Leadership + People: Episode 28 - Eric Child - Part 2 of 2
Eric Child, CEO of Spark Innovation, talks about efforts to build a community of consumer product professionals in Utah. Child discusses the need for innovation in modern business, as it applies to entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship, alike.
- A brief discussion on latest venture, Product PowerUp [0:47]
- Why innovation is so important in business, from inventors to the corporate world [3:35]
- Entrepreneurship vs. Intrapreneurship [10:33]
- Things take about 10 times more effort, time, & money than you think [13:13]
- Giving new, young employees the freedom and responsibility to operate [18:37]
- Overseeing responsibilities with “training wheels” [25:45]
- Gaining clarity through C4 relationships [27:02]
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: February 27, 2018
Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, senior executives and entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies, and what device they wish they knew if they could do it all again.
HOST – JESS LARSEN: This is part two of our episode with Eric Child.
GUEST – ERIC CHILD: I was very early in my career. I didn’t know anything. I wasn’t skilled at anything and he treated me like I was. You know, he treated me like I was a seasoned professional that could pull off big things and he gave me the freedom to do that, and make mistakes. And, I made a lot of mistakes and you know, I try to do that with our people now.
Product PowerUp: A Community
00:47 JL: CEO, co-owner, co-founder of Spark Innovation. If you didn’t catch part 1, please go back and hear about getting 30 million views for viral videos and getting their products like FiberFix in 30,000 locations like the Lowe’s and Home Depots across America.
But, I kinda want to jump in on where we left off on part 1. Eric, you were talking about this Product PowerUp event and I was really honored when you guys asked me to come host one of those panels there and it was fun to work with Jeff Rust from Corporate Alliance and thinking about that event, it was pretty awesome for a first-time event. I mean, people in the event world know that those things — usually the first year is just getting a flag in the sand. [laughs] But, you guys filled the room.
01:37 ERIC CHILD: Yeah, we were pretty surprised by the demand and the reaction to it, and pretty pleased. You know, when we had the idea of starting Product PowerUp, it was because we really feel like Utah has a lot of those kinds of events to support the tech world. You’ve got Silicon Slopes; you’ve got all of these different venues for sort of networking and coming together as a community in the tech sector. But there hasn’t really been anything like that for the consumer-product sector.
When you look at Utah, you know, there’s been a ton of really cool consumer products that have come out of Utah. You know, you’ve got Skullcandy, and Purple, and Goal Zero, and ZAGG, and Stance, and Black Diamond, and Climate, and BlenderBottle, and Traeger, and all these really cool stories. So, it’s kind of shocking that there’s never really been a way to bring that community together so that we can learn from each other and we can network and so forth. And so, you know, we felt like it was kind of a gaping hole in the market here in Utah, and so, we thought we’d…
We’re not really event organizers, but we thought we’d give it a shot anyway. We were expecting you know, maybe 200/250 people or so and we had about 350 and turned away about 100. So, it was nice to have that problem and it kinda showed that there’s pent up demand for bringing that community together, and so, we’re gonna try to keep growing that year over year and we think it could rival Silicon Slopes in terms of its importance to the state and its relevance in building the community.
Innovation in Corporate Decision Making
03:35 JL: Yeah, when you think about… Well, there’s a couple aspects I’d love to talk about this. The first one would be — let’s talk about corporate decision making. Hardware is not something that everybody makes these days, but it’s interesting to see how innovative some companies are in in adding it. I mean, you look at Amazon which most of us think of it as an online company, but my family is obsessed with that little Amazon Echo we got, right?
Or, you know, you think about just people doing different products than they’ve done. You know, I was watching some YouTube videos of the CES show down in Las Vegas — Consumer Electronic Show — and L’Oréal, the I don’t know what they are — make-up and shampoo company, whatever, right? They’ve come out with this personal activity tracker that’s small enough to fit on somebody’s fingernail, like I don’t know – fingernail paint or something kind of idea. Complete departure, right?
