Corporate innovation marks an enormous opportunity for tech companies today. Large organizations are embracing innovation and disruption to stay competitive in their industries, sometimes partnering with startups that can provide efficient solutions. But these partnerships can be tricky to manage, as startups and corporations tend to work at different speeds and often have goals that aren’t clearly aligned.
Fortunately, our guest on this episode is one of those rare tech professionals who understands innovation from the perspective of both startups and enterprises. Chris Gray is a director of the Electrification Digital Accelerator at Cummins, a global corporation based in Columbus, Indiana. There, he works to innovate the technology and processes of a 58,000-person company. He’s also led innovation on the startup side, founding and running an EdTech startup for seven years before joining Cummins.
Thanks to his dual perspective, Chris knows what it takes for large companies and startups to work harmoniously toward corporate innovation. He helps us break down the nitty-gritty of corporate innovation in this episode, explaining how corporations and startups can find each other, and how they can work together in a mutually beneficial way. He also shares insights on the problems each side can encounter in an innovation partnership—and how to recover from them.
In this episode on corporate innovation with Chris Gray of Cummins, you’ll learn:
- The importance of creating a vision for both startups and large corporations.
- Why startups should “plant seeds” with a variety of potential corporate partners.
- Tips to avoid wasting time on a partnership that goes nowhere.
- The best way to approach a pilot from both a startup and corporate perspective.
- How the most successful corporations foster cultures of innovation and disruption.
- Why commitments to diversity and inclusion are especially important for large organizations.
Please enjoy this conversation with Chris Gray!
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Chris Gray quotes from this episode of Igniting Startups:
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both sides of this—the corporate side and the entrepreneur side—it’s that you have to be able to create a vision.” — Chris Gray of @Cummins on @PowderkegHQ
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both sides of this—the corporate side and the entrepreneur side—it’s that you have to be able to create a vision.” — Chris Gray of @Cummins on @PowderkegHQ
“As a startup, if you start making a connection with a big company, just assume it’s a year out at least. You’re just planting those seeds.” — Chris Gray of @Cummins on @PowderkegHQ
“If you’re going to have a ‘fail fast’ attitude, then make sure that everybody involved in that project knows it’s OK to fail. Nobody wants to, but in the corporate world, that’s not always looked at as a great thing.” — Chris Gray of @Cummins on @PowderkegHQ
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I think if there’s one thing I’ve learned from both sides of this, the corporate side, and the entrepreneur side is you’ve got to be able to create a vision.
What’s up powderkeg fans, glad you’re joining us today on episode 76 of powderkeg igniting startups, the show for entrepreneurs, leaders and innovators building remarkable tech companies and communities outside of Silicon Valley. I’m your host, Matt Hunckler. And I’m really excited to introduce today’s guest. He’s one of those rare people who understand innovation equally well, on the startup side, as on the corporate side. This guy has been in a powder keg community for years. And this topic we’re talking about today is a huge topic because there’s amazing potential in corporations and startups working together. But at the same time, each learning from each other of best practices and how to actually move like a startup or in some ways, maybe startups need to move more like corporations. We’ll find out in today’s episode. It’s a delicate balance. And luckily, we have someone on the show today who can help you better understand corporate innovation, not to mention how startups should and shouldn’t work together. I’m excited to welcome to the show today a cross functional leader who believes there’s no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets credit. He has strong entrepreneurial. Absolutely, he has strong entrepreneurial drive he has worked for and with major brands such as Duracell, Rand McNally and deflecto. He is now a director of the digital accelerator specifically in electrification at Cummins, a global corporation. Please help me welcome to the show, Chris Gray. Thanks, Matt. Really good to have you here, man. So before we dive in, break this down for me, because I’m in the startup world so much working with these high growth tech companies not working quite as much in companies at the scale of Commons. Although although we do work with a few companies like that, what is a digital accelerator for electrification? What is what does that mean?
So the Cummins digital accelerator division is the division that creating digital solutions that support the manufacturing, so the products that are made in the traditional business units.
Okay, so give me an idea of what Cummins does at scale. I mean, I know because I’m in Indiana, familiar with Cummins, but for those who don’t know, what is Cummins?
So comments, actually, for 100 years to this very month has been a huge diesel engine manufacturer out of Columbus, Indiana, and now offices here in Indianapolis. And so they’ve been big in in diesel engines. So now they’re moving into electrification, so electric transit, electric trucks, things like that. So my team is supporting a digital solution to support that.
Cool. I want to talk a little bit about your path to get there, because I know your story quite well. But I really want the listeners to hear sort of how you got to where you are today, because you originally in the corporate world, right, was working with Duracell and Rand McNally and deflecto. What what went wrong?
