Successful innovation generally comes from being small, with little baggage, no institutional ‘downside’ and few inhibitors to the ability to be truly agile in response to weak feedback signals from customers. Innovation is also a consumer of cash, rather than a generator, although that fact of history is being rewritten by the plummeting cost of tech. Usually the innovators have the will, but do not have the cash, the big companies have that.

So, to be successful, as a rule, you at least have to be able to think and act like a small enterprise, but have the resources of a big one.

Back in my early corporate days I worked for Cerebos Australia, then a modest sized, but hugely profitable offshoot of a British multinational . When I joined, Cerebos marketed Cerola Muesli , with considerable success, but margin was hard to get. In the process of creating new products, we created a muesli bar, a mobile, healthy snack that could go into  a lunchbox, and being made of muesli ingredients, was guilt free, or at least, less guilty than a candy bar.

We cobbled together a  bit of gear to add to the production muesli line, and successfully trialled the products to modest outcomes in market research. With the great benefit of hindsight, the encouraging but modest research outcomes were the result of asking people about something they had not seen, so had no context or frame of reference. Nobody to that time had seen a muesli bar, and did not really understand what it was, or more importantly, the value it could deliver.

I did the work, produced a business plan, and was committed to the launch, but the top end of the volume projections I was comfortable to put my name against were below those required to generate the rate of return demanded by Cerebos, and given the perceived risk,  setting out to create a totally new category, was too large, the project was binned before birth.

Then, several years later, when Uncle Toby’s launched their version, which was a close match to the products we had developed, the volumes they achieved in the first 6 months bettered my most optimistic 3 year projections  by a considerable margin.

Creating a sales forecast for an entirely new product, is a function of research, insight, optimism, wishful thinking, and plain lies, all mixed up into a set of projections. Often the most important ingredient is the insight and domain knowledge , but the only thing you know for sure is that the forecasts will be wildly inaccurate. Mostly those inaccuracies reflect the optimism which fails to materialise, but from time to time, great projects are left in the dust, and it is only with hindsight that we wonder why they could not see what now seems obvious.

Innovation inside a large company is challenging. They became big and successful by doing a few things well,  time after time. By improving operational efficiency, they leverage the mathematics of scale and scope. By contrast, anything innovative is messy, risky, and not subject  to rigorous quantitative analysis: there are no hard numbers, just instinct, dodgy projections, and belief.

Perhaps that is why the successful VC’s around do not, as is commonly believed, fund the true start-ups at start-up. Those are funded by the ‘Trinity of F’,: Family and Fools. The VC comes in when the proof of concept is at least partly there, and they do not invest in the business plan, weighed down by mindless excel projections, wishful thinking, and desperation to snag some money to keep up the car payments, they invest in the people.