How Building New Ventures Can Lead To Better Insights Than Strategy Consulting
This article is written as part of EDB’s Corporate Venture Launchpad 2.0 programme — an expanded S$20m programme by EDB New Ventures, designed to enable companies to incubate and launch a new venture from Singapore, supported by venture studios experienced in corporate venture building.
Leaders have a duty to their shareholders to increase the value of the company continuously, and one of the necessary means to do that is to keep growing the business. This can typically take the form of increasing the top-line revenues of the company or the bottom-line profits it generates.
A big challenge for companies to overcome in their Business as Usual (BAU) is balancing the maintenance of profit levels and the achievement of increasingly aggressive growth objectives. The most successful companies have been able to do that by continuously searching for new business opportunities while excelling in their existing businesses. This is especially true when exploring Horizon 3 ideas, or those that go well beyond the core business.
Status Quo: Slideware as Market Research
Companies typically leverage their strategy departments when searching for new businesses to venture into. More often than not, these strategy departments engage in-house or outside consultants to help with the necessary research and approach.
These consultants often look at trends, market forces, and high-level opportunities creating beautiful (and expensive) documents that can be presented to boards and reassure those who attend that “there is a clear strategy.” However, as observed from the ever-changing membership of companies in the Fortune 500 list, this approach does not work very well for a few reasons:
- Trends do not always materialize into products and services in real life. Moreover, looking at trends at such a high level frequently leads to, figuratively speaking, mistaking the trees for the forest.
- The strategy rarely resembles what execution is like on the ground. Walking the distance between strategy and execution can take many months without realizing any revenue at all.
- More agile and flexible startups are quickly moving into the white spaces not yet covered by corporates. They move faster and iterate quicker, leading to a shorter time to market.
- In a world where VUCA is the norm, a new business opportunity will have already changed when the strategy work is completed.
So, is there a better way? Or are companies always in need of spending too much money on beautiful decks to explore businesses that later they do not know how to execute or fail to deliver results?
Next Practice: Venture Building as Market Research
At Wright Partners and MING Labs, we believe there is a better way to explore new and current markets and identify new engines of growth, especially for those farther away from the core business. The solution to the problems above is building risk-aligned investable corporate ventures as a strategy to explore new markets, products, and customers.
How does venture building solve the problem better than traditional strategy consulting?
1. Building a new venture looks beyond trends — as they rarely matter in the first 12 to 24 months of the venture — and instead focuses on quickly validating the right market opportunities on the ground.
Case in Point — Banking/InsurTech:
Working with a large bank in SEA looking to target the low rate of insurance across Indonesia for corporates, the trends showed a big gap to fill. Hence we initiated a new “pay as you go” and finance solution with the bank. Once launched, however, it has become clear that while the gap was there, convincing the market to try such a new solution was difficult. This was because selling the product required engaging with departments that are more short-term thinking than what the trend analysis has shown. Hence, the trends were systemic and unlikely to be solved meaningfully through new solutions.
2. Wright Partners’ and MING Labs’ venture-building approach goes beyond the “strategy” and hundreds of interviews and instead focuses on building an MVP quickly to test it with real customers. We, therefore, focus on getting the first revenues as validation.
Case in Point — Logistics/FinTech:
We were thrilled with our Craiglist approach to remote logistics UNTIL one of our consortium partners (investors and a client) called out the additional friction without any benefit as we very painstakingly went through the product (through every flow and process map together). This led to a mid-venture pivot towards fintech first and logistics tech later. It also meant that instead of merely “understanding” the rules and regulations and the requirements of financing this industry, we had to research a creative way to offer financing to the users of the platform in a way that is convenient and quick. We needed to go above and beyond the standard financing product and their constraints to meet the needs of the users. Which we did, learning many things in the process that have made the product significantly stronger.
