AlchemistX: Innovators Inside

E.10 - Laura Merling: Driving the Future

Published on

July 23, 2021

"No matter what you're selling, who you're selling to, or what you're making it for, you have to think about who the buyer is. What do they look like today? And what do they look like tomorrow?" - Laura Merling

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Show Notes

Rachel Chalmers:

Today I am delighted and honored to welcome Laura Merling to the show. Laura is the digital transformation officer Automotive for Google. Before joining Google, she was Managing Director and Chief Digital Officer for Slalom, providing business and product strategy to multi-billion dollar companies in technology, transportation, energy, cpg, retail, healthcare, and education. She served as Chief Digital Officer for Collins Aerospace and Vice President, Digital Products for Ford and AT&T.
Laura, thank you so much for being on the show. 

Laura Merling:

Well, thank you for the invitation.

Rachel Chalmers:

It's always great to catch up. 
Your experience in Corporate Innovation has covered everything  from phones, to cars, to satellites. Are there any common threads across the work you've done with these multinationals? 

Laura Merling:

There are a few common threads.  First,  the primary business problems, regardless of industry, are similar.  And sometimes, they are related - as you can see from my career path. From software, to telecom, automotive and then aerospace.  Innovation happens around industry convergence.
And usually the opportunities are tied to creating new customer experiences, new revenue streams, and sometimes cost reduction. The scale might be different but the opportunities to innovate are similar.
But what I find the most interesting across large multinationals is, there's a common notion around, “How do you define Innovation?”. Consistently large corporations tend to start by defining innovation as “a culture of innovation”. They believe It's 90% culture. That was quite interesting because when you think Innovation, I think new products and new revenue. And the first thing that comes to mind for large corporations is, “How do they change their culture?” 

Rachel Chalmers:

Both are really good points. We replaced our Miele oven a few years ago and the thing is entirely programmable. So much so that my husband and I have taken to calling it “The Hot Computer”. And then, of course when we renovated our house, we didn't even opt for a particularly smart house, but it's got all of these controls and all of these digital interfaces. So, it really is true that these electronics have gotten into every aspect of our lives and intelligence as well. 
But your point about culture is even more interesting. In the work that I do with these multinationals, the challenge is really sitting down with engineers who have these very deep specialties, and reintroducing them to the idea of being a generalist. And being able to talk to a customer and find common ground and share insights on how to solve a problem. 

Laura Merling:

Yeah, well I think it is interesting. Once they realize what they can get from talking to a customer, it is an absolute change of mindset. A change of how they think about going to market. Of how they think about defining products or services for that matter. But the culture piece is interesting because it's not just the engineers, it's the whole Corporation rethinking what Innovation means. It's a whole mindset across everyone. I was in a meeting talking to a group of folks that were traditionally a business to business company. But in their business to business, their business partner sells to consumers. 
I was having this whole conversation around, “Are you thinking about the whole process all the way through?” I said, “Are you thinking about the consumer?” They said to me, “Well, we don't sell to consumers.” To which I said, “But you do!”

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah. 

Laura Merling:

So getting them to think about, them needing to go talk to that person or take into perspective the persona of an end consumer versus their business to business buyer. It was just a different viewpoint for them. 

Rachel Chalmers:

It's one of the challenges of training people to be more intrapreneurial because it's contrary to a lot of the survival skills that they learn in traditional large enterprises. One of the things I think Google, Facebook, and Netflix have done really well is reward those T-shaped skills. The ability to think broadly as well as deeply. But in a more traditional resource-extraction company or a manufacturing company, you present work that is as perfect as possible the first time you present it because you don't get a second chance. And so this idea of iterating and getting outside your comfort zone is very frightening. 

Laura Merling:

It is frightening. But I have seen that also taken to an extreme sometimes. So you might iterate, and then when do you stop iterating? When do you decide that either something is not going to work or you're done with it? 
A lot of times in the early days of Innovation, like when I was at AT&T when we first established the foundries. You'd have these projects that would have a life, a long life, that really weren't making any progression in the market, with customers, or with other business units. At some point, what do you do with that thing? So it's a mindset but then there's also a balance of asking yourself as you're working on it, “How do you know when to stop? How do you know when to recycle it?”