Innovation is such a hot topic in the business literature and business media these days. The Airbnb’s and Ubers who are disrupting entire industries. Have a lot of folks who felt pretty secure about their future thinking, “Oh, maybe we need to have our people thinking more like that.”
You guys are certainly an organization that takes stuff from concept or early stages to, like you said, being in 30,000 locations. This is my super long tangent of a question, ok? [laughs]
If somebody — maybe at a more established organization, or somebody who doesn’t do anything in product — is thinking, “Yeah, you know what, there is something cool that we could do that’s physical, that could be a constant reminder to our customers about us. You know, I have thought maybe we should be making our own . . . . right?”
Talk about why coming to a Product PowerUp is a good idea for someone trying to understand that. So, we’re not talking about the garage entrepreneur, right? We’re talking about coming from corporate. And then just any other advice about books or classes, or things – somebody who wants to get their staff, get their people, leading in this more innovative, think outside the box kind of way.
ERIC CHILD: Well, I think that you know, almost everybody has an idea for how they can improve their lives, or other people’s lives. I mean, almost everybody I talk to has a couple of ideas of products that would help improve things or solve a problem or something like that.
And, a lot of us just kind of keep it in the back of our minds and never do anything with it because we don’t know exactly what to do with it, right? We have a good idea, but have no idea what we would do with that. And I see that not just in garage inventors, but also in people who come from corporate — people who have jobs in tech, people who you know, are dentists, doctors, I mean — almost everybody I talk to has a couple of these ideas kind of packed away in the back of their mind.
And I think that, you know, an event like Product PowerUp can inspire people to do something with that idea. Because when you don’t know what to do with it, you don’t do anything. When you get around people who are doing something with ideas and turning them into products, and turning them into businesses, it’s both educational, but also inspiring.
When Rachel Nilsson talked about founding Rags to Raches, kind of out of her home as just sort of a hobby to start with and then it’s turned into a real business, it’s super inspiring. She knew nothing about consumer products or about running a business or anything else. And here, a couple years into it, she’s — they’re killing it. And so, when you see that, I think it’s inspiring and I think when you get around people that have done this before, you can learn a lot. You can start to see how something that might be just an idea can become reality pretty easily.
08:03 JL: You know what I love about that is it can feel like such a black box. It can feel like — it can feel overwhelming, you know, especially if you’re in an established organization – you want to do something new, right? And I do feel like being there — even the panel you guys had me host about funding – how to get money to get this stuff … right?
You heard the Kickstarter folks, the VC folks, the bootstrap folks, right? But, it does… I walked away feeling like progressing an idea is maybe more accessible than before I got there in the morning.
When you see so many people and there’s super smart folks and then there’s folks that you’re thinking, “Oh, you know, I’m not necessarily intimidated by competing with them,” right? And they did it. You find out they’re just regular humans who learned the patterns of how to get stuff done.
ERIC CHILD: And the other thing that I think would be, is gonna be great, is if we can build this community even if you are still really unsure – you’re inspired but you’re just unsure about how to move forward. You suddenly feel like there’s a community you can go to for answers, and that there’s people that can help you along the way, and help you get from Point A to Point B, you know? That’s a big deal when you’re trying to do something on your own.
09:31 JL: It is, right? Well, let me ask you this… So, staying on this theme of somebody who’s already got a company that’s thinking maybe we should have a product in addition to what we already sell, right. What are the nuances of…? Thinking about how this is different of an entrepreneur in the garage maybe with little to no budget versus an organization that maybe has budget, but you’re trying to come up with permissions, or you need to overcome the status quo of how things have always been in the past. Any thoughts about that?
ERIC CHILD: I’m not sure I follow the question. Say that — can you rephrase that just a little bit?
10:14 JL: Eric, are you making fun of my long questions here?
