Running an Innovation Center at a Fortune 500 Company

I recently spoke on how to run an innovation center within a large company at both the Lean Startup conference in SF and the Strategic Planning Innovation Summit in NYC. As part of the leadership team running the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t especially within a BIG company.

How can you apply Lean Startup principles at your company? I have 6 pieces of advice:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
    The eBay mobile app almost didn’t get built as the mobile team was restructured away shortly before Apple announced the App Store in 2008. By “hiding” a small team of people building MVP (Alan Lewis, Ken Sun, Karlyn Neal) enough momentum was established that the Exec team went along.
  2. Build credibility thru projects–then scale
    The Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center was built out of an earlier acquisition made a couple years earlier in Plaxo. By running projects under the Plaxo brand and then Comcast Labs, credibility in the approach was established with the executive team. Over time its scaled to include higher profile projects, such as SEEiT.
  3. Don’t just swing for homeruns
    We take a VC mindset for “funding” concepts at the center. Ideas can come from anywhere (often Hack Days) and get evaluated using a Lean Canvas. Receiving “Seed” funding means we might assign a few engineers for a month or so. If they prove their hypothesis they might get “Series A” funding where they could build an MVP. Meanwhile we’re always looking for an “exit” which could be an “acquisition” from another internal business unit–so a solid “double” in baseball helps offset the “strikeouts” that might occur.
  4. Adapt Lean Canvas for your company
    I adapted Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to better fit within the enterprise. Cost included the number of FTEs / time and Revenue includes indirect improvements to retention/acquisition. Finally a new cell was added for “Strategic Fit” which evaluates how well the concept fits within the corporate strategy and who on the Exec team will sponsor it.
    leancanvas_adapted
  5. Watch out for corporate antibodies
    Organizations are just like the body and will attack what they see as “foreign objects” (different ways of doing things). You need to be aware of who’s toes you might be stepping on and building allies at the exec level is important. It’s also helpful to understand resource allocation is often a “zero-sum-game” so don’t scale your resources too fast or they become a target for others looking for funding.
  6. Use vanity metrics (but don’t believe them)
    As you analyze using rate-based metrics that ruthlessly look at acquisition, activity, and retention is the only way to go. However its important that you present your product fairly alongside others at the company. Shining a bright light on all things wrong with your project may not give you the time you need to pivot and get it where you want it to go. So occasionally, its useful to share “vanity metrics” alongside the equivalents of other products at your company. ;-)

Here’s some of my favorite tweets about my talk:

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

As with the rest of this blog, the above are my personal views and not that my employer. 

Tagged with:
Posted in conference, talks

The Making of X2

A heart-warming behind the scenes look at how we at Comcast are building the future of TV from the perspective of some of my colleagues.

Want to join in? We’re hiring: sv.comcast.com

Tagged with: ,
Posted in comcast, tv

I’m riding to put and end to MS. Support my team.

bike_trainingcrew_bannerHi Friends and Family,
I’m doing a 2-day bike ride (Sept 21-22) to help end multiple sclerosis (MS). I decided to ride with and in support of my son’s godfather who was diagnosed a few years ago. If you are familiar with MS you know that while there are treatments available to try and slow the disease their effectiveness is sporadic and there is no cure .

If you can sponsor me and my team in this ride, your donation will go toward treatment and cutting-edge research to both stop and reverse the damage done to the nervous system by this disease. Ways you can help:

  1. Make a tax-deductible donation to Bike MS.
  2. Investigate if your employer offers a matching program.
  3. Share this link with someone else that might be able to help.

If you can’t help financially now, maybe you’re a cycler and you can offer me some advice before I hit the road for 90 miles. Thanks! :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIQTCCaz7lM

Tagged with:
Posted in personal

A fun new way to pick a flick, together

Today I’m demoing at the NCTA Cable Show  in Washington DC  a slick new “app” we built to help groups of people pick a movie to watch at home, called Movie Night. Tony Werner, Comcast’s CTO, invites me and my team to demo on stage.

