"In order to create change and really drive Innovation, you have to start with a start-up mindset and be able to move quickly." - Mayra Ceja
Today, I am delighted to welcome Kathy Chill to the show. A business development powerhouse, Kathy spent 10 years at Citrix where she grew the SAAS business from 30 million to half a billion dollars - making Citrix one of the 10 biggest SAAS companies on Earth. But that was just the first act of a distinguished career. Kathy went on to found the awesomely named, Chill Strategic Partners, where she helps companies around the world accelerate time to market. Her clients include everything from early stage startups to established public and private enterprises. She provides both strategic guidance and hands-on operational support to folks launching new products in new markets. Kathy's particularly good at helping clients evaluate and capitalize on new market opportunities - the very core of Corporate Innovation. Kathy, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you. It's great to be here.
Your SAAS experience has placed you on the bleeding edge of digital transformation as enterprises in every industry become software companies. Who do you think has done a particularly good job of this and what are some notable disasters?
I think I'm on the side of, who've done a really good job. A couple big ones really stand out for me. I'd start with Target, actually. If you look at what Target did, they still have their brick-and-mortar stores but they did an excellent job of saying, “Okay, how do we really tailor to people online?” They have not just an app, but I can go ahead and I can order, I can decide if I want to have it shipped to me, if I want to do curbside pickup or go in the store. They even have self service lines and they send recommendations to you and really track your behavior. I think they've been a great leader, you're seeing a lot of other retailers start to follow them in this capacity.
Then Starbucks, again, another big company that pops to mind just with their mobile platform. I think it's been a phenomenal success, especially now during the pandemic. It's so great to know you can place your order, really anything you want, pop in, get what you need. Again, they keep you on track with rewards and those kinds of things. I think we'll start to see a lot more of this going forward.
Agreed about Starbucks, a much imitated app that has improved all of our lives. I think Target though is particularly interesting because Amazon was just an existential threat to their entire model. And they've reacted to it with customer experience that is almost a separate brand from Amazon. Emphasizing quality and that connection to their customer base.
Yeah, I would absolutely agree. I think where they have that advantage is having those physical locations. You now have the best of both worlds.
Yeah, very much so. Amazon is trying to replicate that with these warehouses, but they don't have the store experience. Target is really doubling down on what had always been a strength.
Disasters, I'm not letting you off the hook for this.
I'll start with a couple of big ones. Many of us I think are aware though at this point, you would think about them almost as older companies with how quickly everything's moving. Blockbuster comes to mind immediately. If you think about that people used to go in and get their actual tapes of movies and things they wanted to watch. As the world completely moved to digital, they just failed to capitalize on this opportunity. I mean, they even had an opportunity to buy Netflix for a really great price at the time and they passed on that. I think as we all know they ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2010. Then Borders is another one that comes to mind. Again, these are the kind of retailers but think about how they were so well known in the space, such a phenomenal bookstore and they just completely failed to move to e-commerce. In fact, they were actually outsourcing their online sales to Amazon. They were very slow to embrace e-books and so again, they would be in that disaster category.
Yeah, almost the reverse of the target experience. They were actually a destination retail store. They even had cafes within the stores. But they didn't have that sense of connection to their customer. They were pretty cynical about the book sales. They were by far the most vulnerable of the big chain booksellers to Amazon's incursion and I think they were the first one to lose to it. I sort of feel a personal stake in this as a big reader and I do think that the Borders experience informed the reaction of a lot of the independent bookstores. You see Powell's and even Bookshop.org, this new alliance of independent booksellers coming forward to respond to Amazon in a more original way than Borders was able to do.
You bring up such a good point. I think something that's so important and I'm an avid reader myself is there’s an emotional connection. Borders just completely failed, not only to move to digital, but to embrace that emotional connection. I see even independent bookstores, they create that atmosphere that gives you a sense of loyalty and connectivity and I think they missed that as well.
Yeah, I've raised my kids to understand that the most important piece of a visit to Portland is half a day in Powell’s city of books. One of my proudest parenting achievements.
When you look back on your work in Innovation, what are you proud of?