ERIC CHILD: [laughs]
10:17 JL: Ok, so, if you’re coming out of an organization already and you’re trying to learn from this episode here and think, ‘Ok, so that’s for the guy making the new invention in their garage.’ I’m inside a company already where I’m trying to grow revenue or engage with our customers better.
Entrepreneurship vs. Intrapreneurship
ERIC CHILD: Oh, I see what you’re saying. So basically, entrepreneurship versus intrapreneurship or something like that.
10:38 JL: Yeah, yeah. If I’m a leader and I want to help my people become more of an intrapreneur, do you have advice for that?
ERIC CHILD: Well, I mean, I’ve never really done that myself so I don’t know that I have great advice. But, you know, as we’ve thought about Product PowerUp and what needs we want to serve, that is a part of the community we want to address, as well.
That’s why we had Stance there and some of these bigger companies that you know, are sort of past the start-up phase because we want to be able to enable the start-ups that are starting at this from outside of an organization and just starting at it fresh.
But, we also want to enable professionals that are within an organization to help develop things from scratch, and develop new ideas and develop new business areas. And, I don’t know that we have the answers yet on how to best address that community. But, it is a community that we’ve thought a lot about and one that we want to help address.
So, I think as we build and kind of mature Product PowerUp, we’ll probably develop specific tracks and things like that for, you know, how do you do this within a company? When you have the resources available, right? So much of what you talk about when you’re talking about start-ups is not having resources. You know? Working in an environment with very limited resources.
12:11 JL: Yeah, what if it’s now overcoming bureaucracy, right?
ERIC CHILD: Exactly. Now you have different constraints. You have the resources you need, but you have to go through approval processes, and you have to go through internal presentations. And you’ve gotta get buy-in and you’ve gotta socialize ideas and all those kinds of things. It’s just a different set of requirements and needs. And, you know, we do hope to address that as we develop Product PowerUp.
12:37 JL: I mean, I love Clayton Christenson’s books, Innovator’s Dilemma and all the books he’s come out with on that kind of stuff. And, anything from the guys at Ideo. You know, they invented the mouse for Apple and stuff like that, right?
I know when of their newer ones, Creative Confidence, a lot of people have really enjoyed. Any other book recommendations or courses that you would say can help people as they’re — both for themselves and as they’re trying to lead their people to become more this way?
The 10X Premise
ERIC CHILD: I think one of the most recent ones that I read was 10X by Grant Cardone and I don’t know if I agree with all of it, but I do think that his premise is pretty accurate. Things take about 10 times more effort, 10 times more time, and 10 times more money than you think they’re going to on the outset. [laughs] And that can be a little daunting and a little frustrating. But, it is the reality that we live in.
I think if you have this perception that something’s going to be easy and cheap, and quick… It’s better to kind of start with a more realistic approach that things will take time, they will take a lot of money, and they will take a lot of effort. Settle in for the long haul. I think sometimes we see so much success around us – especially in this current environment where Utah has one of the strongest economies in the country and the country is in one of the biggest economic expansions it’s been in my lifetime – and we see so much success around us that we want immediate results. We want to see that same kind of success. And, it just doesn’t happen that way.
So, I think it’s easy for entrepreneurs to get really frustrated and kind of bail early on, because they’re not seeing immediate results. Somethings you’re just gonna have to — it just takes time. It takes energy. It takes effort… And it takes a lot longer than you hope it will. That’s just always the case.
14:51 JL: You know, it’s interesting that you talked about having a community to come talk with about that kind of stuff and it’s interesting how much of a value it is for humans to be able to talk with someone in a similar position to them, isn’t it?
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, it is because so often you think you’re all by yourself and the things you’re experiencing are pretty unique to you. But when you get around a community, you realize that almost everybody’s gone through something similar, and if nothing else, it gives you some comfort. [laughs]
Leaning on Experts, Corporate Alliance & Events
15:30 JL: Yeah. You know, we talked a little bit about Jeff Rust and him coming in and helping you guys with Product PowerUp and Corporate Alliance, who obviously, you know, this is the show we’re doing with them.