Let HR talk about that. No. Well, you know what the funny thing is, I I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But I was also one of those corporate guys, when I any company I was with, I’d love the company, I loved being there. So it wasn’t even so much that I didn’t like the corporate environment. But I just, I always said even early on, I said I want the last company on my resume, I want to share the same last name as the owners is how I put it. But I think that it was more like the idea of if there was anything that was frustrating about the corporate world was there was all the possibilities of things that could be done that never got done. So I think the motivation was if you can get a good idea, let’s, you know, just try to make it happen. And so at some point, I went, you know what, I just want to make it happen. And you know, and I was really motivated to do something along the lines of education. And I saw a need from the corporate world that there needed to be a better college recruitment solution. And so that was my motivation for saying, hey, let’s see if I can just kind of get in there and try to find a better solution.
And so talk to me about your transition into starting your own startup. Did you just walk in one day and say, I resign? I’m going to start working on this startup or did you kind of start piecing some of it together before you?
Yeah, I had some idea of that. I was about ready to do that. And, and, and circumstances just kind of made it good timing when it happened. So it was just time to go, you know what it’s either make the jump, or you don’t because it’s yeah, it’s just too hard to say I’m gonna walk away from a regular salary. So it was just like, this is the time, there was a transition going on. It’s like, this is the time if I’m ever going to try this, I gotta do it now
good for you for your taking the opportunity, can you? Can you tell me what it was like in those first couple of months? Working on the startup?
Well, it was the first couple months was just like, What am I doing? You know, actually, the first couple of months was trying to determine exactly what kind of solution I you know, was going to work, kind of validating some some things like that. And and, and that’s literally what what the first two or three months were and then the next few months were so how am I going to fund this thing? And so it and that was the hardest part because that was the one part that I had no experience in at all, you know, you could pull from, you know, connections and network on certain things, but that no one in my network had funding. Yeah. Let’s family that I could come to with the tin cup.
So how did you figure out the funding thing? If you didn’t have? You know, just a family friend, you could just say, hey, could I have a million dollars to start with?
Yeah, I wish I had that family friend, I wouldn’t tell me different story, right? Yeah. I guess I got the wrong friends. I don’t know. But no, I it was it was one of those things where I think the the Money Follows the idea. So it was really, I at least I had the path, right, which was really hone the idea. And, and get some some passion behind it. And and so I did and was fortunate enough to be able to talk to someone who had some interests. And those days, it didn’t take a lot of money, you know, because it was just it was a lot of discovery and research then it was it was really the last year is when you built a team and said, Okay, this is we’ve got a pretty good run right? Now we’ve had to find some serious money. So it was it was interesting. And so I pulled on my corporate experience to say like, I’m gonna set this up as if I was still at Gillette, or you know, and you got to I wanted to present myself that way. I think maybe the one of the most important things as entrepreneur you can do is you can establish credibility. Yeah. And you got to do that a number of ways. You know, when you don’t have the business card that says Gillette or door sell or something like that on it, you have to you have to do it from either establishing credibility because you well, you have to know what you’re talking about. But But more than that, you have to, I think if if there’s one thing I’ve learned from both sides of this, the corporate side, and the entrepreneur side, is you’ve got to be able to create a vision, this vision of what are you doing? And what’s what’s exciting about it, but then the the second part that maybe you don’t always think about is, how do you make it exciting for the person you’re talking to? You know, how where do they fit in your vision because nobody’s nobody’s gonna get excited about I just bask in the excitement of my vision, right? Yeah, you gotta be gotta let them see themselves in your vision. And it’s gotta mean something to them. So that vision is gonna vary depending on the stakeholder, whether it’s a investor or co worker, or whoever, but it’s, it has to be done
any tips for people who are trying to kind of communicate that vision to someone or tailor a vision and show how that person is? is in that vision? I mean, is it all energy and the tone in which you deliver it or other nuance there’s
a lot to that because anyone can have an idea. And you know, if the investor is going to get a bet on the person, then they need to see that you know, they need to see that that passion and and and positive you know, attitude I think so I think that’s important. And and it’s just got to be it’s got to be real you know, I mean you if this if you’re doing something that you got to rehearse in front of a mirror, you’re doing the wrong thing, because it shouldn’t take rehearsal. Yeah. So I think that’s part of it. I have to say I think that’s probably what was seen more than anything even in the early days even before the idea was was honed it was this guy seems really, really intent on doing this and and is is willing to back it up with some commitment. So I think that I think that’s a lot of it. Because I think everything follows the passion. Because it’s going to make you home, the idea it’s going to make you necessity is the mother of invention, then it’s going to make you figure out all of the things that you have to do. Yeah,
I love that. Chris, I remember, I remember when you’re getting this going in the early days, you are, you’re bringing the passion, and you’ve clearly had a vision. And one of the things I know that you were able to do with your startup is work with some really big brands, and forge some great partnerships. Eric, can you talk about some of the brands you’ve worked with? And even more importantly, how you forge those relationships with them?