3. While there are different venture-building approaches, we try to focus on the one that most resembles a venture in the wild. Addressing new opportunities and competing with startups is often difficult for a corporate to do in the ordinary course of business (as we mentioned in previous articles). Leveraging the agility and drive of an actual founder and having the potential to benefit from the same rocket fuel as ventures in the wild can allow corporate ventures to compete with startups in the wild.
Case In Point — FoodTech Production:
In this case, following trends and choosing downstream as an entry point into the industry has proven wrong (even after trading two tons of chicken wings and other parts over two weeks). We therefore pivoted to an upstream solution. This solution seemed to work well through a couple of raises. But as productivity improved, it was clear that downstream would still be required to complete the value chain. So, with limited support from us (and little guidance from the corporate), the founders have expanded their venture from up- to downstream and are continuing to innovate — all within 18 months. This is faster than most “strategy plus execution” consulting exercises happen.
4. By definition, venture capital is risky; hence, their business is about managing risk. Corporations are typically not in the business of taking such risks but can’t use some of those principles to engage with a VUCA world. This means that instead of over-investing early (whether or not the corporate has the funds), they should focus on investing little and early, letting a strong, incentivized team “teach the corporate” how to build a business in a VUCA world in a risk-aligned way.
Case In Point — Logistics:
When we engaged with an aviation/transportation conglomerate out of Germany, they had an investment plan for a new venture ready to go at €10m for the first year. We convinced them to take a smaller bet, validating the critical assumptions by generating first revenues like a venture in the wild. The original idea of C2C logistics failed to gain traction, and we pivoted towards same-day delivery for eCommerce. They doubled down on the venture for the Seed round together with a VC, and in Series A onwards, an outside strategic investor took over and eventually acquired the venture.
Building risk-aligned investable ventures is, therefore, an excellent strategy for exploring Horizon 3-type opportunities, for which traditional strategy consulting approaches regularly fail.
What does this look like in practice? How can a corporate run this strategy successfully and realize results?
Case Study: Farming as a Service
After seeing multiple (and being involved in a few) ventures and consulting projects looking to target agriculture, it has become clear that no corporate (or consultant) is actively looking at farming as a way to support food security, reduce carbon emissions, and uplift smallholder farmers. To this end, we took upon ourselves the mission of farming together with the farmers to identify “how to close” the massive yield gaps mentioned in the trend research.
And we learned: Farming is hard…
To this end, and with learning that would not have been possible in the office, we are better equipped to engage with farmers (as opposed to fruitlessly trying to “convince” them to farm better). We are also then working on a few different elements at the same time, which break the “research” model and double down on execution:
Go to Market: How do we lower the acquisition costs of farmers on our platform?
Segmentation: Which farmers would require which product for us to deliver?
Farming: What can we genuinely add value to while engaging with said farmers?
The answers to these questions (and most relevant questions that are asked by a business looking to pursue new opportunities) are found in the field (no pun intended) through hard work and not through better whiteboarding in an office far, far away. And as it works for farming, we are sure that a methodology of ideation, fast experimentation, execution, and learning is a worthwhile exercise with more concrete results than pure research for other industries as well.
The best part is that once the venture gets invested in, the return on the investment is faster than the traditional method.
Above and beyond what companies are already doing to ensure growth, companies should identify Horizon 3 areas they want to research (e.g., BNPL for a telco operator, agriculture for a protein producer, or invoice financing for a logistics player). Horizon 3, in this case, refers to new businesses that are above and beyond existing core and adjacent businesses but can leverage the current assets of the corporates.
In those cases, a risk-aligned venture-building approach that results in an investable venture might be a good option to explore instead of a traditional strategy consulting project. It generates on-the-ground insights faster, leads to actual revenues, and leverages the strength of the corporate while bringing the best of the startup world to the approach.
Sebastian Muller, Co-Founder, MING Labs
Ziv Ragowsky, Founding Partner, Wright Partners
Rangga Maharga, Venture Partner, Wright Partners
Saheb Singh, Venture Architect, Wright Partners