When you think about Corporate Alliance and the same thing there… I’d be interested to hear from your perspective first, why it is that you chose them to come help you as you were thinking through that event?
ERIC CHILD: Well again, we were coming into this with virtually no knowledge of how to pull off an event like that. And you know, we know that Corporate Alliance does this on a monthly basis and sometimes even more than that, I’m sure. Probably weekly, I don’t know how often you guys do things like that. But, I know that you guys do events for a living, right? We do products and distribution for a living. We don’t do events.
So, when you’re doing something for the first time, it’s really helpful to lean on experts and so that’s what we did. We contacted Jeff and said, “Hey, you gotta help us walk through this a little bit because you know, this is brand new water for us.” And having him as kind of a co-pilot really helped a lot in getting that first event off the ground.
16:42 JL: You know, we were talking about that boss you had back at, you know, the pre-Accenture days. Consulting, right? I’m probably going to embarrass Jeff here, but I actually feel like he is one of the people that lives the example of that.
That guy is exceedingly considerate. I feel like he kind of sets the example of he’s willing to bite his tongue. He’s willing to… I don’t know he’s just willing to think in terms of other people’s interests consistently. Would you agree?
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, Jeff’s a salt of the earth kind of guy, man. He is the kind of guy that you know would give you the shirt off his back and not because there’s anything for it — for him in it — just because you know he wants to help and he wants to see you be successful.
I think that’s one of the reasons why Corporate Alliance has had the success it has is because with him at the helm, people have always felt like he’s there for their interest, not his own.
17:44 JL: Yeah, and I actually want to talk more about the ways that you see Corporate Alliance similar to Product PowerUp in that ability for you know, those senior executives or CEOs, to have somebody to talk to in their same spot.
But, just before we get to that, you know you think about what I feel like Jeff sets the example for me, personally. Even when I was in meetings with you guys before, when you were getting ready to launch Product PowerUp event… You know, you run an organization. When you think about your people, and whether it’s setting the example in your leadership style, or whether it’s overtly what you’re doing for an intentional training system, do you have ideas on what leaders could do to try and help their staff become more like Jeff in that kind of considerate, think of others kind of way?
Freedom and Responsibility to Operate
ERIC CHILD: Well, I think that if I look back at that first manager we were talking about, one of the things that I respected is he gave me a lot more leash than I deserved. I was very early in my career. I didn’t know anything. I wasn’t skilled at anything and he treated me like I was. You know, he treated me like I was a seasoned professional that could pull off big things. He gave me the freedom to do that and make mistakes, and I made a lot of mistakes.
I try to do that with our people now. I try to give them more leash than they probably have earned and probably deserve, and probably are ready for. And I do the same thing with my kids. I mean, even with my kids, I’ll… You know, if they want to try something new, I let them try something new. Knowing that they’re going to fail, and knowing that they’re going to make a lot of mistakes… and knowing that it’s probably going to be incredibly inefficient. But, that they’ll learn a ton from it because nothing helps you learn something faster than when you’re the guy that has to, that’s responsible for it.
You can talk theoretical for years and years, but until you actually have to be the one responsible for it, you don’t actually learn the lessons that are important. And so, I think in my management style, I think one of the things that I’ve learned over time is that you’ve gotta let people do their thing. You’ve gotta give them some freedom to operate and give them some real responsibility… even though you know there’s downsides to that. There’s risks to that. There’s gonna be mistakes made. There’s gonna be fires you have to jump in on. But, you know, it’s the only way to really help people learn quickly.
20:21 JL: You know, that’s such a good thing. As you were saying that, I started thinking, “Do I do that?” Right? And I was thinking about some of our, you know, some of my team at Myelin and how I’m more likely to be directive a lot. It’s kind of like, you know, as a parent it’s like do you teach the kid how to clean up the mess, which will take longer, so they can do it in the future? Or, do you just clean it up yourself so you can be done? Right?