Yeah. So I think, again, you know, trying to establish credibility was, I took the approach of, well, nobody knows me, nobody knows this startup. So I’ve got to start connecting with things that people people know and get that credibility. So it turned out that my good friend Kiko Suarez, who was at Illumina, at the time, they had a contest going about how you use big data to help the individual. And so that fit, you know, the purpose without going into the weeds that fit the purpose of what, what I was doing. And, you know, it was really a last minute thing. And out of, I don’t know, hundreds of submission, we got chosen finalists, so we got to go to New York and talk at the The Economist, thing. And that really opened a lot of a lot of doors.
That’s great. I mean, that’s really good advice to startups, but also corporate people in corporate innovation, to take those opportunities when they come across your path. You probably have to be really cognizant, too, though of not going after and chasing everything. So what was it about this particular opportunity that made you say, I gotta put my throw my hat in the ring on this one?
Well, it fit perfectly with with the idea. So it made sense. It’s it seemed like a long shot at the time. But I guess the only thing I’d say is it that you don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what you think is a really good opportunity. And and I don’t even know if you really know that, because some of the things I thought might not go anywhere, were just exactly the things that would worked out. So it’s one of those things where you got to just make the time. It took a lot of time, you know, because you did, it’s hard to did, it was just too hard to go, I don’t know what’s important. I saw I guess I gotta do I mean, you have to use common sense. You can’t just chase every every rabbit down the hole. But
he played it a lot of seeds, though, you weren’t just saying, I’m putting all my chips on this, this thing with the economist, it was probably one of many things that you did. It was
and that grew from a couple of different seeds that had nothing to do with that. Yeah. And so I think that was the other thing it was, you know, I was always happy to, to meet anybody who was willing to spend 15 minutes, 30 minutes to talk to me, because you just never know, you know, and it wasn’t just, hey, let me go find somebody who’s who’s big in this community. It was like anyone who was who had 30 minutes to talk to me, I was glad to talk to him. And some of those were the things that that led to something because you don’t know. And I don’t think any of those big things. None of them happened. Right away. I think the they all were six months to 12 months out from when they started so
well. I know you present it on the economist stage, you certainly presented on the powderkeg stage a couple of times, some better than others. Hey, you gotta get more at bats. Right? That’s right. Tell me a little bit about the importance of events. It sounds like events have been pretty important to you and getting face to face with people.
Yeah, I think from for two reasons. One, the credibility piece but to have every time you go to event and someone says Tell me what you do, you learn to talk about it a little bit better and a little bit crisper. And that’s, that’s really important. And it’s really just as important in the corporate world. As I’m back again, I’m finding that out. But that just being able to distill that down to to the most important parts and the more places you speak, because there’s not one answer, you know, to the right message that the the right message depending on the stakeholder is elicit little bit different so you you start to instinctively know and understand that but it takes practice. It takes practice and it’s and it and it just takes, it takes more than the practice, it takes the being able to see the reaction of enough different types of people and organizations to get that.
Yeah, that’s a really great advice on that startup journey, how long were you working on this particular startup?
All in, I think there was about seven years and oh my gosh, so yeah, keeping it going, keep it funded, keeping it alive and growing. And and I tell you that the journey is such a, it’s such an important piece of this. And in fact, even though obviously, we’re not talking about my multimillion dollar sell off of this company, so it didn’t, didn’t end the way I wanted it to. But the journey was, was was priceless. Because I was just talking to someone about the idea of, of what it means to kind of go through something particularly when it’s difficult thing, because, and what it does to you, because if you look at like kids are fearless, they have no fear, because they they haven’t learned to have fear of anything. And the older we get, the more fear we tend to have of things. And and the more caution we put in front of everything. So when you go through something really tough. And you get through it, on the other side, you’re stronger for it. And the I think the other thing that happens is you that that strength gives you a little less fear. So so you’re, I’m able to look at things now maybe differently than I did. Six or seven years ago, I can look at it without the fear knowing that, well, I got through this, and it worked out. So I can I can now approach these things. But you don’t because we we stop ourselves from half the opportunities, I think. So taking that down a notch is is helpful. So I think the processes is everything.
That’s really great perspective. How did you get through some of those tougher moments? Certainly, I’ve been through many myself, but everyone has their own sort of techniques and methods for getting through those valleys.