Rachel Chalmers:

The sunk cost fallacy is real and it's very emotional. It's hard to kill projects. We put so much of ourselves into the work that we do that to admit failure on that scale is hard. And it is really one of the perverse strengths of the valley that you're allowed to fail many times. But it's definitely a perverse strength because the downside is that people fail over and over again. 

Laura Merling:

Yeah. But at the same time, you learn so much from failure. If you don't fail, you don't learn. And we all fail, right? Nobody's perfect. And so, part of it is, “What do you walk away with from it? That's a big mindset. 
I remember a similar story. When I was at AT&T writing this large transformation team, the first thing we did was when we were running our agile processes, we were actually putting all the information about where we were relative to points up on these TV monitors above every team. And all of a sudden, they were shutting off the televisions. They didn't want transparency. Nobody could know that they might be behind, or that they might need help, or that their price per story point, was way more than the other teams price per story point. It was like, “You guys know that the transparency is there so we can help each other where we know where the gaps are and where the challenges might be? It was also like, “If you don't know that there's a problem, you can't help solve it.” So there's a bit of that too. 
There's a whole fear factor in everything. That is what people put into the bucket of Innovation around culture of development, software development, and new product Innovation. 

Rachel Chalmers:

It dovetails with that idea of the fixed versus growth mindset. In Corporates, a lot of the time you're judged for who you were when you walked in the door and any development has to be proved and documented a thousand times. But in startups we’re like, “We need someone to do marketing. Go and do marketing until you can't do it anymore.” There's this sort of fundamental assumption that you try and maybe it'll work. 

Laura Merling:

I was thinking back to your statement about the broad versus the deep T. To your point, they think if they’re a generalist - it's the master of none problem, right? But, at the same time that broad generality - who would have thought several years ago that when I went from software into telecom, and then telecom to automotive, and then automotive to aerospace - you wouldn't have thought those were all connected. But if you look today, eVTOL which is electric, vertical, takeoff, and landing. It’s the big thing. It connects. Connectivity between automotive and aerospace is the perfect quintessential combination of those things. People ask me if it was planned. I'm like, “It was not planned.”
But the great part about it is having that broad perspective. It really helps you think differently. How do you get people inside of companies to think the same thing whether it's about broad rules or to think broadly about their experiences and what jobs they take even? 

Rachel Chalmers:

Even that question of alignment! Which is what those monitors at AT&T were for. They were to get everyone aligned and working towards the same goals. But there are a lot of subtle reasons why people feel threatened by that. They feel that they might be exposed as the lagarde, the person who's not keeping up. 

Laura Merling:

Yeah, well, we got it solved quickly. Well quickly is all relative. It took about six weeks. But when people realized that it was more there for people to help each other. It was about how we use the data and how we brought it into our meetings and that we had figured out where resources were needed. It took a while to get comfortable with it, but once they saw how the information was being used - it's two parts. 
You also can't use it against people. If you're telling people you're using information in one way, you also have to be consistent. Which is why Innovation isn't just about how you do engineering. It's the whole company understanding the process of what Innovation means and how you deliver. It's a whole business cultural transformation from beginning to end. 

Rachel Chalmers:

That is so true. And the trustworthiness. The being able to follow through on a promise of, “You will not be punished if you show weakness, you will be helped.” Building that trust takes time and you can't ever fall short of that standard because then people will immediately revert to their old survival strategies. So there's a deep culture issue there. 
So that's a great segue. What are some of the issues that all of these big companies you've worked in have faced? Are there commonalities as you go through AT&T, to Ford, to Collins, and now to Google. 

Laura Merling:

Yeah, it's interesting because there are. And there's probably five things. There's probably more. But if you narrow that down - they’re somewhat related. 
Probably the first thing that comes to mind is about the time Horizon for the payback. If you think about it, when people are thinking about Innovation or they're thinking about building something new - if you're a large corporation, how long do you want before that thing starts making you money? And what is that amount of money that is enough of a threshold to be interesting? The first question I ask people when they're building a new product or service is, “What's the minimum amount of money that this thing needs to bring in every year for you to continue to invest?” And they're like, “Oh, that's a good question!” 
Now, depending upon the size of the company, it might be two million, or it might be a hundred million. And then asking them, “What timeframe do you have to get to it?” I remember I was launching a new product somewhere. We were just defining it and trying to bring it into market. It was going to take a while to, not only get it into market, but for it to just generate revenue. So you're talking a couple of years before it starts generating revenue. This company wanted it to be billions of dollars in year 5. And I said, “Nobody has had multiples of billions of dollars in year 5 in this similar category.” And so it's setting expectations of the time horizon and the amount of money. Also getting folks to know that it takes time to get that flywheel. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Everyone reads Jeffrey Moore's Zone To Win and they're like, “Oh, we'll think like VCs, and we'll get an Uber in year 3. Then and we can all retire!” 