An experience that really stands out for me is working with one of my SAAS clients. A number of years ago they had a very specific industry focus and we were working together to bring a very Innovative service to the market. It was similar to some of their competitors but we'd figured out a way to do something completely differently that would actually deliver a much better customer experience. It’d also give us a much more viable business model and one that we can really change that would be great for the business as well. But it meant everyone looked at things very differently.
We had to first navigate internally to get everyone to buy into this change and what it could really do and how we needed to think differently. Then I also worked with convincing a strategic partner that we needed as well to embrace a completely new business model, so that we can make this happen. We were tremendously successful in making that shift change internally and then with the partner and bringing something completely new to market and it's been a wild success.
It sounds like the culture shift was the key success factor and the work that you did around persuasion and bringing people on board was the do or die for the project. Is that right?
That is correct.
That's always the toughest sell for me in my work in Corporate Innovation. I call people's corporate immune system a set of survival strategies that have outlived their usefulness. But persuading people to let go of those security blankets, of “This is the way we've always done things.” It’s so challenging and so underrated as a challenge by people who come from engineering or Finance backgrounds who think it's just a matter of emphasizing the numbers.
Can you talk about the persuasion work and what makes it successful and what makes it hard?
Well, what makes it hard is exactly what you said. People are very ingrained in their ways and there is a survival instinct at that point to stick with what works and not to mess with success, if you will. Or to take out of the comfort zone, and if it looks like it could be risky over time, especially as the companies get bigger, they become more risk-averse. Those are the challenges. I think where you can really have success is you have to bring them along on a journey and understand where you're going and not be too abrasive in how you do it. I find it's really important to meet with them, discuss, let them know where you're going, why you're going there, why you think it'll make a very big difference. Then really listen and allow them to share their concerns and what they are most worried about and to be able to acknowledge those and then figure out how we take each of those and maybe overcome those hurdles. I think that makes a big difference. It's about communication and really listening and being open to what they're talking about and then looking at it as almost like individual problems. “Okay, how do we solve that?” But they need to have the vision. Communicating the vision and what can be on the other side is so critical. I saw that even with the partner I was fortunate enough to find, someone in that company to work with who bought into the vision and then helped me champion that vision within her organization and that's how we were able to make it happen.
Looking for those win-win scenarios is so crucial. I see a lot of big corporations that have a command and control structure even when they swallow the poison pill and say, “Oh yes, we must Innovate or die - It becomes an order. A top-down order and people are threatened and coerced into Innovating and it's just not a space where Innovation can flourish. It makes people double down on the defensiveness.
Oh my gosh, that is so true. I mean, that's what the vision’s about. Where you win is when you get people excited, if they feel like they’re being forced to do something, it's natural that they will fight against that. But if you can convince them of what could be and then they get excited as well, then they'll push it along and champion it versus feeling like they have to just do it because they were told to do it. So, we were really able to get people excited about it. In engineering, in product, within the different business groups, and that's what really made the big difference.
I think that ability to convey a vision and to create that excitement and that space for forward movement may be the fundamental defining character trait of successful Corporate Innovators.
A lot of that vision is making sure people can imagine. We took them through imagining what that customer experience would be and why it would be so much better. Then putting them in the shoes of the customer so they could get excited from that perspective and then to get them excited about what it meant for the business model. How that could really generate huge revenue growth for the company and give us some flexibility and even open up new opportunities. That was a lot of what brought the excitement about it. Just letting people really be able to feel and have it be real about where we were going and not just have it be conceptual.
It's coming back to being grounded and customer empathy. The customer in this case is internal to the corporation.
If you have one do-over, if I give you a mulligan and there's one thing in your career you get to do again from scratch, what would you do differently?
It's such an interesting question and I think my initial reaction might be seen almost as a cop-out to say that there are definitely a number of specific situations. I think in hindsight knowing what I know now, I would have done something differently. But on the other hand, I know that those learnings from when I made, perhaps the wrong choice, or a choice I would have done differently it's actually what has helped me to learn so much.
