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David Butler VP of Innovation at Coca-Cola visits GridAKL : Tales from an innovation legend

Last week here at GridAKL we were lucky enough to play host to David Butler, VP of Innovation at Coca-Cola and an all around awesome dude. David fronted a low-key discussion breakfast in the downstairs event space, with our own legendary James Hurman of Previously Unavailable acting as the topic dropping wingman.

Fitting perfectly into our GRIT series (which stands for Get Really Inspired Today), David dished out loads of insight in a value packed session for our community. The session was a great example of how much value residents can gain from the opportunity to engage in one on one conversation with inspiring players in the innovation game.

David had a lot of knowledge to share with startups and scaled companies alike. Rather than answer questions directly with a quick response, his tendency to take the circular route to the answer gave everyone a solid background and placed his responses into a context that gelled with our community and their experiences. Basically, he was able to explain difficult topics articulately enough that the end goal suddenly seemed so achievable to the diverse group of startups listening in.

Here are some of the key lessons that we took away from our chat with David.
There’s always a lot of stuff that needs fixing, but what problems should we focus on? Identify your ‘Sharkbite’ problems – These are those things that create a lot of pain for a lot of people.

Once you’ve figured those out, you can focus on understanding whether you can fix them internally or if you’ll need help from external sources. David totally agreed that startups have a huge opportunity here, and entrepreneurs can use their new ways of thinking and agility to work with large companies to solve their Sharkbite problems for them.

What can a startup gain from working with companies like Coke?
You can gain access to fast tracked growth opportunities, work alongside experienced mentors, and leverage off their existing industry connections, supply chains and established brand value. It’s not all conditional on trade restrictions and tough contracts either – a common resistance felt from startup founders. David has tried not to restrict startups trading under their Coca-Cola founders platform, and have actually only acquired one of the 11 teams they’ve worked with so far. The rest are free to trade openly.

How can a scaled company become more agile?
David touched on two key elements here. Firstly, you need to help your Managers become Explorers. David believes that managers in scaled companies are fine tuned to focus on managing existing assets and ideas – whether they’re teams, resources or budgets. Whereas with startups, they are always looking for new opportunities, markets and ways of thinking. It’s this that keeps you on your toes, so you’ve got to provide tools and frameworks to support your managers doing more exploring. If you can get this right, your agility is set to improve. Coca Cola are working on this now, and adopting the Lean Startup mentality internally has been a big help.

Secondly, it’s probably safe to say that scale and agility may never easily walk hand in hand within a large company – however that doesn’t mean you can’t align yourself with it externally. David now leads a platform called Coca-Cola Founders and manages a portfolio of early-stage startups. The platform is designed to co-create startups by partnering Coca-Cola with a global network of experienced entrepreneurs. They use agile startups to solve problems they would struggle to solve themselves, which gives them the best of both worlds.

Although having not worked with any entrepreneurs from NZ through the platform yet, he encourages kiwi’s to get involved. For more info check out Coca-Cola Founders

Does David have a favourite Startup at the moment?
He tells us to check out Wonolo, a team dedicated to making on-demand staffing simple. David tells us that ensuring they had enough workers on hand for their massive delivery & distribution needs was a nightmare – a total Sharkbite problem. Wonolo, being the super savvy startup they were, swooped in and saved the day for Coca Cola – who quickly became their largest client.

Eva Perrone drives activation here at GridAKL, if you think you have a way to enliven our community, or the wider tech & innovation scene reach out to her on twitter