Laura Merling:

Exactly!

Rachel Chalmers:

You have to say to them, “Well even the VCs don't get there in year three!” 

Laura Merling:

So yeah. Well then there's a second big kind of issue or a roadblock that I've come into a couple of times. What's funny is almost every time when you tell companies or leaders that this is going to happen, they’re like, “I hadn't thought about that.” And then a week later they'll come back and be like, “That issue came up!” And what it is is once you've said, “Yes this is going to generate money.” And you've estimated it’s going to generate a hundred million dollars or whatever it is. The next question is, “Who gets to the revenue?” 
So I worked on a product that was going to cross multiple business units. That product that was crossing multiple business units, each one of them had a piece of it. They had never really thought about the fact that we're going to deliver something that was more hardware that was sold individually. Now we're going to sell it as a virtual service. 
We got everybody in a room, they were all excited about what this might be. The business owners, the product owners, the heads of engineering, they were all excited about what we were going to do. And then at the very end, somebody asked the question, “Who gets the money?” I'm like, “We haven't even built the thing yet.” We hadn’t even built it, we hadn't started it. We had just mapped out the idea. 
That’s another roadblock sometimes, if people don't know who's going to get the money, they won't support it. Whether it's a market like North America that's going to get the money, or Europe, or is it a central entity? So it's really getting people out of asking, “Who owns the money?” And to you figure out what it's going to be. Is it really going to make you money?

Rachel Chalmers:

So much of this is game theory around comp and in particular around sales comp. Pushing a new product out and if it doesn't hit this guy's quota, he's not going to even bring it up in the call. And particularly when I'm working with these internal engineering teams, they run into that wall. They have no idea what to do and you have to explain, “Well you're going to have to talk to the sales management and figure out how to get these guys comped and recognized for moving your product as well as what they already have on their list. It might take 90 days before you even get on that list for them.” 

Laura Merling:

Yeah. Well and sometimes it's not even the sales guys, it's the business unit owner who is like, “I want to recognize that revenue.” and I'm like, “It's pennies on the dollar relative to the rest of the revenue that you're making. If we only recognize it in one place and it's under your business, eventually, you're not going to fund it because you're going to also carry the cost with it because it's going to take too long to generate revenue. Keep it over here so then it doesn't impact your P&L if you want to count it. Let’s double count it, we’ll count it here.” 
It's getting them to think about the structure of how they're going to track the P&L associated with it. Which then also leads to the third of like the five. The other two, I'll get to later. But the third is probably the most important which is, once companies bring a new product to market, it will drive adoption itself. I've worked on a couple of these projects where once they’ve launched it, they assume people will use it. I'm like, “Well do you have a launch plan? Who are you targeting? Who's your target market? Who's initially going to use it? Are you tracking who’s using it? Did you think about how many times a day they're going to use it? How many times a week, or a month? And why did you choose that persona as the target?” They don't actually have go-to-market plans that are as detailed as if you think about a start-up normally. 
It's not that specific. Even when I was at Ford working on autonomous vehicles. I had a five-year plan for my beta program. Or we’ll call it my alpha and beta program. But it was a five year plan that said, “Year one, this is where the technology will be. This is who could use it. This is where it will gain traction.” But large companies just think about how they’re large and if they just put it out there, it’ll get used because they are brand XYZ. They think the brand will drive the usage and it's not necessarily the case. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Yes. Startups do have humility to go with their moxy and big companies have complacency to go with their customer reach. 

Laura Merling:

That's the third. The last two things I think that companies face issues on is, “Are they really solving a problem?” They'll convince themselves that they're solving a problem, but they'll do it from their view. So it’s, “Here's what we need to do to solve the business problem for the customer.” Not, “What is the pain point that the customer has?” It’s more of a vitamin versus an Aspirin.
I use the vitamin versus Aspirin analogy when I talk to some of these larger corporations and they've never heard the phrase. It's the first thing that I learned when I moved to Silicon Valley a hundred years ago.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah. They all followed with glad cries, “Oh, what an Insight!” And you’re like, “Yes. I'm very wise!” 

