FrieslandCampina is the world’s largest dairy cooperative, but being a multinational of such an incredible size in the context of more affordable technologies and easier accessibility to capital means that smaller startups are becoming increasingly competitive when it comes to innovation. And startups are a furnace for breakthrough innovation. Both their mentality and structure aid an agile ecosystem that can realize ideas at a speed that larger corporations simply cannot. Whilst it’s easy for startups boast about their outside-in thinking, cognitive diversity and ability to create disruptive models, they frequently lack the resources, access to market and expertize that corporations have. Because of these blatant differences between startups and corporations, collaborations between the two are an attractive proposition for all.
Willem Valkenburg is Innovation Manager for new business developments and corporate startups at FrieslandCampina, currently situated at B.3 but soon moving to B.1. Working in small intimate teams on progressive ideas over a short, intensive period of time, Willem’s work typifies the fusion of startups and corporations, and the benefits for both when they are successful.
How do startups work within FrieslandCampina and why is there a need for them?
Within big companies, big things move slow. This is a risk for multinational corporations like FrieslandCampina and we have a lot of competition from smaller startups that are quicker than we are, partly because they don’t have as much of a hierarchy as we have. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have it, it’s just a consequence of being a big company, but the way you then organize innovation isn’t as easy. So nearly two years ago we started corporate startups, which we call “Milkubators”. We form teams as a startup which are then given a topic or a mission to work on. But crucially, these startups aim to do within three months what you would usually do in a year within a bigger company. This structure gives these ideas full focus which is also why our team is located at B.. We only have one task; to make the task we have a success. One way to think about it is that FrieslandCampina is a big ship. It’s floating and it has a direction, but we are the speedboats that move ahead and see if we should go left or right.
And how does B. fit into what you’re doing?
What we try to do is activate and stimulate people with an entrepreneurial mindset. We want to facilitate an environment that contributes to the speed and the success of the innovations that we wouldn’t have if we were operating directly inside the corporate. If you walk around the headquarters of FrieslandCampina, it’s how you think headquarters would be and even on a practical note, it makes more sense to operate outside of that setting. If you want to have a meeting room at headquarters, you might have to make a reservation three weeks in advance, and then you only have an hour and you might not be able to stick anything on the walls.
Being at the B. building helps us with two main things; to be around like-minded people who are also involved with startups and secondly, it’s important to have our own space. These things sound simple, but they would be much harder to do internally. B. offers us an inspirational environment, a pressure cooker where we can make things happen. It’s intense and it’s hard work, but it’s necessary. It’s often hard to think outside-in when you’re in the company and that’s partly what we are trying to promote through our innovations; getting out of the building, talking to consumers, learning what their problems are and finding ways how to solve them. It’s easier to do it when you’re in surroundings where it’s open to do these things.
Could you talk a little more about the idea behind ‘Milkubators’?
A team is formed, and a brief is given to that team. The team is usually made of three or four people who often have different skillsets or traits. Someone might be more of an organizer, another person may be slightly more creative and another could be a leader. By having all of these personalities in one intimate team, the speed of innovation is greatly increased which is important for us. Sometimes we’ll rent external growth hackers to help us but we’re progressively trying to find and have those resources within the company of course. After we have the team, we then work on an idea for three months, with sprints of two weeks and every two weeks we have a demo with our investors. We like to present ourselves internally as a startup so we need to convince them that we are on the right track. After the three months are up and we ask for investment. If we get the green light, we move forwards but if we don’t, we recognise that it didn’t work, we fail fast and we move forward.
What are the benefits of the intensive work process that these startups have?
The customer discovery process is immensely important to business success but when you’re in a routine job and you’re trying to do twenty things at once, it’s really hard to broaden your horizon and talk with your consumers. Finding time for that as well as coming up with a solution in the usual flow of work is hard. But with this intensive, short period structure that we have with the corporate startups, it allows us to fully focus on these ideas. We always start with desirability whereas in big companies it’s often risk management that takes a lead role. An opportunity might be seen but then the question of what are the chances that it won’t work comes up. With these Milkubators, we turn it around; what do the consumers want, can we come up with a solution and if we have that product/market fit, we’re going to make it work. It’s a startup mentality that we use and the intensity behind the process supports that way of thinking.
How do these innovative ideas that you come up with here then feed into the wider operations of FrieslandCampina?
That is a challenge. We’ve been working outside of the company for the entire process and if we’re given the go after those three months, it’s not easy to bring it back internally, but I try and see it positively. Many startups struggle with the feasibility part of the business model canvas but corporations have a lot of advantages there because of the resources they have. Logistics, distribution, legal; you name it, we have it. If we have questions, we have expertize within the company who can help us very quickly. I believe this is one of the main advantages of being a corporate startup, that we can tap into these larger networks.
That transition back into the company isn’t easy but it’s where there is a lot of profit in the feasibility phase. Of course, if you act too much like a startup it can be increasingly difficult to integrate back into a larger company. It’s a tradeoff. Within big companies you have processes that you need to adapt to so it’s always a challenge, but I think it’s a good one.
What’s the importance to have the progressive thinking of startups intertwined with international corporations?
If you can find that sweet spot, I think the combination is amazing. If you have a really good idea which can genuinely progress a wider mission, and then if you can tap into those resources that big corporations have in a quick way, then in the end everyone benefits from it. That’s why I think it’s important to have these progressive startups connected within big corporations, because they can make the big impact.
What benefits have you personally experienced through working in a startup environment and through your role as Innovation Manager?
I think a really cool part of my job is that everyone in our generation wants to make an impact and at the moment, along with my team, I really feel like we can do that. I feel lucky to have that. Also, working as a self-steering gives you more responsibility and at the same time you actually learn outside-in thinking. Everyone talks about it but when you’re in a small intensive team you actually go outside and talk to the consumers. That’s very different from doing that twice a year at an organized marketing event for example.
Another thing I like about my position and the environment that we’re working in is that when you are in a team of three or so people, and you’re with them all day, at certain points you can get annoyed with each other. But as you build a quick and open feedback loop in your team, you really learn to value the different personalities in the team. It’s an absolute necessity to have different personalities in a team; for instance, I’m not that structured but there is someone in my team who is really structured. There are times when those traits butt against each other but by the end of day, you learn to respect and use those differences. This is all intensified being in the same room with only a few people and the quicker you learn to harness those variations in people, the quicker these innovations move forward.
In the end, we’re putting together puzzles from which we find pieces every day, which at the start can be overwhelming with different people used to working in different ways, where do you even start? But piece by piece you get somewhere and when it’s complete, there’s a massive amount of satisfaction that comes from it.