Because those really stick with you. They're so poignant, so it was hard for me to pick a specific thing. I will say more generally, if I could do anything over, I would have started to expand my network and engage with more people much earlier in my career. There's so much to be learned by engaging and listening to others. I really think that's where you get Innovation. Where it sparks from multiple perspectives. I spent too much time earlier in my career, very laser-focused on what I was doing and not really taking in all of that feedback. So if I could do anything over, I think I would do that. I think it would have served me better and I would have moved along more quickly.
Wow, that is such a good one, I'm going to steal it.
As you know, I had the advantage of starting my career as an analyst. At some point, I just put every single professional contact into LinkedIn. This is how I was able to find you again and now I have this extraordinary network of people, who've gone on to do in many cases, just amazing things. Who are old friends, who I could just call and ask for feedback and to bounce things off. I think in my mentoring work I'm going to encourage young people to do that because it feels like my “career” 401K. I started with just a little bit of a network and it snowballed over the years into this very valuable asset for me.
Yeah, absolutely. I love that you said “career” 401K. That's a perfect way to describe it. I think people do need that. When I do meet with people and I do mentorships, I'll always mention that you need to always be out networking and engaging and connecting. Because sometimes I think people feel like you're only supposed to do that if you're looking for a job or you have a specific purpose. To realize that connecting is so important, just for connections sake. Because all of us are at individual points that connect back to something where we all mesh together, and can really help each other. Building that should just be part of what you do on a day-to-day basis.
You end up in a position where you can hire contractors and other people may be between jobs. There's all kinds of ways you can figure out how to work together. These days when I meet someone new and if we have that spark, I sort of bookmark them. Someday I want to figure out a way where we can work together and that's been a really good practice for me, too. What do you think - and we've touched on this a little bit already - but what do you think it is that makes Corporate Innovation the highest level of difficulty for Innovation?
The million-dollar question! And we did touch on it. I think there's a lot of factors that lead to that and you definitely brought out the number one I think of as the survival Instinct. Because when you're starting a company you have to Innovate to survive. That instinct is super strong. But then once you've established your company, that survival instinct is still there. But it shifts, and I think it shifts to protecting what you've already built. Innovation starts to feel like a risk versus survival and it's interesting because that's not really true. We always need to innovate in order to survive. I think it's a natural reaction to want to just hold on. But it kind of goes against what really needs to happen. I think that’s just that the pull to protect is just so strong and it's about figuring out - how do you get people to understand that it's okay, you want to protect what you have but there is a way to have both? You can protect what you have and still Innovate. You really need to figure out a way to do both.
That's another really nice call back to our conversation about Target and about Powell's and the independent bookstores. What made their adaptive strategies successful, where some of their competitors failed, is that they understood the core value that they delivered to their constituency in a very nuanced way. I wonder if we need to start talking about institutional life cycles. We spend a lot of cycles and a lot of communication talking about the startup phase, but there is this maturity phase where you have that unique connection with your customer. You have that very distinctive brand. You have to figure out how to carry that forward through changing conditions and that's a distinct and separate Innovation challenge.
I think we tend not to focus on that. We kind of follow that lifecycle and when you get too mature, we almost act like the story's over. Yet there's a whole new chapter, it's just different and it has its own unique challenges. I think part of that challenge is we change the people that are in the organization through the life cycle to a certain degree. It will tend to bring on people that work better within that more mature environment. That's natural and it makes sense. They really help continue to evolve that company. But I think at the same time, you start to lose some of that personality or DNA that's more around Innovation. I think it's critical for companies to make sure they're keeping a good balance of that.
That the Innovators don't become a very rare person in the company. I think there's a number of ways to do that. Something else I think that gets in the way of Innovation are reward structures within an organization. When the company gets more mature, we tend to reward based on success and we have a pretty low tolerance for failure. Without the ability to fail, the Innovation gets suffocated. I would encourage companies to revisit those reward structures from time to time and make sure that they're thinking about - yes, growth and maturity - but also Innovation. How do you make sure you're incentivizing both within the company?