Yeah. And sometimes it’s hour by hour, I think. But I think, you know, while I was going through that period, there was also my my parents had some health issues. And but that actually was helpful and and they’re still with us. So that’s a good thing, that story one and that way. But going through that with them actually having to be strong and go through something else actually kind of takes your mind off what you’re going through. So that in a strange way, maybe it was helpful, because rather than thinking about, Oh, you know, woe is me, I wish I was in a better place. It was like all my attention was that. So when I was focused on the business, it was literally okay, I’ve got nothing, this is the only thing I have time to think about, and worry about. So I in a strange way, I think it helped that part helped. Yeah, but Sunday’s are just hour by hour
certainly puts things into perspective. You know, and you’re involved in a startup and you’re the CEO. Life and death of your business can sometimes feel like life and death period.
It can and you know, it, it changes your perspective. You know, it just kind of makes you think, what’s really important, you know, when you’re going through something like that, it’s hard to get upset with the Verizon customer service person, it’s like some, all of a sudden, that doesn’t seem nearly as important anymore. How you were on hold for 40 minutes?
Sure, sure. Was there anything that you did tactically to kind of pull yourself back into the flow states when when you were really kind of riding those waves with your startup?
Yeah, get just get busy again, that for me, that’s what it was, is find something else to do, which usually was exactly what was called for. So just diving into what now what now What now, and a lot of you know, so what you try to do is create a lot of different scenarios. So again, you’re planting a whole lot of seeds, and you don’t know which which ones are going to grow. So you, you start going to each of these. And again, you talk about the stakeholders and bringing someone in the vision, it makes you start start going okay. Let me think more about what’s what I can offer for this organization or this person. Let me think more about and put yourselves in their shoes. And I think there’s, there’s an appreciation when you when you speak to them and say, Hey, here’s here’s how I think this can work. You’re not Just saying, Hey, here’s, here’s this great idea. You’re saying, here’s how I think this might be able to be applied to you and your organization, even if you don’t always get it. Right. They appreciate that you tried. Yeah, that you were thinking about that. And you and and hopefully, you’ve gotten enough of something there to go once. Not quite that, but you’ve given me something to think about here.
Did you find that to be the case of a lot of the companies who were working with, with your startup as you as you presented things? And did that kind of help you for some of those bigger brand relationships that you had?
It did, and I think that’s where my corporate experience really paid off, you know, being in sales and marketing, you know, the whole thing is, is putting something together and saying, what’s what’s in it for for the customer, or this big account or things like that. So I really kind of pulled on that that’s such an important thing to perspective to have. I think too often, it’s just, I’ve got the best message ever. And I can tell you the best things that happened at any meeting I was in came from the discussion in between the bullets on on the slides or or the walk to the conference room or the walk to the door that the biggest times happen and that banter that conversation.
Oh, that’s, that’s really a cool thing to point out. Because I think sometimes the tendency can kind of be like, Oh, well, I’m not on right now. You know, are my slides are not? I’m not on my talk track.
So yeah, it because real things happen with real talk, right? It’s like, okay, I always kind of looked at the presentation was more as the leave behind, you know, you’re not gonna remember most of what I said. So you know, here’s, here’s a reference, it’s, it’s when you can just start talking to people and and then you go back to your to my passion. That’s where the passion is, like, I’m just talking to you. I don’t I don’t need this. I don’t want this. I want to, I want to hear what you think of this. I want to hear what you think of how this could be helpful to you. And that’s, that’s where it always happens.
I’m sure that really resonates with big corporates and big brands?
I think so I think so. They’re all a big brand is just a bigger little brand, right? It’s just, it’s humans in that role. And they’re humans and any size organization. So that’s it’s to me, it didn’t see that didn’t seem different.
Is there anything you mentioned about your background and working in big companies being helpful as you landed big companies as customers? As a startup? Are there any sort of things that you think more startup CEOs should be aware of? Or even people in big corporations of how decisions actually get made? And how to make a sale? Whether that’s internal or from the outside?
Yeah, I think I think just taking the approach of you know, how well you can you can put yourself in the place of that person on the other side of the table is just key. And you don’t want to take that I’m from Bidco, and do what we say and nobody gets hurt kind of approach. You know, it, you know, you’ve kind of feel like, I just think humans react to other humans at the end of the day. Yeah.
Was there anything in particular you did to kind of prepare for meetings that was particularly helpful in in setting, setting the table to have those insights?
So I think I always over prepared and if Mike Kelly were here, he would say, Chris, you over prepare for everything.