Laura Merling:

Yes, I made that up myself. Let me take credit for that!

Rachel Chalmers:

This is exactly why I've become such a zealot for customer interviews though. All respect to these folks within the corporations because they have skills that I don't have. Half of them have doctorates in physics and crazy stuff. But, just the simple discipline of asking, “Who's going to buy it? What problem does it solve? Is that one of their top three problems? What tools are they using for it? What would they stop buying if they bought my product instead?” It's on you. It's all a complete revelation. Once they've done that five times, and they get into the rhythm of exercising that customer empathy, it's such a rewarding moment every time. 

Laura Merling:

One of the teams I’m working with, with you, is doing such a great job. I even challenged them to go outside of their box. One of the things that's been interesting is don't just go to the customer that you think is going to buy it. Look at the customers on either side of who you think might buy it. Because there might be a different reason why you're solving a problem for that particular company. Or they'll position it differently. Don't just go to one type of persona, look across the horizon and figure out if you’re really solving the right pain point for the right persona. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, that's exactly right. 

Laura Merling:

Now for the last one. And it's interesting because it happens in almost every Innovation group that I've seen in large companies. I believe you're changing that perspective as well. But it’s getting the business owners buy in. I just remember that when I was first doing Innovation type programs. People were doing Innovation to do it like “Oh, we're over here building stuff.” I'm like, “Okay, well who's going to bring that to market? You had the Innovation lab and then you had the business unit. Is the business unit engaged in the Innovation that you’re making? Do you think that business unit is going to bring it to market? Have they bought into it? Are their customers engaged?” 
What would happen is that people would build stuff. And they’d be like, “Okay, well now it's ready to be brought to market.” And then they'd go bring it to the business owner, and be like, “Here you go, bring this into the market!” And then the business would be like, “That's not really solving a problem.” Or, “Oh, by the way, I don't have the money to fund it in my budget this year, to bring it to market.” 
So, what would happen is that you would get this Innovation that they'd be done in January, and it would sit on the shelf for a whole year. People would forget about it and they'd start building other stuff. And this is because they didn’t have the money to bring it to market because they weren't part of the process. It's getting the business unit that you think you're helping to solve the problem for engaged in that process from the very beginning, and then setting time limits. 
We did buckets of 12 weeks. You got your first tranche of funding, for 12 weeks. You had milestones. Then you got your next tranche of funding for 12 weeks. But every step of the way, that business owner was part of the process. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, we've known for 60 or 70 years that the labs-model just breeds resentment on both sides. The line of business is saying, “Those guys just play ping pong all day.” And the researchers are like, “Those guys have no vision, they’re nickel and diming everything.” And they just need to have a conversation. You've got way more in common than you have that divides you. It's the fierce arguments coming out of the least possible difference between you.

Laura Merling:

Exactly. Those are mine. Those are my five things I'd say that are pretty consistent across every corporation when they're trying to do Innovation. I'm sure there's more but those are the five, wash-rinse-repeat, top of the list. 

Rachel Chalmers:

So when you look back on this amazing journey over the last five or seven years. What still warms your heart? What victory do you look back on and think, “Yeah, I did that.”

Laura Merling:

Oh my. There's probably a couple. They're all for different reasons. Each one means something totally different because of what it was. And when it was. 
Probably one that was the most interesting was when I was at AT&T working in The Foundry. We had gotten zero budget at this one point. I had just joined. The role was new. We were supposed to build this product team. We had an idea to use some existing technology and we had a customer that wanted to buy it. But I had no funding to bring it to market, to build the rest of what needed to be built. To build out the framework and the technology. 
Someone said, “Go find the money.” And this was because I started after budgets had already been allocated. So that's another hint. If somebody takes a new gig, make sure that you join before the budget cycle. So, somewhere in September. But when I join it tends to be in December pretty consistently. Which is really strange. So by that time the budget is already decided. So you have to say, “Well, what budgets have been allocated?” You have no budget, but you want to bring this thing to market. So we really went from zero to product and market in about four months. 
It was actually the very first cloud, voice-enabled product that AT&T had brought to market. It set a milestone between AT&T and AT&T labs in our group. And we just went and found money. I went from business unit to business unit, to see who had a project that they had to stop. Most telecommunications companies are very financially oriented and so there's this running list of projects. As things shift and move you can spot where there may be some money.
So it was finding a business unit owner that was willing to give up some of their budget for us to bring it into product. And literally that year we delivered two products. The other one was a security product and by the end of the first year, we had 10 million dollars. This is because we actually had a customer. 