And we have this over-simplification that very entrepreneurial people end up working in startups and the people who end up working in corporations are much less entrepreneurial. There are all kinds of reasons why someone who had a real entrepreneurial spirit might end up working at a large company. They might need health insurance, they might need stability, they might be supporting a family in another country and sending remittances. I find those people to be the really fertile ground for internal corporate initiatives because they have exactly the right temperament. Circumstances have dictated that they're within this corporation and so if you can speak both languages, if you can teach both languages, the language of innovation and the language of navigating this corporation to that constituency; I think you start to build that intrapreneurial comadre that can make the corporation resilient to change.
Yeah, what I love about that too is I think it would actually draw even more Innovative people into the organization. If that becomes a known culture, by that very state, you're going to bring in more Innovators.
Because another over simplification we have is that startups have good culture and corporations have bad culture. Which as women in the industry you and I know is not always the case because big companies have HR departments and policies, and startups don't. There are a ton of reasons why someone would choose a big corporation over a start-up without it being simply a function of their openness to novelty - which is the entrepreneurial character trait.
That is so true. Yeah, I sometimes find out what organizations do and it's an unfortunate mistake. I'm sure you've probably seen this as well. They may keep Innovation or talk about Innovation, but they treat it, like, a pet project as I like to call it. It's this little project on the side, and they give it some attention, but it never really gets the investment or resources it needs to make an impact. That's an unfortunate thing when that happens.
Well, that's because reintegration is hard and expensive. To some extent you do need to incubate these very early projects, you need to keep them somewhat insulated from the realities of the business. But at some point, they have to go back and start making money. You're right, significant investment is required at some point. You're going to need to scale sales. You're going to need to restructure the sales incentive program. You're going to need to spend big on marketing for this baby product. The returns aren't going to be what you're used to from your big mature projects which are very cost-effective. Growth is costly, this is why venture capitalists spend so much money on it. Without making that commitment corporations are never going to be able to future-proof themselves. It's a hard pill to swallow but it's a necessary one.
How would you distill your experience into, say, two or three lessons for our listeners that they can take away?
I think the first lesson I would say is you really need to listen and observe, and be genuinely curious. I mean, it's genuine curiosity that leads to Innovation. When I think about whatever the situation is, if you're talking to a prospective new customer, if you're talking to a Colleague, if you're working with someone internally - really think about what they're saying and be open to it and be genuinely curious.
I know that when I come into a new company and we talk about - let's say we're validating a new product and seeing if we should bring it to Market. A lot of times, people start with, “How can we make this work?” and I think instead we should ask, “Can we make this work? What are we missing? What are we hearing that could make it even better?” I would say, if you really start from a state of genuine curiosity, you'll learn so much. You learn so much about what you're doing as a business. You'll learn so much about the people around you. I think a lot of times we all do this, we get a little bit focused on what we're working on or thinking about, and it puts us in a little bit of a silo. I'd say that's number one, it will benefit you across the business. But it'll benefit you in life with any dealings you have with anyone.
I think that's so true. Curiosity was my word for the year last year. What I learned was that it's even more important in challenging and difficult times than when things are easy. It's easy to be curious when all of your needs are met and you're basically happy. When there's a global pandemic on and the future is very uncertain, being curious about your reaction to that...I mean, it was a godsend for me last year having decided to take that approach.
Yeah, it's so interesting that you say that. Because for me I spent a lot of time coming out of the shock of it. I think that we were all saying this is an opportunity to step back and really observe, “How am I reacting to this? Why am I reacting that way?” It gives you empathy if you do that too. If you take the time to think about yourself and your own behaviors and reactions, you can step back and be a little bit objective about it. Then it is just a natural thing to say, “Well, if I'm reacting this way, how might that person be reacting under their specific circumstance?” I think a really nice offset of that or offshoot of that is empathy as well, which is so important.
So, curiosity is one. Do you have one or two more lessons for our listeners?
I would say another thing is to have a really defined problem that you want to solve before you dive right into problem-solving mode. I find this a lot actually, especially in working with clients and even in my previous experience within a large corporation. Sometimes we just get so excited and we think we know a problem and we just start diving in how to fix this. It's not uncommon to really step back and realize, “Oops, we were solving the wrong problem.” I always encourage people to step back a little bit.
