“There is no correlation between the size of your business and entrepreneurship,” says John Lewis IT director Paul Coby. “Entrepreneurialism is an attitude of mind.”
To support its argument, the retailer has launched JLab, its first ‘technology incubator’. The aim is to uncover and develop digital innovations with a focus on in-store technology, personalisation and the ‘internet of things’.
“We’re trying to keep it really broad on the grounds that this is about what we don’t know, not what we do know,” adds Coby.
“We’ve got some great ideas about how to use technology but we don’t have a monopoly [on them]. There are some fantastic technologists, entrepreneurs and start-ups who want to talk to us and this is a great way to tap into ideas.”
JLab is part of the retailer’s 150th anniversary celebration and will run alongside a commemorative exhibition at its flagship store on Oxford Street, which founder John Lewis first opened on 2 May 1884.
Managing director Andy Street describes John Lewis as a “radical entrepreneur” whose approach to business and retail innovation formed the basis of the company’s DNA.
Through JLab we will nurture the next generation while helping ensure we remain on the cutting edge
“Our anniversary not only gives us the chance to reflect but to look forward at how we shape the next 150 years. Through our JLab incubator we will nurture the next generation of technology start-ups while helping ensure we remain on the cutting edge of retail change,” adds Street.
From all the business ideas it sees, it will choose a winner which will receive £100,000 of investment – £50,000 from John Lewis and £50,000 from technology entrepreneur Stuart Marks, who is running JLab in conjunction with the retailer.
Marks says: “John Lewis has done a great job at positioning itself as an omnichannel retailer. But the difficulty is how to maintain that lead. A lot of it comes through innovation in-house and through established relationships with some of the larger organisations [it already works with] but then it is about tapping into the start-up community and some of the more disruptive technologies, which is what JLab is all about.”
Five businesses will be selected to develop their ideas. Each will be given a £12,500 investment for a 4 per cent share in their business, which is designed to help with their expenses over the 15-week incubation period before the winner is announced in September.
Yet Gi Fernando, an entrepreneur and founder of skills business Free:Formers, says that while he supports ventures of this kind, companies must be careful not to exclude or isolate existing employees or treat it like a separate entity.
“It’s important that the rest of the organisation have the skills they need to appreciate and communicate with some of the businesses that are being accelerated inside it,” he says.
“Corporations also need to make sure people within the business have the opportunity to share ideas too, which often makes more sense because they already know the business. It’s not just people that wear skinny jeans and glasses that can come up with innovative ideas,” he jokes.
External and internal expertise
However, John Lewis is aware of this and Coby says the retailer is keen to draw on the expertise of both external and internal sources.
Last year it invited staff from all areas of the business to submit ideas as part of its Partner Innovation Technology Challenge (PITCH).
The retailer was looking for ways it could help customers in store and, from 150 entries, selected a concept that aims to leverage staff knowledge of fashion, submitted by an employee from its Cambridge store.
“We got the online and IT departments to work up a version of the idea before testing it on customers. It is now one of the ideas we’re looking to develop and put on our website,” says Coby.
After the JLab initiative is complete John Lewis plans to launch the second round of PITCH. “My aspiration for PITCH 2 is to create a beta version [of the winning idea] that we could use quickly,” says Coby.
Beauty group L’Oréal is also looking to nurture talent internally through the launch of its Next Fund competition, which invites UK employees to come up with a marketing, sales or retail solution for its Active Cosmetics Division (ACD).
“It is one of our youngest divisions and therefore the one with the most opportunity for growth,” says ACD’s UK & Ireland managing director Yannick Raynaud. She has been moving the business towards an innovation-driven and entrepreneurial approach over the past year and a half, which has already led to “high double-digit growth” (see Q&A below).
Raynaud believes businesses today need to encourage “intrepreneurship” as things change at such a fast pace.
“It is no longer a product push but a consumer pull for information,” she says. “This change is forcing us to be more reactive and proactive in the way we promote our business. Any company that isn’t innovating – as well as anticipating what will be next – will die.”
L’Oréal will be investing £100,000 in the winning idea – or ideas – which will be announced on 30 May and be activated within three to 12 months. The member of staff who suggested the idea will also receive a £2,500 prize.
“It will also give employees a chance to shine as they will be exposed to a panel of internal and external judges,” says Raynaud.
These include Google’s Christie Travers-Smith who is the industry head for fashion, luxury and beauty and Nick Baughan, managing director of media agency Maxus UK.
It is a valuable exercise for the business as a whole too as Raynaud believes there is something to be learned from all 50 of the ideas that have been submitted.
“I have already gained some very interesting insights,” she says. “They might not all be the most innovative, but nonetheless they are good ideas that can be activated almost immediately.”
If successful, Raynaud believes the Next Fund concept will be introduced to other divisions.
On a different scale, and this time promoting entrepreneurship outside the business, sugar brand Tate & Lyle is offering baking entrepreneurs a £5,000 investment.
As part of its Bake Your Dreams Come True campaign, the sugar company is asking amateur bakers to submit their business plans before a panel picks five businesses to back.
“It is important to us that we build on this trend for home baking by offering the right kind of support,” says James Whiteley, senior brand manager at Tate & Lyle.
“We are looking to combine that insight with the wider narrative that is calling for organisations to help small businesses. These kind of ideas might get missed by financial institutions, so this is our way of helping people realise their dreams.”
Whiteley believes the initiative will have a positive impact on internal teams too. “This campaign opens up new experiences and opportunities to individuals and teams within our business,” he says. “Such activity, grounded in home baking, highlights internally that our industry is exciting and that the Tate & Lyle brand continues to be relevant.”
As L’Oréal’s Raynaud points out, the world is changing quickly, so businesses must innovate to keep up with shifting consumer demands.
Managing director, Active Cosmetics Division L’Oréal
Marketing Week (MW): How easy is it for a big corporation like L’Oréal to be entrepreneurial?
Yannick Raynaud (YR): I’ve been with L’Oréal for 15 years. I’ve worked in big divisions like L’Oréal and Garnier and in big markets like Brazil and the US, and one thing I have seen everywhere is that the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation has nothing to do with the size of the business or the country you are in. It has to be intrinsic to the business. Our products may be the same in each country but how we get them to the consumer is the responsibility of individuals at a local level, which requires innovation and entrepreneurship.
MW:How has your approach within the Active Cosmetics Division changed over the past 18 months?
YR: During this entrepreneurship period we have totally challenged where we spend our money. If you think about our business drivers, 18 months ago we were spending 70 per cent on traditional media and 30 per cent on a modern, digital approach, but this year it is the other way around. This is what’s happening in my division but it’s the same [mentality] in other divisions in different countries.
MW: What are the benefits of nurturing talent from within rather than bringing in external parties?
YR: When you look at L’Oréal employees across the world they share the same passion and drive. Of course we have people come into the business from outside and we welcome them as they bring new ideas and ways of thinking, but it is very important for us to nurture our talent. Projects like the Next Fund make people feel that they can make their mark.