Corporate change-makers must bend the rules

If my team at Evidend had always played by the rules, the product would have never been what it is today: the leading online shareholder’s register for private limited companies in The Netherlands.

To make waves, we really needed to hustle and be creative.

Let me take you back to our early days…

Early 2017 I was working at ING and started pitching an idea I had gotten while writing my Master’s thesis. After talking to 30 managers, I persuaded one of them to become the business sponsor of what was then called ‘Project Batavia’.

We formed a team of three: a hacker (developer), hustler (me, the business guy) and hipster (designer) and followed ING’s PACE methodology based on Design Thinking, Agile Scrum and Lean Startup.

The first couple of months went by pretty smoothly. Customer discovery and testing hypotheses had gone well, and we had a clear idea of what we wanted our MVP to look like.

Then, out of nothing, our sole developer quit. He no longer supported the product’s vision and left. This was a big blow as -obviously- without a developer you can’t build a SaaS/software company.

The usual way to go about this at a company with ING’s size (15k FTE in The Netherlands) is that you start looking for ‘overcapacity’. The idea behind this is that new projects like ours need to be as ‘budget neutral’ as possible. Our innovation coach mentioned that surely there was a developer or a trainee with some time on his hands who could help out.

We had some doubts about this. How could somebody with ‘some time on his hands’ have the kind of knowledge, grit and risk appetite that was needed to turn our idea into a success? Despite our scepticism, we had some conversations with internal colleagues. As we expected, it turned out to be impossible to find a suitable, available candidate inside ING’s ranks.

Weeks passed by in which we weren’t building anything. Our project was stalling. I was getting more stressed by the day and had plenty of moments where I thought, is this (ad)venture really going to stop here?

Then, one day, while having lunch at our offices in an Amsterdam co-working space, we were discussing our problem with a friendly recruiter who also had her offices there. She used to work in IT and after hearing our challenge she instantly said: “You have to call Ivo, he’s looking for a new challenge” and gave us his name. So we checked him out on LinkedIn and saw his title: Global Head of Development at FlowTraders. “Great profile” I thought, “But that’s a hell of a position and a hell of a company*. He’s never going to leave it for a 3-man startup.”

But we didn’t care. We had nothing to lose and called Ivo up. One week later we were having coffee and at the end of our chat he said: “You got me really interested”. And after another meeting, Ivo was ready to join us. Then we faced a new problem we knew we would run into: ING’s corporate policies. We weren’t allowed to put a new hire on the payroll. The only workaround we could think of was to hire Ivo as a freelancer, and luckily we were able to. In the end, Ivo translated our value proposition to an IT blueprint, we hired three more developers, rebranded our product into “Evidend” and got the wheels rolling again.

Ivo isn’t the only example of a problem that got an unexpected solution. At some point, we were looking for an Angular developer, but we didn’t have any budget. My co-founder told me an intern would be enough to help with the workload, but I wasn’t sure how much value they would add. He persisted and said he would go to the Computer Science campus looking for a student who was interested in an internship. Talking about a needle in a haystack…

Soon enough, we received a call from one of the tutors that just hours after my co-founder had talked to him, a student (his name was Job) had come to him to discuss ways he might be able to get his remaining study credits. Believe it or not, but Job was an Angular developer and excited to work for a startup like ours. Just days after that, Job joined Evidend.

In the end, Evidend’s proposition diverted too much away from ING’s strategy, which caused them to stop investing in it. My co-founders and I decided to buy the IP rights and sold Evidend to Sdu Publishers. It was a great journey, which has taught me three things:

  1. Bend the rules, but don’t break them. Corporate entrepreneurship is as much about building a company around a product or service that people buy as it is about finding workarounds to get things done.
  2. Surround yourself with the best allies, which might not necessarily work inside the same company. Outside experts or advisors can accelerate things because they are not burdened with company legacy.
  3. Try risky things. Angel investors are right to apply the 10% rule. From the ten things you try, only one will make it big. If you want to make waves, you must build a culture in which people try things.

Thank you for reading this. My name is Barry Pijnenburg, innovation coach at Aimforthemoon. Want to read another great case study at Aimforthemoon? Download our award-winning Wolters Kluwer case!