And we’ve had Mike Kelly on a couple of episodes of this podcast, and he in good
natured Of course, there’s really no over preparation, it’s, you know, I always kind of went into it going, I don’t know what they’re gonna ask. So I gotta be prepared to ask a lot of things. And the preparation helps you in a number of ways, because if you’ve got to, you got to keep going to notes and going, Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, let me think about what it is I got to tell you. That’s no good. It’s kind of like i The analogy is kind of like to, to performing. So you know, I pulled I pulled in everything I ever did. So I sang and performed and so I think I pulled from that and when the more you you know, the the more you prepare, the more natural it looks, because you don’t have to think so hard about I just gotta remember words, I remember how to play these notes. I gotta remember, the more you’re prepared, the more it just comes naturally, it’s a better performance. If it if it if the performance looks difficult to you, you’re screwed. It should look easy. And I think that’s the same kind of thing going into a meeting. If you quote unquote, over prepare, then you’re going to be a lot in a lot better position to have those conversations where the good stuff may come from.
I love that insight. I think that’s very true. And I think a lot of times, I could do a better job of preparing for meetings. And I tend to have a pretty packed schedule when I get into meetings. And certainly I do some preparation. But I like the idea of being a little more over prepared.
And I try not to ever it is when it’s possible to back to back to back to back meetings. One because you just, you just can’t put yourself in the mindset where you need to be at every meeting. But to I think that one of the things I always tried to do, especially when it’s fresh is go, let me just think about what happened. And I think there’s, I think that’s a really important part and go in what what just happened here, what, even when the meeting is great, I everybody, you know, is reflective on you know what went wrong. But how many are reflective on what went right? And you know, what happened? And I don’t mean, you know, yeah, they really bought a, b and c, I mean, what, what resonated, what part of what we’re doing really resonated, because that’s what you got to get that they don’t, everyone doesn’t always say, hey, that really resonated with me. Most of them are the unspoken cues that you have to be able to pick up and you can’t do that when you’re not prepared. And you’re constantly looking down or looking at your slides or whatever. So
that’s really good feedback. Did you ever have any sort of like a ritual around that? Watching the game and tape? Yeah,
I always try to immediately take notes. And yeah, in some cases, when when meetings were recorded, go back and listen to him. Because that’s the only time you’re you’re ever going to listen to him again, you’re not gonna go, Hey, I’m gonna go listen, that meeting from 2016. That was great, you know, so the time to do it is to and usually, it was just a matter of let me make sure I interpreted something the way I think it wasn’t, it needed to be interpreted. And so you don’t always get that, which is why it’s so important to just right after the beginning, go, let me either look at my notes. Let me write down some things that I remember. Because you know, they can they can, you can remember a little differently. When enough time passes.
Really great advice, Chris, I really appreciate you sharing it.
Oh, glad to do I still do all of that. And what’s funny is now that I’m back in the corporate world, I feel like now I’m running. If I if I said Well, I’ve tried as an entrepreneur, I tried to run it like I was in the corporate world. Now that I’m back, I’m trying to run it like, like I was in entrepreneur, again, because it’s really still all about creating a vision. And a company, the size of Commons is there’s so many cross functional people working in various projects. So you still have to do the same thing. What’s in it for them? What’s in it for these people from this department, whose performance review is not based on how this project succeeds. So you have to you have still have to give them ownership, you have to let them see what what you’re doing. The one thing that maybe I almost forgot about this getting back the corporate world is other departments, they’re never going to be in the weeds and knowing what you’re doing. So it painting the vision is that much more important, so they can understand clearly and succinctly what it is. Oh, that’s what you guys are doing. All right now it makes sense. And it’s, it’s just as important in back in the corporate world. So I think it’s the same thing.
And this is how you fit in that vision. Yeah, exactly. And
what’s in it for them?
Yeah, that’s, that’s really good advice.
Because what you find is, is they just aren’t always, again, not not so motivated. But but when they when they when they understand the vision and you come to him with credibility and and in the corporate world, maybe credibility means I trust you as somebody who understands enough of what I’m doing. So if I’m involved in this project, you’re going to, you’re going to include what we have to do in a way that’s that I can trust, it’s, you’re going to do the right thing for our group too. So so you’ve got that so it’s still understanding the vision and understand the vision that can use and understand that piece a little better. And, and the trust just comes from you know, I told you, I was going to look after you all in this group, and I did, right so you have to you just have to have that too. But it’s every bit as important maybe more important in some ways, because you don’t you don’t know you don’t get to pick and choose you don’t just go and find the people you want to connect with you. You’re dealing with the people you have to deal with. So you’ve got to find a way to make that work in
dealing with startups as a as a corporation. What is your number one piece of advice to people at larger enterprises or big NGOs, as they’re sometimes called, when they’re looking at potentially licensing something from a startup or purchasing something from a startup or acquiring a startup?