ERIC CHILD: Exactly, yep.
20:51 JL: I don’t know that I’m always asking myself, “Ok, if I slow down and took the long view here, would I be willing to invest more in giving them some ownership, letting them come up with the answer instead of me just directing them with the answer, right?”
ERIC CHILD: Yeah. Well, it’s hard to do. It takes a lot of discipline to do it because you know that something can be done much more quickly and efficiently, and you can watch them make the mistakes and it’s frustrating because you know they’re making the mistakes. [laughs]
21:23 JL: Well and especially — I can get pretty task-oriented, right? So I’m just thinking about my list of to do’s and what I’ve got to get done for the project and how they can help me get that done for my project, right? And I don’t think that I always bring the full team mentality to it of how can WE get this done? If I really was like… [laughs] If we were a sports team, maybe I’d be a lot more interested in player development, you know? Am I really thinking about my team that way?
I guess my question for you is really easy to say. It’s obviously something other people say about we need to make it safer to take risks at this organization, right?
I think… You know, you and I know each other through the C4 at Corporate Alliance where our organizations are both members there and there’s a lot of folks there who I think would say the same thing. But, what advice would you have for some of us on the left and right limits? Obviously holding on too tight is falling off the balance beam one way. But you know, giving folks the kind of leash where they could cause irreparable damage, or cause really big problems is falling off the balance beam the other way.
Any kind of guidance as to how the rest of us can pick left and right limits if we are gonna take some more risk and give folks some more ownership?
Giving Responsibility & Setting Up for Failure: A Balancing Act
ERIC CHILD: I don’t know that I have any brilliance because that’s a very hard question to answer, and it’s one that you always struggle with. When I think about it in terms of our business, you know, Reed does most of the kind of operational and sourcing, stuff like that. And I do a lot of the sales and marketing and working with the big retailers and so forth.
The way that I kind of do it here is you know, I will put a project manager on a retailer that I know is not our bread and butter, right? It’s not like I would hand over the reins to Home Depot to a kid just out of school.
23:39 JL: Yeah, yeah.
ERIC CHILD: But I might hand over the reins to you know, Casey’s General Store or you know, a regional grocery store or something and say, “Look, I need you to own this account. I need you to go figure out how to get in. I need you to figure out a program for them. I need you to sell them on a program. I need you to give all the same deliverables that you would on a Home Depot.” But, it’s a lower-risk environment, right? If they blow it, it’s not gonna cost us our company.
I sort of grow them up that way where you know, we sort of move through the ranks of important accounts until they’re at a point where I could hand them a Home Depot or a Lowe’s and say, “Yeah, go tackle this. I have every faith that you could do this as well as I could.”
24:25 JL: You know, it’s interesting. I wish I knew who I was plagiarizing this from. But, somebody said, “Giving clarity to our team is really a gift.” You telling him all those specifics or that individual going through those specifics and letting them know what the front of the puzzle box they are putting together looks like, right? So, they know where they’re going… is genius move.
But, my question is on the follow-up. On the measurement, on the tracking – especially if they are stretching themselves, if they are maybe taking on something they haven’t taken on in the past, what does that look like for you? Is that self-reporting? Is it scheduled? What does that look like?
ERIC CHILD: You know a lot of times we, I don’t know that we have a super methodical approach to it. A lot of times we just get copied on all the emails. We have them run stuff past us before they jump in. We have them kind of do a weekly report where they give us what they’ve done and why, and what their plans are going forward and so forth. That tends to work out.
Again, there’s probably a more methodical way to do it. But you know, that’s for us, it’s — we just call that the “training wheels.” [laughs]
25:48 JL: Yeah, you got enough of a finger on the pulse where you’re seeing the stream of what’s going out…
ERIC CHILD: Exactly, so that we don’t just leave them hanging out to dry. Because there is a balance between giving people responsibility and setting them up for failure. Right? We don’t want to set people up for failure, which would be like throwing them in the deep end before they have any idea how to do the doggy paddle, right?