It's so frustrating once you get in there and you can't figure out why it's not working. Then you realize it's because you went down a completely different path, you really weren't sure. Or you didn't get a buy-in and didn’t make sure we all agreed that we were solving the same problem. I've certainly seen that too. Where we thought we were all together solving the same problem. But when we started talking, we realized everyone, or at least a few people, had a different definition of what the problem was.
It's what makes working with engineers so great and so challenging. Engineers fix things - that's like their fundamental orientation. They're like, yep, we've got some baling wire. We've got some staple guns, we can make this work. Trying to persuade them to be a scientist instead and stare into space and wonder about stars, it doesn't come naturally to them, but it's really important to do that step before you plunge into the fix.
Yeah, I'd say that with the engineers, you really have to navigate that. They are highly, highly trained problem solvers - so they'll jump right in.
How do you think the pandemic might effect corporations longer-term?
I'm actually really optimistic about some of the positive changes that are going to occur as a result of this. One thing I've really observed - obviously it makes corporations have to operate in a very different way and figure out how to support a remote workforce. A hundred percent remote workforce. Not only with technology, but how do I make sure that we're all communicating and I'm keeping a cohesive company culture. A cool thing I've noticed is that I'm seeing corporations really leverage their talent like they've never done before.
They're really asking people for feedback because they can't just see them every day. They are soliciting their opinion more often. I just think this is ultimately going to make companies more successful. I'm hopeful they won't lose this as we all start to head back into the office. If you're fully leveraging your workforce, the Innovation that you can create is phenomenal. It'll improve the company culture and move things more quickly. I think it's just so great for the employees. I think one thing that's really come out is I feel like they have a bigger voice than they've ever had.
An agency is really the factor that makes work enjoyable. Being able to choose what you’re working on and feeling that it's meaningful and that it matters - is I think what draws a lot of us to start up life because everything you put your hands on is mission critical. It gets lost a little bit in a large corporation. So to the extent that you can restore that autonomy to people, you see even very large companies like Facebook and Google giving that agency back to their engineers and the engineers are astonishingly loyal and very fulfilled in their work.
Kathy, with everything you do, how do you personally manage burnout?
For me exercise is key. I just cannot imagine a life without exercise. I love Pilates. I've been doing virtual workouts at home now for almost a year. I also love being outdoors, I feel so fortunate to live in Santa Barbara. Because I can go hiking, you can go to the beach, you can go for walks, you can go for bike rides. I do a lot of work in my yard; so not just gardening, but I'm one of those that I'll get in there and I'll be doing some major restructuring of what's happening on the landscape. It's just so freeing. I feel like when I'm physically active, it's actually a release for the mind and I stop solving and I just be. Then when I go back to work or whatever I'm going to be doing next, I just feel completely refreshed. That's really what keeps me on all cylinders.
I tried pilates for the first time last week. I have to say, usually in an exercise class, I'm watching the clock, I just can't wait until it's over. 20 minutes went by where I was not even thinking about the passage of time and it was such a rare experience for me, I will definitely be going back.
That's fantastic. That's a big part of why I love it so much is that it just takes you to another place. It's hard and so you're having to think about so many things and there's balance and all these other things that are required. It just gives you so much focus on the physical that it's like everything else just just goes away. You're really getting not only - I'd say like a physical rehab - but your brain is getting that as well.
As knowledge workers we live so much like brains in jars. Even more so now that we're working remotely. Restoring that connection with our physical selves is essential.
What is the best way for our listeners to connect or to follow your work?
I think the best way is on LinkedIn. That's probably the number one way or you can go to my website which is Chill Strategic Partners. Both those would be the best spots to go to see what's going on. I'd love to connect as I mentioned, I'm a connector. So I'd love to hear from people.
What does the future look like for you personally?
I absolutely love helping my clients take their products to market. I plan to continue to do this for a long time. I'm also on the board of one SAAS company and I would love to join other boards. When I think about professionally, those are two big focuses for me.
Now a much bigger question - not that your life isn't big. If in five years the industry goes exactly the way that you hope it will, everybody makes good choices. What does tech corporate America look like in 2025? What's your utopian vision of where we could be?