Yeah. So I think the first thing the larger companies have to do is to remember to kind of, you know, look, remember to look outward, and not inward because big companies naturally believe that we can solve this problem. So you know, it’s first thing is, look outward more to find what solutions are out there. So to your question, now, now, they, some opportunities have presented themselves now what I think in a big company it has to do, you have to maybe adjust how you’re looking for at a startup. So you’re not, you’re not going to get out of this partnership, or acquisition, the same thing as if you’re working with another large company. So it, it really becomes not what gee, we’re, we’re giving them more than we’re getting? Because we’re big and they’re small. It’s, what is it we need? And can they provide that. So I think a lot of companies have to look at more than now more than ever. So here’s the ecosystem of what we’re doing. And there’s a lot of players in this ecosystem. So instead of going, we’re going to own this, we’re going to be part of this ecosystem. And we’re going to we’re, where do we fit in this and let’s just be real good at this part. And now if we can understand that, then we get, it’s easy to know, well, this player is doing this, this player is doing that, and they’re smaller. And I think it’s understanding where first making sure they understand where they want to fit in this ecosystem. Once you’ve not gotten to the point where we can’t be everything, we need to look at Partners defining that because I think too often, that’s not always clear. And if that’s not clear, then you’re really not going to know how to approach a smaller company. And you’re not helping them because they don’t have resources to waste. And I mean, time resources, which is just so valuable. And I know, as an entrepreneur, I would say the same with a big company, just you know, be mindful that, you know, you just walking up to a small company is going to make them go, Hey, Stop the presses, we’re going to do everything we can to work with this company, and and just don’t make them run down a path that’s leading nowhere, because that could kill a startup.
Yeah. Yeah. How what would your advice be to a startup founder, when tracking down or flushing out a potential opportunity with a big cow to avoid running after nothing?
I think you know, going back to being prepared, understand what’s in it for them, you might be surprised how you may assume that a big company knows exactly what they want out as partnership, you might be surprised that that’s not always the case. So try to paint that picture to the extent you can and go, here’s how here’s the value we can present to you. And here’s what we can do for you. You take a lot of time on that, because you don’t assume they got that solid answer.
That’s great. When you’re when you are having those conversations with startups and big corporations, what each party needs to kind of keep in mind as they’re evolving this relationship. And you mentioned time, right? There’s definitely a pace difference that can create friction between startups and corporations. How do you recommend each side sort of navigate that,
as a startup, just assume if you you start making a connection with a big companies just assume it’s a year out? At least? Right? You know, you’re just, again, planting those seeds, unless you’re filling fulfilling a very, very specific role with a need right then and there, just assume it’s going to be a long process, because there’s a lot of stakeholders that have to buy into it. And it takes a lot of time to get there. And like you said that their pace. What what what a big company thinks is a fast pace is definitely not going to be your definition.
Yeah. And once that relationship is in place, let’s say startup lands a pilot program with a big corporation. What’s your recommendation to that startup founder to keep that relationship grow that relationship? Then spoiler alert, my follow up advice is gonna be what’s what’s the advice to the big corporation?
I think that once you’ve, you’ve landed that opportunity get to the extent you can get to know and talk to as many people in that company as possible. You’re going to get perspective that way. A, you’re going to learn a lot. And you and because one of the things you’re going to learn is as even though you might be talking to the people that are going to write the check, they they’re usually not the only stakeholders involved in whatever solution you’re bringing. So when you can go dig those people out and find them and talk to them, that’s, that’s going to help you a lot.
Yeah, that’s great. And then for the big companies, working with the startup, how do you define success? How do you make a pilot go really? Well, when you’re working with a startup?
Well, I think, I think in general, corporations are just starting to learn and understand that the fail fast piece, which is, you know, pilots, or pilots, you know, it’s it’s not, it’s not a major merger, you know, they don’t have to, they may not all work out, and that’s okay. And that’s why they’re pilots. I think sometimes in the corporate world, and I’m not talking about a particular company, and but any big company, I think, they have to have that mindset of, well, if you’re going to have a fail fast attitude, then make sure that everybody involved in that project knows it’s okay to fail. Nobody wants to but in the in the corporate world, it that’s not always looked at as a great thing.
How do you change that culture, like from within?
Um, I guess you have to just the others just make it clear upfront what, what could happen, but but be able to just know upfront what the value of the pilot is, itself, as opposed to, this is the outcome we’re looking for. But just understand that, you know, we’re gonna we’re gonna try a lot of things till we find the right one. That’s why we’re doing these things.
And the value of the pilot is the learning not necessarily the the metrics.
That’s right, which is the same for the for the smaller startup, too, right. So the big company just needs to understand that too.