Rachel Chalmers:

I have this vision of you going from business unit owner to business unit  owner and saying, “Please, I'm Laura from Innovation. Can you spare a bowl of gruel?” And then you give them back ten million dollars at the end of it. 

Laura Merling:

That was pretty much it.

Rachel Chalmers:

That's quite a flex. 

Laura Merling:

So that was one. I think the only other one and it's more because of how cool it was, and how fun it was. When I was at Ford and I had the opportunity to define and launch - as I mentioned, our pilot program around autonomous vehicles. We had brought to market, autonomous pizza, delivery. Working on that project with Domino’s and the lessons that we learned.
One, it was the battle of needing to use real AV. Don't give me a fake AV that somebody's really driving. I want the real one. And then to say, “Here's why and here's the use cases and here's what we can explore.” Convincing them that we needed to do that. And then the information. The lessons that we learned from it. They were just just incredible. It was something you wouldn't think about. 
One thing that was quite interesting was the first thing that everybody did when they walked up to the autonomous vehicle. They don't see a driver. They don't see anybody in it. They all started talking to the car. So you're like, “Okay, well, wait a minute.” 

Rachel Chalmers:

Did they think it was remote controlled? Or did they think it was a K.I.T.T. car, an artificially intelligent car? 

Laura Merling:

I think they thought it was a K.I.T.T car. That's the first thing that came to mind. “My gosh, it's a K.I.T.T car.” We didn't really think they were all just going to walk up and talk to the car. Now, imagine if you tried to solve that and said, that was the problem you needed to solve. Imagine standing in the middle of New York and having everybody talk to these cars, right? If all of a sudden, the whole world was autonomous vehicles, that would drive everybody bonkers. 

Rachel Chalmers:

So, I'm going to have to translate here for the youth, including my podcast producers. A K.I.T.T. car is from Knight Rider. It's from David Hasselhoff's 1980s series about an artificially intelligent car. He used to talk to his car. It’s a golden oldie. 
My AV story is that my husband is one of those infuriating people who has always lived in the inner city and walked everywhere and has never got a driver's license. So, you know, back in the 90s we were always joking, “Oh, you're just waiting for autonomous cars to come into the market.” And infuriatingly he was and he is. 

Laura Merling:

Tell him we can get him a low speed, 25. Mile-per-hour. It might take him a while to get somewhere.

Rachel Chalmers:

I'll pass it along. 

Laura Merling:

That's great. 
I mean, everything has a memory for a different reason. Either the situation or the interesting aspect that it was. Or the challenge that you beat the internal - you know, you don't have any budget. Those are all fun. 

Rachel Chalmers:

The pizza car is pretty great. That's a good one. 

Laura Merling:

It is pretty cool. There are lots of interesting things like that. But that was the first “aha” moment we realized they were talking to the car. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Okay. So now I'm giving you another imaginary car. This one's a DeLorean and it's a time machine. You can go back to any point in your career and make a different choice. What are you going to do?

Laura Merling:

Not make any different choices! 

Rachel Chalmers:

It has been a pretty great career, I’ll give you that. 

Laura Merling:

No! My goodness! I don't know. I mean I have no idea. 
I think it's more how I thought about approaching some of the problems, maybe? More than it is the actual career choice. I mean I can't complain about any of it. I started in technology for the first 15 years and then went into industry and just took a weird path that turned out to be super interesting. Between AT&T and Ford and Collins. I'd say probably the one thing that I'd go back and change is when I was at Collins, the executive team which was amazing, they were deeply interested in understanding technology. 
They'd hear these buzzwords. And they would ask me what the buzzwords meant. So every leadership meeting we would sit down and we'd cover one area of technology. One, we talked about blockchain and what that was. What was great was that the leaders were all walking around saying that they could actually explain blockchain over a beer. Which I guess is good. 
However, what happened is when we went to do - we actually had a real world use case that was going to save the company per location, it varied by location. But anywhere from single-digit to high double-digit numbers of costs. It was based on some temporary import tax as you moved products through different markets.
They just kept thinking, “Oh but blockchain, but everybody's doing it. It's just a buzzword.” So it went from, “No, no, this will actually help us solve a problem internally that we don't need any external connections to.” So it's more like, you want to educate people on stuff but how much do you tell them about it? And then I remember John Donovan told me this at one point. He's like, “Laura your visions way out there. It's like five to ten years out. Don't tell everybody your secret. Don't tell them the 10-year vision. Don't tell them the five-year vision. Tell them the two-year vision. But know that you're on the path to the five-year.” 

