By now, you have heard of the infamous term paper written by Frederick W. Smith at Yale in 1965, theorizing a new way of moving urgent packages from point A to B faster than ever before. Instead of praising the budding entrepreneur, his professor gave him a mediocre grade and doubted the business model.
Fifty-two years later, this story serves as an inspiration for emerging start-ups. After long days and late nights, they remember the FedEx story and remind themselves that it can be done. FedEx is still making the impossible possible every day, and it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the company.
Growing up I was immersed in the family business, but I didn’t appreciate the courage and skill it required to make it successful. There was an incredible amount of hard work required to grow my father’s idea into a prosperous company.
I recognize this same drive in the entrepreneurs who participate in the Logistics Innovation Accelerator (LIA) programs. Sponsored by FedEx and managed by EPIcenter Memphis, LIA helps to bring innovative logistics products and technologies to market.
In 100 days, these passionate innovators work hard to create business plans, polish pitches and develop seamless go-to-market strategies. I’m impressed with them but, admittedly, a little jealous.
The entrepreneurs’ mantra of “fail fast” is in sharp contrast with the risk-averse nature of many corporations. In fact, some executives at large companies would say it’s easy for a start-up to disrupt, even at the risk of failure, because they have nothing to lose. While this may be true to some extent, corporations need to shift their mindset to embrace start-up innovation and its learnings.
Large companies are realizing this and know that they have to take risks, ask uncomfortable questions and push limits. At FedEx, we believe that engaging with start-ups and entrepreneurs is a critical component of innovation, and 82% of corporations agree.1
So, how can corporations harness the power of a nimble start-up? After all, all great corporations were start-ups once. These four ideas can help your company find and embrace your small (but mighty) roots.
1) Make Everyone Accountable for Innovation
Despite vast improvements in communication technologies and access to information, many organizations still have siloed teams that are organized by function. Marketing, finance and IT each holds one piece of the innovation puzzle, but no one is looking at the big picture.
Start-ups haven’t developed the infrastructure to muddy the waters. Everyone on a four- or five-person diverse team is accountable for the end result, and each person has to work together on the solution.
When I meet with a team for the first time, the most successful and innovative ones are easy to spot — all members are contributing to a productive outcome, rather than speaking only to their focus area. Companies who subscribe to Doblin’s Balanced Breakthrough model believe that balanced innovation output is a product of finding a sweet spot between feasibility, value and profitability. Companies can channel the start-up mentality of holding everyone accountable by breaking down siloed ways of thinking about functions.
2) Start with the Customer
When Ben Fornell missed a delivery, he had to take an Uber ride to the facility to pick it up. On the way back, he thought about all the delivery options — from groceries to pizza — and knew there had to be a better way. Fornell founded Shurpa (an LIA participant) soon after. Customers ship packages to Shurpa instead of their home or work, and the company sends a text message to arrange a pickup window that’s convenient for the customer.
Often, like in the case of Fornell’s missed package, start-ups develop because founders can’t find a solution in the existing market. They become their own customer, tapping into the latent demand of others like them. They are inherently following a customer-driven design (CDD) thinking process to build their product.
At FedEx, we are working to encourage design thinking throughout the company. Through CDD, we aim to develop a deep understanding of our customers’ needs, feelings and challenges, and to uncover new ideas. Through unique insight, we can develop differentiated and valued solutions in an increasingly commoditized industry.
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3) Get Out of the Office
At a large company, often only frontline employees interact with the customers and pain points never make it to leadership. At a start-up, by contrast, the CEO might also be making deliveries, thus inherently gathering valuable firsthand insight into the user experience.
As a leader in the company, I try to engage with our customers as much as possible by going on “ride-alongs” with couriers or sitting with a customer service team for a day. It allows me to understand the process and where improvements can be made that will ultimately impact the customer.
At FedEx, we encourage all team members to think this way. For example, our Marketing team met with small-business customers and found that shipping with FedEx Freight was too complex due to the standard industry pricing model and package requirements. After conducting thorough analysis, which included speaking with our customers directly, we developed the FedEx Freight® box. These premade, flat-rate containers provide a simple, easy-to-use shipping option and are the first of their kind in the less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping industry.
4) Be Relentless
Kathryn Finney remembers feeling invisible for the first time in her life. “I was told by the head of [a tech incubator program] that he’d never met a black woman who’d ever received venture funding, and the likelihood of me ever receiving funding was zero, and so I should leave the program,” she told attendees at the 2016 Forbes Women’s Summit. She did leave and a few years later started digitalundivided (DID), a social enterprise that uses innovation to foster the growth and empowerment of black and Latina women entrepreneurs.
Finney was named in this year’s FedEx Young Innovators List, which highlights the people, places and ideas that are reshaping the future. Start-ups like DID and others on the list have remarkable tales of overcoming adversity while maintaining drive and energy, and they are willing to put in the effort because they are driven by passion and purpose. As corporations grow, it’s easy to become complacent and removed. Reaffirming the “why we do what we do” is the responsibility of the leaders within the company.
At FedEx, we’re committed to doing whatever it takes to find the right solutions for our customers. Working with inspiring entrepreneurs in a variety of programs will not only continue to push us out of our comfort zone, but it is vital to our future success.
About Brie Carere:
Brie Carere serves as the senior vice president of Global Portfolio Marketing. She currently leads the Global Products, Strategy and Innovation, Global Supply Chain Services and Market Development teams.
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