Yeah. What you mentioned fail fast and, and celebrating learnings. Definitely very familiar vernacular for those who follow lean startup. What are some of the other things that you think the most innovative big corporations do really well, in order to disrupt their, you know, continue to disrupt themselves and create new innovative products,
I think understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, because the better they understand that, the better they’re going to be able to pick partners, smaller companies to partner with. So again, I think back to the same as everyone, and and I think it’s just creating that culture and and being willing to do it. I mean, one of the things that’s great about the digital accelerators is a big company like Cummins going, you know, this is our way of, of adapting to, you know, a new business environment. So I give them a lot of credit, you know, they’re they’re still learning, like any company is learning, but that first step is, let’s do this. Right. So it’s, it’s great.
Tell me a little bit more about the digital accelerator? What do you are? As much as you can tell? I’m not sure how much obviously, yeah,
I’ve just yeah, you want me to stay in this company? Right. Yeah, I mean, it the digital accelerator specifically is set up to create digital solutions to support the the existing manufactured products. And so they they’ve created a culture of being able to, you know, create a lot of projects that don’t involve the long process it takes to, to build an engine and, and allow that kind of flexibility. But still, you’ve got the advantage of these multibillion dollar resources. So when it’s done perfectly, you’ve got the best of all worlds.
I love that. I know, one of the things that Cummins is really passionate about is something that we’re really passionate about powderkeg. And there’s a growing movement for throughout the tech community at large. And then as being more inclusive of diverse perspectives, really focusing on having diversity in the teams, and in the inputs that are being put into these projects. Can you talk a little bit about your own experience diving into the tech world and now some of the things you’re doing in comments?
So I think and I’m not a spokesperson for comments, I’m just telling you my perspective, but I’ve been very impressed with their commitment to diversity. It’s real. And and you can feel it and I there’s something about when you’re really in a diverse environment, if there’s something that feels a little bit different, I haven’t put my finger on it yet other than it especially when you’re in a diverse environment, there’s not one, one person or group of people who are just overriding going, this is the way it’s done right, you really can get a diversity of ideas, because the, because everyone has different perspectives on it. So I think that really helps. And, and it also, it just cuts down on the unconscious bias. Because if there are just a lot of different people around you, you’re, if the unconscious bias of going well, I just assume these people around me are doing a good job. So I’m gonna find more people just like them? Well, when you’re, when it’s a diverse group, you’re just gonna find more diverse people. And that sounds very obvious, but it’s not happening in too many instances. So I really, I really liked the idea of that. And and it makes you vet your own ideas a little more, when you know that you’ve got to sell it to more people who aren’t necessarily going to just be instinctively having that train of thought. So it makes you it makes you better, it makes everyone better.
Absolutely well, and we, the powderkeg team actually was lucky enough to get some training from one of your leaders there at Cummins on diversity and inclusion. And it has really helped our team really think through that a lot more clearly. And it’s resulted in serious action being taken. Not that it wasn’t something we were thinking about weren’t thinking about previously. It’s just we didn’t have training in it. And now with that training, our whole team is fired up, fired up about figuring out how every part of what we can do can be more inclusive, because it can always be more inclusive. And you can always bring in an invite more diversity into any conversation. That’s
right. And that goes for you know, just just because I’m a minority doesn’t mean that, well, I don’t have to be inclusive, because I’m a minority, right, you know, we all get caught up in the, you know, just having things around us that we’re used to, right. So it takes everybody thinking about, maybe is there another way I can think about this. And and and also, I think the important thing is to not think about diversity is this thing that I’m forced to do, right, you know, you have to be able to see the real value in it. And you’re not doing someone a favor by hiring them as as a diverse hire. You know, like, I’m doing this favor. You know, you’re I remember years ago when I was first starting out. And I won’t say which company, although it’s not really a reflection on the company. But someone that just casual meaning and she wasn’t trying to be, you know, cause any rips it is you said, Oh, I guess I guess you’re you’re here because of primitive action. And, you know, not even realizing, wow, what she said, I said when I got here because we recruited probably same as you. And but in a lot of ways. That’s a mindset. There’s a mindset, which some people look at a minority go, Well, I guess you’re here because of affirmative action? Not really well, why wouldn’t I be here for the same reason you’re here? Right? So I think that it’s, it’s just really important to to not see diversity is just something you have to do.
It’s not a box to check, it’s not a quota to fill. That’s right. This is something that truly is I mean, and you look at the data, and it doesn’t lie, more diverse teams come up with better innovative products, especially if you’re being inclusive, and getting the most out of that diversity.
That’s right, you’re assuming you want every part of the population to use your product, you probably need the perspective from people who would be using it. So yeah, it just makes sense.
But I really appreciate all of your efforts. Not only with diversity, but and just sharing your story of your startup journey, you know, from big corporate, into the startup world and back out of the startup world into big corporate, but it sounds like you really still have that startup DNA, and everything that you’re doing now, and all things innovative at Commons, which is really exciting.
