with the startup scene, but not for transforming the core of your company. Corporations need to first define what they want to change internally and their strategic needs.
So what does work?
R.H.H. I tell my corporate clients that if they are only working with startups they will not become more agile or innovative. You need a dedicated team — you need a product manager who will work closely together with startups. A lot of time it is a question of integration and communication. A lot of corporates have accelerator programs and hire people to manage the accelerator. These people are not connected to the core of the company so when suddenly the accelerator asks someone from a department to work with a startup they refuse because they don’t have the time or incentive to do that. A lot of corporates are organized like silos so you have to involve the department responsible for the asset from the beginning.
Many corporates assume that all they have to do is buy a certain technology or startup but successful implementation of innovation often requires radical changes in the way companies operate. How can corporates best make change management part of the equation?
R.H.H.: Start with the people. It has to come from the top down. If you don’t have a CEO and top managers who understand the importance of digital transformation, it isn’t going to work. It is also about company culture. If you don’t have a company culture which enables trial and error, which allows people to try something and fail, then the company can not handle innovation. Incentives and personal bonuses connected to personal achievement are also key. The company needs to set goals and the bonuses of individual people need to be connected to them. Design thinking — training your staff and your managers –to be customer centric is also very important. In our innovation process we focus on co-creation. We mix teams internally with different departments and we mix them up with entrepreneurs, experts and creative people from the outside. We create teams that are half internal and half external and we let them work to identify opportunities. We also bring in potential customers and investors to give a different perspective and help shape new ideas.
Q: What are three key pieces of advice that you would give to big corporates grappling with digital transformation?
R.H.H.: Start defining a digital strategy and by this I do not mean ask McKinsey to come in and do a one year study. I want my corporate clients to think about it, to be clear on what are the targets and what they want to achieve. Then they have to enable transformation internally, both through a clear strategy and through the company culture. When they have done that groundwork then their organization will be prepared to work with startups. And finally I would say corporates need to take disruption more seriously. This morning I was leading a workshop with big corporates at a conference and I was struck by how much they underestimate the effect of disruptive technology. They think nothing will touch them. They should take it more seriously and spend more money to explore these technologies. A lot of corporates take a wait and see attitude and think ‘I’ll buy it later.’ This is a big mistake. Corporates have the responsibility to support new technologies and startups and bring more money into the market. Delaying is very dangerous — those that do are likely to learn a painful lesson.