Rachel Chalmers:

That's been a really hard one for me as well. It's calibrating your story to your audience. Don't tell them so much that you distract or frighten them. 

Laura Merling:

Exactly. And that was a recent one, right? That wasn't that long ago. So I don't know if I'd change anything about my career in particular. But about stories, you told. I mean, we found a way to still do the project, it just took longer to actually get everybody to agree to go do it because they kept saying, “Oh my gosh!” And then we finally had a large company, an airframer come to us and say, “Are you guys doing anything in this space with blockchain?” And they were like, “It's that thing Laura was talking about!” The next thing you know we got funding to go do it. So yeah. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah. One customer asks and suddenly you're a genius. 

Laura Merling:

Exactly.

Rachel Chalmers:

Funny how that works. 
So what is it that makes Corporate Innovation in particular so hard? 

Laura Merling:

I think if you're talking about public companies, the challenge is the need to address shareholders quarter-over-quarter.  Traditionally corporations serve shareholders. Increasingly that is changing to include employees, business partners and the community.  That shift provides an opportunity to address innovation and transformation.  It's that quarter-over-quarter mentality that has stopped companies historically from having the time, patience, and the psychological safety to fail.
If  you go back to your previous question regarding the common issues across the big companies -  I gave you those five things; the time horizon to revenue and who gets the money. Both of them are tied to the quarter-over-quarter concern. I'm going to invest this money now, when do I get it paid back, and does it get to a hundred million in revenue? 

Rachel Chalmers:

It's so true. This is why VC's hire a public company CEO for a company that's gone IPO. Because you think of these big corporations as having deep pockets, but in fact, they’re  primarily accountable to the Wall Street analysts every quarter. This is the public company CEO, who is really good at managing that relationship but that is also greatly constrained by their degrees of freedom in planning time horizons well beyond that quarter. 

Laura Merling:

The exceptions are technology companies - born and raised technology companies - whether you're Tesla or whether you’re Twitter or Facebook - or Uber for that matter. Their measure was market cap, not necessarily revenue. Did you need to actually be profitable to get into the market? The answer is no. 
When you're looking at these big companies and the challenges that they face - I forget what the number is but there's a lot of companies that are over 50 years old. They can't necessarily go back and hit the reset button. There are a few companies that have gone back private to then hit the reset. Do all of them have to do that in order to make that transition of themselves into whatever the next generation of -- yourself is? One example is Dell - they went private for a while. Then public, went private, and then public again. So the question is, “Do you have to do that?”  I think the answer might be yes.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, Mark Zuckerberg actually did some Creative Accounting around how he structured the cap table of Facebook so that he would always have the shareholder majority. How to make that longer term planning a little bit more affordable to him.
So what two or three lessons can you distill from all of this experience for our listeners?

Laura Merling:

I'd say lesson number one, make sure that what you're solving is a problem. So ask yourself - it goes back to the  vitamin versus the Aspirin. “Is this a vitamin? Is this just a nice to have? Am I really solving a problem for the sake of a problem. Am I just trying to find a new revenue model or am I actually solving a real problem? “
The other thing is, no matter what you're selling and who you're selling to, or what you're making it for, you have to think about who the buyer is. And not just today, but over the horizon. Who's your customer? What do they look like today? But what do they look like tomorrow? 
Traditionally, if you look at who buys a car right now, the majority of the vehicles are bought by Baby boomers and Gen Xers. But they're not the buyers over the next five to ten years. So if you're defining something for who the car buyer is over the next five to ten years and what problems you're going to solve for them and how they want to interact with it, you're probably looking more at Millennials and Gen Z. You have to know that. And then you have to think about the market they’re in. How somebody uses a vehicle in the U.S. in Dallas is different than how they use it in the U.S. in New York or in Detroit. It's also very different from how they might use it in Shanghai. 
So, it's really thinking about - I'm using cars as an example, but it could be just about anything. It could be an online travel service. It could be that you own a football team or a basketball team, and you're trying to get people to come to a stadium. Who is that person and why are they coming? Are they a family with four kids? Are they a couple out on a date night? Is it a group of guys going out as friends? What are they going to do? And what do they think about while they're going out? It's getting people to really think about the customer because they don't always do that. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Well, despite everything I've said so far as a Gen X parent of two Gen Z teens, I don't think there's any possibility for cultural communication between our two generations. I think we have no common ground on which to speak.

