Uber Magic for Enterprises - Four Ideas for Capturing the Secret Sauce

Enterprises have a host of competitive strengths, but Silicon Valley magic isn't usually one of them. It's not all magic though, and the sauce isn't necessarily secret. Every time I listen to a smart start-up entrepreneur talk, I find nuggets that could benefit enterprises, from the C-level down to the functional department managers. Recent case in point: at a May 2015 StrictlyVC Insider Series event, Uber's Director of Global Expansion Products Tom Fallows talked about his experience at the company since he joined it from Google a few months ago. The interview wasn't about enterprises or what they could do better, but for enterprises who want to act more like start-ups, there were four big ideas worth taking away:

1. Mine adjacent categories for new opportunities. Always. 

Your business is in a category. Adjacent to that category are a bunch of other categories. Who in your company is dedicated -- dedicated -- to understanding how your products and services could serve as competitive assets in adjacent categories? Uber has that in Fallows. And Fallows has a team. He told StrictlyVC,

"Obviously, we have the mainline business of offering transportation to people; [my job is largely looking into] how do we expand into new opportunities. Uber for Business is one of my projects, for example, and that’s just building an enterprise version of Uber so that companies large and small can use it for their business travel. I have six different teams that are working on new projects all the time.... The Uber Eats [food delivery] product has expanded into several more cities and I think the market has been pretty strong. We’re doing well with Uber Rush, which is a [bike] courier service [that Uber rolled out in New York a year ago]."

So you're an enterprise who [does something] to help [someone] solve [this problem].  What are your adjacent category opportunities? Let's look at how Uber solved the problem, based solely on the few extensions Fallow mentioned above:

  • Uber began with [transporting] [people] in [cars that were idle].
    • Q: What other kinds of people could it transport? A: business travelers
    • Q: What could it transport besides people? A: food. courier packages.
    • Q: What could it transport things in besides cars? A: bikes.

And you can bet that Uber's execs are applying these same questions to the verb "transporting." What could Uber's dispatch software and other technology be used to distribute? You name it: if it's a resource, it's idle, and it could be deployed more efficiently using the Uber model, there's a possible adjacent opportunity there.

Get yourself to a whiteboard and play Uber's game with your own definition. If that feels too big -- or too high-level to bear any fruit -- try zeroing in on a single product. Our [specific software product] [does this specific thing] for [this specific audience] to [solve this specific problem]. Take it one bracketed word or phrase at a time. Feel free to think freely without interrupting yourself with "yeah-but's" and excuses as to why things might not work.

2. Did you notice that word in Tip #1? "Dedicated." And to what? "Understanding business opportunities."

Let's not gloss over something Fallows said about how Uber is managing its growth strategy:

"[...my job is largely looking into] how do we expand into new opportunities.... I have six different teams that are working on new projects all the time..."

You have an R&D team. Perhaps you have a head of innovation. And, hey, you're big, so you probably have a business development team leader, maybe an M&A team to boot. How are all those people collectively working together to serve the one function Fallow serves at Uber?

  • Whose job is it, day in and day out, to understand emerging opportunities in adjacent categories?
  • Who has the skill set and experience set to do that at each product and/or service level, and not just at the company level?
  • Who's asking questions about adjacent business opportunities with every new products, services, and features that is released? (As in, how is our value proposition in adjacent categories evolving?)
  • Who has the skill set and experience set to understand the adjacent categories -- who's competing there, and what customers need and think there? Who gets it?

In Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are so often born from product and engineering backgrounds. The best of them know to complement themselves with experts who lend sales, customer, and business strategy DNA. (VentureBeat published a solid piece about this called "The rise of the Chief Revenue Officer: Silicon Valley's new secret sauce" in April -- I recommend it.)

So, if you're not happy with your answers to the questions above, or if you're noticing a lack of diversity among the people in your answers -- say, if they're all in product, or they're all steeped in your existing category, or they're all operating at a high-level only -- consider a new hire or a team shakeup, and don't be afraid to recruit from outside product and from outside your industry.

3. Stop thinking everything has to take so long.

Describing how Uber is different from Google, Fallows said,

"...at heart, [Uber is] still very much a startup with an action bias. In my first couple of weeks, we’d be talking about a new feature and inevitably in that conversation, the question would arise: How long would this take to get out? And someone would say, 'I think it’ll be two to three . . .' And in my head, I’d just default, think weeks. And they’d finish, '…days.' And I think, what? [Laughs.]"

Uber's faster than Google. How can you be faster than who you are today? Think in months, not years. Think in weeks, not months. Ready for a real challenge? Think in days, not weeks. Doing this with technology probably feels impossible, juggernaut that you are, but what about doing it with conversations and ideas? Your enterprise is inherently slower than a start-up. The point is not to defy the physics of your culture. It's to push the boundaries. Find ways to break free. Enable your employees to do the same. Small victories matter.

The need to break free of slow-pace culture is part of the rationale that drove Xerox to establish PARC as its research center in the 1970s, and Konica Minolta to launch five independent innovation centers last year (one in the Bay Area, note). If you think in smaller terms, how could you create a micro-culture for a team within your business?

4. Axe what isn't working. Cut it off.

Of all the nuggets in this brief interview with Fallows, this is my favorite:

"...in a healthy ecosystem way, projects that aren’t working get wound down or swallowed up and resources [are] diverted."

Organizational psychologists could fill books with the reasons why this particular start-up secret is hard for enterprises.

For one thing, killing a project can simply be logistically complex. Meanwhile, there are more leaders involved, and because of that, more people to persuade -- people who may have trouble letting go of sunk costs despite their MBA training, people who may be emotionally invested in the idea on the chopping block, people whose bonus might be continent on a P&L that might be contingent on revenue that might be contingent on the product coming to life...

But if enterprises want a piece of Silicon Valley magic, if they want to move faster and operate leaner, this is a discipline they need to master. Google, an enterprise but Silicon Valley magic to the core, showed us how to do this with Google Glass.

All of that from just one interview by one Uber guy at one event. Keep listening, enterprises. There's so much to learn. And magic, any magician will tell you, is a skill.

(C) 2015 SeriesC