So, even though we try to give people a big responsibility early on, we also like to have enough oversight that they feel supported and they feel they’ve got help, and they feel like they can get answers. They’re not just winging it on their own.
26:30 JL: Yeah. It’s interesting. This is the additional time that you’ve brought up that idea of feeling alone, right and how humans don’t like that. [laughs]
I know I said we were gonna get back to Corporate Alliance for a minute. When you think about the value of why you guys are a part of it, what is it for you guys?
Gaining Clarity Through C4 Relationships
ERIC CHILD: You know, for me, it’s just an opportunity to step away from my little sandbox and, and get a little bit broader perspective. You know, when you’re too close to something, it’s so easy to get wrapped around the axel and start overthinking things and start miring down in your own problems and your own concerns and everything else.
Sometimes when you just step away and you kind of hear what other people are doing, you take a look at their businesses, you take a look at their problems, it brings clarity to your own.
You brought up this idea earlier about sometimes it’s best when you have — when you’re talking to somebody that doesn’t have a dog in the fight. And that’s so true because when you have a vested interest, it makes a decision a lot more complicated. When you don’t have a vested interest, the answer seems obvious.
I’ve had times when I’ve gone to a C4 event and I’ve kinda been explaining a problem I’ve been waffling on or having, or struggling with, and these outsiders – who have no vested interest – can see the answer clearly, a lot more clearly than I can because I have too much vested in it. I have too much at stake. Sometimes when you see it from their perspective, you’re like, “Oh yeah, this answer is very obvious.” I just needed to step outside of it and these guys are helping me do that.
28:35 JL: I’m just kind of smiling at this end because it is interesting when you have folks who have the kind of experience you feel like you can trust, right? How much of a reality check that can be – that taking the step back, you know?
We’re just working on a new offering at Myelin and I had a conversation with somebody yesterday that was, that gave me a pretty good reality check. And even just you bringing up the Grant Cardone thing about the it’s gonna take 10 times as much time, effort, and money as you thought… I suffer from the entrepreneurial over optimism, I think.
ERIC CHILD: I think you have to to be an entrepreneur. That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship.
29:17 JL: You definitely can’t know anything about statistics and choose to do this, right? [laughs] Of probabilities of success. When you think about, I don’t know — how easy it is to sit around and drink our own Kool-Aid and the value of getting a reality check, right?
But also, just, as you were saying, this idea of stepping back. Why do you think it is that we, as leaders, or really anyone, have such troubles being objective about our own situations?
ERIC CHILD: I think again, I don’t know why this is but I think it’s part of human nature. When you have a lot at stake, the answers become a lot less obvious for some reason. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. I mean, again, when I’m addressing somebody else’s problem and I don’t have anything at stake, it’s so obvious to me what the answer is. It’s so obvious to me what the right solution is.
But, when you’re in it, you see all the difficulties and challenges of implementing a solution even if you do think it’s the right one. And you also just have the challenge of you know, knowing that there’s gonna be consequences either way that are going to directly affect you. And so, I think those things muddy the water. They just muddy the water for decision-making.
I don’t know exactly why that is, but you know, it’s often a really valuable tool to get an outsider’s perspective who has nothing at stake because the answers can be really obvious from the outside.
31:07 JL: Yeah. Well, I think this is a pretty great place to end. Appreciate all the time you spent with us. Reiterating you know, people who might have an idea that want to talk to you, go to SparkInnovation.net. Folks out in Utah that are interested in your Product PowerUp, is that one just Product PowerUp.com?
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, ProductPowerUp.com.
31:29 JL: When’s your next event? Is it the Spring/Summer?
ERIC CHILD: We’re looking at September. If people want to get it on their calendar, I think we set aside September 20th. So, that will most likely be the date of our next big event.
31:46 JL: That’s great. Well, thanks again for doing this.
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, no problem, Jess. Thanks for your time.
31:52 JL: You bet.