Laura Merling:

No common ground? I don't believe that!

Rachel Chalmers:

My teen interjects from the kitchen, “You're old!” 
But more seriously, as you see that demographic shift in the car purchasing population, you see an announcement like we saw today where GM says they're going to phase out fossil fuel powered vehicles. How thinkable was that 20 years ago? Not at all. It's such a profound shift in attitudes. 

Laura Merling:

Well, it was also almost somewhat profound even a couple of years ago. You don't even have to go back ten, right? The big challenge around electric vehicles, is that people have always been like, “People really don't want to buy an electric vehicle. Does it really matter?” And here we are in a very short period of time. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Back to your point about the vaccine, how do you think the pandemic might affect corporations in the longer term? 

Laura Merling:

Actually, there's a couple of things. I think in all honesty, it’s been quite positive right? Obviously some companies have struggled. But what we saw literally was programs that people had or goals that they had for digital transformation - their five-year plan, had to be done in five weeks. So you took a five-year plan and you did it in five weeks. Or you did parts of it. And they realized it wasn't really as hard as they thought. The big trick there has been getting people to reflect at this point. So we're a year into it. Getting people to reflect on, “What hurdles did you remove or what processes did you ignore that let you do that thing in three weeks? Or in three days?” Because whatever that was that you did is now what you need to make a permanent part of your business. 
It’s getting people to go back and do those retrospectives. And what's interesting is some companies have been willing to do. I have talked to some that were like, “Oh, we don't need to do a retrospective. We’re good.”

Rachel Chalmers:

Bless. 

Laura Merling:

You know where the failures are going to be. Because learning what things you removed as roadblocks, those are the things that have been holding them back for years in terms of making progress. 
I think, the other thing too is that many people didn't realize how resilient they needed to be, and they weren't. Like how inflexible their business strategies were. Or that they weren't looking broadly enough. So, what I've seen now is people are also changing how they look at their strategy. They're looking at it much more holistically. They're trying to look at it on a more frequent basis. Looking at political, economic, social - sort of the pest model, right? Political, economic, social, and technological changes that might impact their business. I think back to when I first went to United Technologies Aerospace and I wrote on my whiteboard on day one. I wrote, “Flying cars”. I had just come from Ford and somebody walked into my office and said, “Why do you have ‘flying cars’ up on your board?” And I'm like, “Because they're coming and they’ll be here sooner than you think.”.
Here we are. Who would have thought that General Motors of all people would have announced an eVTOL. So they have their flying car. It’s here. Cadillac. You can get it. You can take a ride on it. I don't think you can buy it, but you can take a ride on it soon. A couple of years away.

Rachel Chalmers:

I'm not sure that I want to take it down to the barn. I think it might frighten my horses. I guess they'll get used to it. 

Laura Merling:

And then, who should worry? If you're an automotive maker, do you worry that eVTOLs are in your space? If you're in aerospace, do you care? Or if you're an airline, should you care? It's the whole IT landscape becomes open and you need to think more broadly about your aperture of who's in that industry and who's in that space. 

Rachel Chalmers:

And then you think, “Well what if we could reclaim all of the roadways and make them public parks. Make them pedestrian. How will our cities change? How will delivery change?”

Laura Merling:

For corporations, Innovation is every customer that we are talking to right now at Google. How do we be more Innovative? What do we think about digital transformation? Digital transformation and Innovation are the two things that are top of mind. 

Rachel Chalmers:

It's a big j ob Laura. They're all big jobs. How have you managed to avoid burnout? 

