It’s been just about a year since the formal portion of our pseudo-incubator, Ecommerce Camp, ended at Fusionfarm.
Some parts of it — like JabberJava, a custom-label coffee gifting site — are still alive and kicking and growing.
In their new book, The Lean Enterprise, Trevor Owens and Obie Fernandez, talk about incubators, lean startup initiatives, and other innovation programs that run inside of existing companies instead of as standalone startups. Owens draws his examples from experience — for the past several years, his company, The Lean Startup Machine, has been advising enterprise level companies on just those types of initiatives.
Which makes it a good moment to look back on what we learned running Ecommerce Camp as we think about what we want to do in the future.
What was Ecommerce Camp?
To be clear, the goal of what we called Ecommerce Camp wasn’t a pure incubator. We started Ecommerce Camp in Q4 of 2012, shortly after Fusionfarm started selling digital marketing services to outside clients, with two very specific goals.
- Accelerate our team’s acumen on ecommerce. We believed ecommerce expertise would be critical to our future, and that the best way to get smarter was to actually do it.
- Learn to work in cross-functional teams. We started Ecommerce Camp at a time when we had just brought together the creative and production teams, the digital marketing teams, and the developer teams into one entity — we had team members who hadn’t even met each other yet, much les understood what each other did. We needed an initiative to attack that.
The Ecommerce Camp Rules:
The basic rules of Ecommerce Camp were fairly simple:
- Participation was completely voluntary. Anybody in the company was eligible.
- Participants would divide into teams, and those teams would work together to launch and run an actual ecommerce business and storefront.
- Each team had to have at least one developer, one creative, and one marketer/salesperson. (We were following the “Perfect Team” concept popularized by Rei Inamoto of AKQA, which says great project teams need that “a hipster, a hacker, and a hustler,” which Rei had spoken about at SXSW 2012.)
- Each team could go up to $5,000 in debt as they built their business. If it ended up losing that amount (or less) and folding, we’d view it as a training and development expense for the team. No harm no foul. (If this was a pure incubator, this may have been a bad strategy – but it was a good strategy for achieving our goals.)
- We would assemble and require attendance at a 13-week, one-hour-a-week curriculum to teach the basics of building an ecommerce site and business.
- There would be a pitch competition with local entrepreneurs as judges at the 3-month mark (just like an accelerator).
- Any teams that turned profitable would split those profits with the company.
- If you built your store and then realized you were managing a business that wouldn’t succeed, there was no shame in shutting it down – fail fast and focus on what you learned.
What we learned at Ecommerce Camp. The Good.
We didn’t do everything perfectly at Ecommerce Camp. We’d do a lot of it differently if we did it again, some of which will get covered below. But we learned a lot about how to run these types of programs, which is hugely valuable in and of itself.
As for our two key objectives – the teams nailed those. The teams at Fusionfarm now offer ecommerce development as part of their marketing services, and as an organization we got smarter about our marketplace platforms. And the energy the program participants got from getting to know their new teammates was amazing – the most frequent feedback in the early part of the program was along the lines of “I had no idea how many talented people we have here.” Good and good.
The momentum from the program – the energy, and the sense of ownership it created – was a big reason of why Fusionfarm was the first Iowa company to get WorldBlu certification as a democratic workplace.
The teams that chose to play were fantastic. And those who volunteered to help manage the program — Jason Kristufek and Aaron Frerichs for putting together the curriculum, Kelly Homewood for taking on all the dirty work nobody wanted, and Chris Edwards for playing along and co-sponsoring the program with me — were all great.
What We Leaned at Ecommerce Camp. What would change.
But for all the positives, we took some lumps and bruises along the way. Four things among the many that I’d change if we had do-overs:
1. Don’t do the crime if you can’t commit the time: People jumped into the program enthusiastically, and in great numbers. We had over 30 volunteers. But as work went on, people became uncertain about how much time they could commit to their Ecommerce Camp project, and how to balance that with existing work priorities. Guilt set in. As managers, we (especially me) needed to be better about creating space so teams would have the freedom to work on their Ecommerce Camp projects. We intended for teams to self-govern their way through this, and that’s how the team preferred to handle it — but in hindsight we should have just the decks for them upfront and eliminated the conflict. One way would have been to declare half-days each week where Ecommerce Camp work was automatically the top priority, and give teams advance time to plan normal activity around that time accordingly.
2. Fail fast is easy to understand in your head, hard to understand in your gut. We talked a lot about how it was OK to “fail fast.” Still, we had teams that we knew were struggling with a once-promising business models that weren’t working out. They knew it, too, but they didn’t want to give up because they didn’t want to be quitters. When that happens, what started out a fun romp can turn into a trudge through the mud. They hit their initial objectives (get smarter on ecommerce and learn to work in cross-functional teams), and it was time to move on. It’s one thing to tell teams it’s OK to shut it down, especially if they’ve learned things that will help them on other projects. Helping them understand that in their gut is something different entirely. Camp leaders (again, especially me) need to work hard to get people to get “fail fast is good” in their gut, not just their head.
3. Focus less on building the site, more on building the business. We knew this would be an issue, we talked about it being an issue … and it was still an issue. In too many cases, the teams tended to view the launch of the site as the end game — when that really should have just been the start. When we eventually do “Son of Ecommerce Camp,” we’ll adjust the curriculum and emphasis accordingly.
4. Take care of the boring crap upfront so the teams don’t have to. We under-estimated the work that needed to get done with accounting, legal, and insurance. Our insurance provider needed a ton of backup before they felt comfortable that none of the mini-startups could put the company at risk. Wholesalers needed credit assurances. GL Codes had to be created. None of this was the “fun” part, and when teams had to deal with it, it bogged them down. And when one of the teams claimed they had turned profitable recently (great news), it was a reminder that we never completely finished the payroll mechanism to take care of the profit-sharing part of the program. Some of these issues mimic the support issues that real startups face, and some were artifacts of doing this within an already existing company — but in our pseudo-incubator world, they were a distraction from the goal.
Despite (sometimes significant) flaws, the program was still a success. It pulled the team together. We got better at working cross-functionally. We got smarter about ecommerce. Doing the pitch day the way we did started to build real credibility for us with the local startup and innovation communities, and gave everybody a chance to showcase their talents internally, too. It helped set a tone of ownership and learning. And it made us more aware of how much talent the team had.
“Son of Ecommerce Camp” would likely look very different. It would likely have different goals. Even in the year since, there’s a lot more information about what works and what doesn’t from other companies trying to find success with similar initiatives.
Build – measure – learn, then iterate. That’s the spirit, right?