Being that optimist that I am. I envision that agency, as you put it, that we've given to people that we continue to expand upon that. If we look out five years, we're continuing to fully leverage all the creativity and talent of the people that are working with us. That we are fully taking advantage of that, which I think will lead to more Innovation.
Rather than going back to the way we were doing things before, working in silos, I envision that we will be really embracing that culture of leveraging everyone. We are problem solvers at the end of the day, I think we do that so well. I think that will help us continue to make the world a better place. We're going to continue to see that. There is so much focus now on bringing products to the market. That really makes life better, that is for the common good, that is for helping people.
I think we're going to see more and more of that. I think on the other side we're going to see more and more companies where - let's say their product isn't per say, something to help socially - they'll still be figuring out ways to donate a certain amount of revenue, or make sure that their employees are putting a certain amount of time into nonprofit or helping. I think we're only going to see that expand. I just feel like we've really embraced that and perhaps the last year has made us embrace that even more.
Yeah, I think that's true. The achievement of the mRNA vaccines is just so staggering. People were saying it would take four years and it took less than a year. This enormous explosion of creativity around digital health. Then even in the largest corporations, which have built their businesses in fossil fuels or what have you, a real sea level commitment to sustainability and renewables. It's an extraordinary time.
On that front it's super exciting. I feel really excited for what's coming.
Is there anything else I should have asked you that we didn't already cover?
I think a fun question would be, we talked a little bit about what we learned about ourselves during the pandemic. So, here's a silly thing. What's the one silly thing that you learned about yourself?
I'd say, I've learned that chocolate is very important to me. I really had no idea. I found that it was critical to make sure that my dark chocolate supply never fully depleted. I'd say that's the one silly thing I've learned during the last year or so.
The coolest present I got my husband for his big number birthday, which was during the pandemic, was an online tasting from Dandelion Chocolate. Dandelions founded by startup founders. It is a chocolate factory here in the Mission District in San Francisco. We used to go all the time before the shelter in place. But they sent us a box of five single origin, chocolate bars. We all got together on Zoom - like a bunch of other customers. And we tasted the chocolate and we learned from the chocolatiers how it was made, what the different terroirs were, where the chocolate was grown. It increased my enjoyment of that chocolate enormously, having all of that context, having the insight of understanding what the chocolatiers were trying to do with the different single origins. Fascinating, so cool.
That's amazing. I would love that - absolutely love that. I'll have to look into that. It's wine tasting but for chocolate.
Exactly! You can do it from anywhere since it ships. I highly recommend it. I would say it's not a particularly funny thing that I learned about myself. But since I was a kid, I read a book called Emma And I by Sheila Hocken. It’s about a woman who had a guide dog. She had cataracts and talked you through the whole process of getting matched with a guide dog and working with that guide dog. After that, I'd always been interested in getting involved in raising the puppies that go on to become guide dogs. I actually went and did it this year. I attended all of the meetings and I've got a puppy coming to stay with me this weekend and I'm on the list for raising a guide dog puppy. It was a great opportunity to realize long-held ambitions.
Oh, that's so fun. Do you know what kind of dog it is that you will be bringing into your home?
They purposely breed the dogs. We are like 15 minutes from the best guide dog school in the world. They breed them from a mix of Labradors and golden retrievers. They have generational pedigrees going back. They are breeding for very specific kinds of temperament. I've got a friend who's been doing it. She's on her fifth puppy now and she's been supporting me as I go through all of the learning and it's just been a fantastic experience.
Oh, that'll be so much fun! I just love animals so much and dogs are special. Those breeds are so loving- gentle and loving. So that's going to be really fun.
Kathy, it's been a delight having you on the show. Thank you so much for your time.
Well, thank you so much for having me. This has been wonderful. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and it's just just great to see you. It's been an absolute pleasure.
"In order to create change and really drive Innovation, you have to start with a start-up mindset and be able to move quickly." - Mayra Ceja
“Start with the client. You can start a business without a solution, but you cannot start a business without a client.” - Fernanda Bordin
"All you can do is behave the way you expect other people to behave and live your own values and hope that other people see that and are inspired by that." - Jez Humble