If you’re like me, you’ve been on the couch trying to pitch to your spouse or friends movie ideas only to either end up settling for a movie you’re not thrilled about or just give up altogether. So a few of our best engineers and designers were also interested in this problem and over the last 6 weeks put together a collaborative experience that gets everyone in the room involved–and having fun while doing it.

Movie Night Screen

This is just one of a number of innovative products we’re incubating using Lean Startup methods in Silicon Valley as part of Comcast Labs. If you’d like to join us, let me know… we’re looking for more product, design, and engineering talent.

Video of Presentation (jump to 21:50 – 33:28 for Movie Night)

Photo of demo on stage 6/12/13 (by Josh Kennedy):

On Stage Demoing Movie Night

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in comcast

March Madness on X1

I love seeing the Sports App on X1 our team here made while it’s March MadnessX1 Sports App for March Madness

Whenever you want to catchup on the tournament just launch the app on your TV, browse all the live games, and click on the one you want to watch (no need to remember if its CBS, TNT, truTV, etc).

Then while you watch that game you can decide to keep a detailed “game cast” for a 2nd game up so you can decide when you want to hop around.

While we’re working on lots more improvements to this popular app, its great seeing the basics work during a big event like this.

Not at home? XFINTY subscribers can stream all the games live to a tablet or computer:

Posted in comcast

I’m hiring! Join our team!

I’m on the lookout for a strong mobile PM to join our team focused on redefining how people enjoy, discovery, and interact with TV. Here’s a short job description I put together as well as an example of one of the products you’d manage in the role.

What's On TeamHere at the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center we’re also hiring designers and engineers. It’s a great team with some of best I’ve worked with so if you or someone you know might fit the bill ping me.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in comcast, jobs

Play by your own rules

Listen to your users more than the press. Don’t get sucked into the gravity hole between you and your competition. Ruthlessly run your own path, not someone else’s. – Josh Williams

An excerpt from an insightful piece by Gowalla’s co-founder on how he let the competition and the press shape his startup’s priorities. A must read for anyone building a product.

I see it also as a classic case of letting “vanity metrics” drive decisions rather than focusing harder on rate-based metrics that might lead to the kind of breakthrus he alluded to in his piece (e.g. Instagram).

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in product, strategy

2013: TV is dead! Long live TV!

Logos for TV Companies

It’s both and 2013 will be the year it happens.

If you’re interested at all in TV you can’t miss rumors of the (real) Apple TV or the rising sales of the actual Apple TV as the most popular “accessory” for iPhones and iPads (10 million sold). We also hear that Intel’s announced its working on its own TV killer. And the one less talked about, which I think is much more likely, is the possibility of a Kindle TV by Amazon–they continue to rack up content deals (e.g. CBS, NBCUniversal) for their streaming service, have hired countless folks from the TV industry, and have a proven track record of building consumer products with billing relationships tied to them (Kindle).

Logos for TV Companies

Who will shape the Future of TV?

If you’re new to thinking about the TV space then I recommend a primer on the business done by Kit Digital which outlines the players, how they make money, and their general strategy. As someone operating in the business, I’d say its fairly accurate:

The 7 key players, circa 2013: The Networks, The MVPDs, The Premium Networks, The OTT Networks, Smart TVs, Third Party devices and Social TV. –Alan Wolk

The primer addresses many of the common questions I tend to hear in discussions like “When will HBO sell HBO GO a la carte?” and “Why are there a bunch of channels I don’t want bundled into ‘Basic Cable’?”

As you might expect, I disagree that all MVPDs are standing still or against innovation (see 5 things you didn’t know Comcast offered). As we innovate in the TV space though we’d be wise to better understand why people pay for TV in the first place. Perhaps the best piece on this was recently shared by Jeremy Toeman (CEO of TV startup Dijit Media) on GigaOm:

As the primary way of watching TV shifts from a traditional broadcast, linear, scheduled, single-device mode to one that is all on-demand, on all devices, available at any time, anywhere, the consumer’s TV watching world is suddenly filled with a curse of choices. If everything we watch requires us to navigate menus, pick from lists, and choose, choose, choose — TV watching is in danger of losing its primary function: escapism. – Jeremy Toeman

In many ways the TV Industry is on the verge of great change in a similar way the mobile phone market was 6 years ago and music industry 12 years ago. Technology is enabling greater innovation, customers are interested in trying alternatives, and there are millions of dollars being invested in developing new products at companies big and small.

