I often speak about how success in open innovation requires more than scouting for technologies. Large companies who are leaders and winners in this game recognize the need to build relationship-based networks of external innovators. It's easier said than done, because of the many barriers (legal, cultural, firewalls, etc.) that keep executives and entrepreneurs from truly collaborating on an ongoing basis.
So it was refreshing for me to read about Nagesh Challa in the June issue of Fast Company. In an article entitled The Mad Scientist of Mobile Phones, author Elizabeth Svoboda paints a picture of a truly visionary mobile software entrepreneur, often well ahead of the curve of emerging technologies. In the 1990's he invented the Media Stick, a 2MB storage device for PC's and mobile phones. "People didn't know what to do with that much storage" Challa explains.
According to Svoboda's article, in 2004, the demand for more mobile applications and 3G networks ability to carry high-volume data, allowed his 'push to talk' technology to be adopted into all of NEC's and Panasonic's phones. That may have been the turning point for his company (Ecrio), but it's his savvy personal approach to building relationships with leading mobile technology companies that really caught my attention.
Start-ups all over the world are pushing their technologies on these large companies. Here's an excerpt from the article that demonstrates Challa's difference in approach:
What secures Ecrio's place at the mobile vanguard is Challa's unusual willingness to cater to his clients and to truly understand not just their needs but their culture -- including singing karaoke. "I've dealt with take-it-all-style negotiations with other U.S. companies," says Tetsuya Mori, who heads the technology venture-capital practice at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. "Japanese companies feel refreshed when they deal with Nagesh. His style resonates here -- he knows how to make things win-win. I've heard people say, 'I can't say no to Nagesh. I want to find a way to come to terms with him.'" Several years ago, Challa also taught himself Japanese from scratch, listening to language CDs and practicing vocabulary in stolen moments between meetings.
He has developed personal relationships with the CEO's of these companies -- he understands their strategies and needs and he targets his innovations and approaches to their future needs. Elsewhere in the article Hide Tanigami, CEO of semiconductor distributor Marubun/Arrow says... "We always joke, Hey Nagesh, you don't need to invent things five steps ahead of everyone else, only about one and a half. You can still make money that way".
Nagesh demonstrates a trait other start-ups and entrepreneurs should emulate... Connecting directly and deeply with the large companies who are your likely partners and directing your innovation efforts at their emerging needs.
NTT DoCoMo and other Japanese telecom giants demonstrate a trait other large companies should emulate.... Nurturing and guiding the best entrepenuers in your business. And building relationships that can actually become a real source of competitive advantage!