Laura Merling:

So it's a great question. I love to learn. I am constantly doing new things and learning new things. Maybe I'll burn out at some point, but maybe it's 20 years from now. But I do actually try to make sure I take time for myself and for my family. My days are pretty crazy and one of the folks on my team looked at my calendar, and they’re like, “Do you really start at 5:30 in the morning?” And I said, “Okay well that 5:30 in the morning slot is my workout slot. If you’ve actually read it.
My husband is a fantastic supporter. So at the end of the night, whether it ends it at 6, or 8, or 10, we will go sit downstairs by our fireplace, hit the button, turn it on, and have a glass of wine. That's a great way to end the night. And we take dog walks. That's actually even better. If you don't have a dog, or if you haven't gotten one yet, the morning walk or the evening walk. That’s where we have a whole walk and talk. No phones. Just, “How was your day? What's new? Who'd you talk to?”

Rachel Chalmers:

So my pandemic project was training to be a guide dog puppy raiser. So, I haven't been matched with a puppy yet, but there is a puppy in my future. 

Laura Merling:

Oh wow. That's amazing. How fantastic.

Rachel Chalmers:

Laura, what is the best way for our listeners to connect with or follow your work? 

Laura Merling:

Well for right now one spot is LinkedIn. That’s the primary place where I've been posting. But there will probably be more forthcoming, but that's the place to start.

Rachel Chalmers:

What does the future look like for you personally? 

Laura Merling:

It is a great question. For me, the future is - I'm excited to continue to grow and learn and understand things about reshaping the world. But the reshaping of the world around the future of transportation. It’s just really interesting to me. If you think about all the things that I said, I've got my hands in lots of different things. And right now, it's all been things that touch around the future of transportation. Whether it's cars, travel, logistics, end users, how will they move, smart cities. That whole ecosystem is where I continue to focus.

Rachel Chalmers:

And in the best of all possible worlds, if all of your most cherished hopes for the future of transportation came true, what does that look like? What does San Francisco look like with General Motors eVTOLs instead of cars on the road?

Laura Merling:

I don't know if I have that picture in my mind yet. All I know is, it doesn't take three hours to get from Milpitas to San Francisco.

Rachel Chalmers:

Word to that. That's all you had to say.

Laura Merling:

It also changes where people live. Will they live in San Francisco? And I don't just mean everybody running out of San Francisco post-pandemic. I mean, where do people live because of the modes of transportation they take? How they take it. Whether it's a hyperloop, or whether it's an eVTOL or whatever it might be in the future. 
The other interesting statistic. Here's another great thing for you. It's expected that by 2030, you'll be able to do space travel as luxury travel. Who knows how we're going to travel and where we're going to go and what we're going to do.

Rachel Chalmers:

I'm not sure I'm brave enough for orbit, but I would like to go on one of those B-2s and see the edge of space to see the curvature of the Earth. 

Laura Merling:

I haven't decided if I'd be terrified to go to space yet  or to go to Mars or anything. But it's just an interesting possibility. 

Rachel Chalmers:

My 18 year old is gung-ho. She's an astronaut-track. She's determined to get up there but I'm still like, “ehh”

Laura Merling:

Oh, to be young again! 

Rachel Chalmers:

Right? 

Laura Merling:

No, no. I think it's super exciting. I mean I just talked to a young lady who wants to be on a mission to Mars in the near future and I just think that's incredible. 

Rachel Chalmers:

It is. it is. We really do live in the future. I'm sure our listeners got a good sense of why you've been such an inspiration to me since we met and why I keep coming back to you for advice. 

Laura Merling:

Thank you Rachel. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Thanks so much for sharing. Thank you for taking the time. Thanks for your insights, encouragement, and lessons. And I hope we can have you on the show again sometime soon.

Laura Merling:

I look forward to it. Thank you. 

Rachel Chalmers:

Take care. 

Laura Merling:

You too.  

Contact

Get InvolvedTalk To Rachel

References

Laura Merling on Linkedin
Laura Merling on Twitter
Slalom - Where Laura was Managing Director and Chief Digital Officer
Collins Aerospace - Where Laura was Chief Digital Officer
eVTOL -  an aircraft that’s powered electricity to hover, take off, and land vertically
Jeffrey Moore - author of Zone To Win
K.I.T.T. - fictional car front the fictional television series, Knight Rider starring David Hasselhoff
DeLorean - another fictional car from the 80s from the fictional franchise, Back to the Future
Intro and Outro music composed by: www.PatrickSimpsonmusic.com

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