In the end I think the winner will need a good combination of understanding the user, great design, saavy business development, and the ability to achieve broad distribution.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in tv

How to design for Viral Growth

INFOGRAPHIC: Design for Viral Growth

Visual overview (by @morganb) of many of the core tenets to consider when designing for viral growth. Keep in mind that increasing the “speed” of the loop is the most often overlooked component and quite important—just asks a rabbit.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Uncategorized

5 things you didn’t know Comcast offered

As I go to holiday parties this year and talk about what I do at work, I keep hearing from people that just aren’t aware of how much Comcast and its services have changed over the last year or two. So I put together a list of the top 5 things people often don’t know we offer…

1. A DVR that doesn’t suck

X1 Remote ControlComcast is rolling out an entirely new, cloud-based TV experience, called the X1 Platform. It’s built from the ground up to be a more intuitive, visual experience that’s connected to the web the way you’d expect your TV to be in 2012 (now available in the SF Bay Area).

It makes channel-surfing easier keeping track of your last 9 shows visually. Offers episode guides for your shows listing what’s on your DVR, OnDemand, and upcoming on air. Finally it offers a slew of apps (many built by my team) that enable you to do everything from seeing your Facebook photos on the big screen, to checking your commute’s traffic, to listening to Pandora.

2. Remote control using your phone

What's On App - ScreenshotWhether you’re on your couch or at work, many don’t realize you can use your smartphone or tablet to tune your TV’s channel or record a show. One of these apps, built by my team, aims to solve the problem of thousands of channels but you still can’t find something good to watch.

The What’s On app, in a visual way, shows you what’s trending on TV right now that you might want to watch. Over time we’ll learn what types of shows and channels you like and then tailor the results to you. This week we also added to ability to share with your friends what you’re watching which eventually will improve your results as well.

Finally if you want to control your DVR or browse a grid-based guide, check out the XFINITY TV app for iOS or Android.

3. A Sports Experience built for Fans

Sports App on X1Finding what games are on now is a whole lot easier with the Sports App offered for X1 or your iPhone/iPad. It shows you each match-up by league/conference, the current score, airing time, channel etc. From the app you can tune directly or set a recording on DVR.

While the game’s playing keep track of the other games you’re interested in, so you’ll always know when its time to switch channels.

4. Downloadable movies to take with you

XFINITY Player App on iPadComcast’s already got thousands of TV shows and movies OnDemand (most free) but that doesn’t help you when you’re on the airplane without the Internet… until now.

With the new XFINITY TV Player app you now can download TV shows and movies directly to your iPad/iPhone or Android tablet to watch where ever you want—meaning you’ll no longer have to pay for that in-flight movie again.

And if you’re on WiFi for Verizon LTE you can stream an even larger selection of titles.

5. Access to a large list of direct streaming apps

With you TV subscription comes access to a growing number of mobile streaming apps offered directly by content providers—if you get the channel, you can use the app. My kids love the Disney Jr app to catch up on their Mickey Mouse Clubhouse but here’s just a sample of what’s out there…

image  image  image  image  image

Finally, gone are the days of waiting around all day for the cable guy to show up. Comcast’s uses a narrower 2 hour window now if the service technician doesn’t make it out the Comcast Guarantee will credit you $20 or a free premium channel for 3 months as a way of showing we messed up. But please let me know if this ever doesn’t work out as I’d hate to see one of my friends not taken care of. :)

To wrap up this is really just the start as there’s lots more in the works to make your TV experience even better. Since my team plays a role in the above please let me know what you think.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized


Preston builds apps that shape Comcast's next generation mobile and TV experiences at its Silicon Valley Innovation Center.

Former GM of Plaxo.com (acquired by Comcast), User Experience Design leader at eBay, Microsoft PM. MBA from UC Berkeley.

Danville Dad of Three.