It is, you know, whatever you’re doing, you still got to have a passion for it, or why bother? You know, at this point, you’re just like, if you can’t be excited about what you’re doing, why bother doing it at all? And in some ways, that’s That’s sounds like a first world problem. And I guess I suppose it is because everyone doesn’t have the luxury of going well, I’m gonna pick from these choices. But I think the only thing I would add to the diversity piece is you know, diversity isn’t isn’t an event, right? It’s it goes on, it’s just part of how you do business. You know, you don’t do a diversity event and go Well, diversity. That was we’re all done with that now. Right? So yeah, I would say that but yeah, in my experiences Yeah. I I think as, as a minority, I think a lot of you almost go into a situation going, what’s gonna go wrong with this, you know, you just kind of there’s, there’s just no sense of the Oh, everything’s just gonna fall into place. So maybe that’s helpful, I’d say in a lot of ways. So for minorities, early on in my, you know, growing up, I never would have seen myself in a, in the tech world, it just wasn’t somewhere I saw anybody I knew, as part of that’s why I think in diversity projects, one of the good things this company is doing, and what I’ve seen a lot of others do is, is to actually go to and talk to younger people, students, and let them see what this world looks like, let them get excited about this stuff, a lot of of young people who don’t have access to Wi Fi and the devices that we take for granted, and see and get excited about and go, I want to do that one day. And even those who have that, the idea that you can bring them into your world. So we got to expand that world for them. And let them come in and see if startup going on or big corporation and walk into walking into that building is so important. Because for that person walking in there is going to make them go, Wow, just the fact that I’m physically in this building. Now, I have this little glimmer of a shot that thinks this, this could be somewhere I could be. And I now know what it looks like, right? You can’t get anywhere that we if you can’t see it. So I think that really helps.
I’m really happy to hear that you’re doing that Chris. And I agree we more companies could be intentional about that. And when I see it happening, it’s really exciting. Because you see kids kind of walk it. We’re recording this in developer town in Indianapolis, you see groups of kids coming through of all shapes and sizes and ages and backgrounds, and their eyes just light up when they’re walking around here. And if you don’t know where developer town is just look up photos. It’s an amazing innovation space and Innovation Hub, with people doing amazing work. And it’s so rewarding to see that happen.
It’s great. And you because you just don’t know what what some young student is walking away from getting from something, a throwaway line, something you said and that’s going to that’s going to change somebody’s life that’s going to give them a direction they didn’t have before.
Do you have any advice for minorities, breaking into tech, or looking to navigate the tech world, or even the innovation world or even marginalized groups doesn’t necessarily have to, I guess my
advice would would be the same advice I’d give to anyone find. Find a mentor, find somebody in tech who’s willing to take the time to talk to you and there’s a lot you need to know I live in that world I the first two years of of my startup journey was just figuring it out. And and I I wasn’t raised on Tobacco Road I came from a decent middle class family I had I had decent, I had resources I had I did just fine and so it wasn’t a matter of being an having an underserved childhood. It was just you don’t know what you don’t know that. You know, when you have to expand the world of these people. Well, that wasn’t my world. i My dad was in sales and marketing and AT and T and guess what, I ended up in sales and marketing because that’s the world I knew. So we just have to be able to expand that world and and and give them that connection, somebody in this world that they can talk to and get some advice from because that’s it’s really as critical. Every tech community has those people that I mean, sitting here in developer town I you know, and Mike Kelly, in particular, I’m happy to give him a personal shout out as somebody who took the time to say, Hey, Chris, have you met this person? Have you met that person? You did that several times? early on. So you just have to find those people and the only thing I’d say to everyone else is take a little time to do that. You know, we’re all busy. I get that but just take a little time to do that. It’s, it’s in the scheme of things. It’s not a lot of time for us, but it’s gonna mean something really big for someone else.
That’s really great perspective, Chris. Thank you for sharing some of your story. I hope you can come back on the podcast sometime soon. Give an update on everything going on in the digital accelerator that you can share. And congrats again on everything that you’re doing. Thanks, man. Appreciate congrats to you. Thank you. We’re really excited about it and big things coming for both powderkeg and Cummins. I can’t wait to see him both. Thanks so much for stopping by Chris. And thanks to all of our listeners. I hope Chris has thoughts on corporate innovation or something you can use to be a better leader, whether that’s at a startup or multinational brand. For more insights from Chris Gray and Cummins. Follow at Cummins on Twitter. Once again, I’m your host, Matt Hunckler. And to be among the first to hear the stories about entrepreneurs, investors and other tech leaders outside of Silicon Valley. Subscribe to us on email@example.com forward slash iTunes. We’ll catch you next time on powderkeg igniting startups