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CIOs, want your IoT initiative to succeed? Innovate like a startup.

Smart, Connected Products and the Internet of Things (IoT) provides CIOs an incredible opportunity to engage customers, create value, and innovate like never before.

But IoT isn’t easy. Crossing the chasm into the software product management world requires a new set of skills, relationships, and behaviors to succeed.

There are going to be a few barriers, including:

  • Turf Wars – “You can’t put that on the network!!!”
  • Lack of Leadership Vision – “We’re just a widget business. I don’t see how this will help us compete.”
  • Short-term Focus – “Show me the money!”
  • Go to Market – “I don’t know how to sell this!”

What I’m saying is, IoT initiatives are different. Product innovation is a team sport. To be successful, IT leaders need to bring sales, marketing, product management, engineering, cybersecurity, and leadership together and focus on the customer value of smart, connected products. Traditional approaches to project and portfolio management won’t serve you well. You need to be lean, agile, and customer-obsessed. And you need to be a continuous learner.

It sounds both exciting and nerve racking at the same time, doesn’t it! But that’s ok. Because there are companies that thrive in this sort of ambiguity. They disrupt and develop breakthrough innovations. They are called tech startups.


Tech startups have the freedom to innovate because they are not burdened with legacy products, rigid governance and culture, and process that keeps them more focused on cost and schedule than on the customer. Successful tech startups find a customer with a business problem and they solve it with a minimal solution to the customer problem. They learn, build, measure and rapidly iterate. The successful ones don’t fall in love with their idea. They experiment constantly to find product-to-market fit and then build a business from there.

The great Steve Blank, godfather of customer development, said it best,

No facts exist inside the building, only opinions.

That means, if you want your IoT investments to be successful… better be out there with your customers!!!

So here are four things that you can take from the startup community and put in place in your organization that will help make your IoT initiatives a huge success:

1 – Find a Customer with a Priority Business Problem

Please don’t develop a roadmap! Roadmaps are for mature products. Don’t put a minute of effort into that damn gantt chart you think you need to get leadership onboard. Save the color printouts. It’s a complete waste of time. I speak from experience. I made these mistakes when I was at a Fortune 100 company. If I had the chance to do it over again, I would not have the big road-mapping and alignment sessions with 30 people in the room. I would have spent all that time and money on visits to customers.

Start any customer innovation initiative by developing a hypothesis with a small, entrepreneurial group that know your customers. Make a guess as to which customers and what business problems you can solve. But remember, get out of the office and in front of your customers as fast as possible.

Find people on your team that are inquisitive and ask probing questions. Observe customers dealing with problems. Ask a lot of ‘why’ questions to find out why they do the things they do. Validate that you are solving a problem worth solving for the customer.

Then tell the customers’ story to leadership. Don’t talk about your solution yet. Talk about the business problem and how much it would mean to the customer to solve it. Then talk about how solving the problem for the customer will help you create competitive differentiation, whatever that might be for your business. The money will follow when you have strong customer support for your idea.

2 – Charter a Small, Entrepreneurial Team

Big teams don’t work well for disruptive innovation. Small teams of entrepreneurial minded people work best. Optimally, the team is staffed with people that can play a variety of roles. You’ll need the following skill players on your team for IoT initiatives:

  • Product Management – provides the interface between customers and development
  • Product Marketer – responsible for go to market, messaging, positioning, collateral, and content
  • User Experience Designer – don’t underestimate the power of a powerful customer experience. Get this skill on the team!
  • Technical Architect – responsible for putting all the technical pieces of the puzzle together
  • Product Engineer – provides the know-how on the physical products and their application
  • Data Acquisition Expert – knows about sensor technology and secure data acquisition
  • Developer – develops analytics, algorithms for fault detection, and event handling

As you can see, it doesn’t take very long for the team to get pretty large. You can also see that these are not typical roles for an IT initiative. There are some new functions here that you’ll have to develop a strong working relationship with. All of these team members need to have that entrepreneurial spirit and that inquisitive quality to always want to learn more from customers. Give them the autonomy they need to be successful.

3 – Build, Measure, and Learn……FAST!

In the startup word, there’s this concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). There are a lot of interpretations out there of what it means. Here’s how it relates to disruptive innovation in big companies….

An MVP solves a customer problem worth solving with the least investment of time and effort in order to start learning from your customers as fast as possible. In other words, get your solution in front of your customers fast and start getting feedback.

This is hard for big companies. There’s a negative connotation around minimum and viable. “Gotta protect the brand!” Minimum viable doesn’t mean you develop a crap product that doesn’t work. Quality cannot suffer. Don’t talk about an MVP in your organization, just do it. The value is in the doing.

Don’t let perfection get in the way of perfect enough. Get your solution in the hands of your customers fast and learn.

4 – Nail Your Go To Market, Or Else

You know that saying, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Your Connected Product initiative can be kinda like that if you don’t get your go to market right. It’s not the same as a product go to market. There’s a lot to it, especially for disruptive innovations like IoT.


That’s where Product Marketing comes in. They are critical in understanding the buyer and how to position the value of your Smart, Connected Product. They develop the messaging and positioning. They create the content and the collateral that marketing and sales use to tell the wold about your incredible new capabilities and how they create value for the customer. They make sure your channel partners don’t freak out when they hear about your new offering. You don’t want your initiative to fall flat because your sales people and channel partners don’t know how to communicate your value. In turn, this investment will help you demonstrate the value of Connected Products and get you the continued investment you need to grow and sustain this new business.

The next wave of technology enabled innovation is upon us and we should all be incredibly excited about the business potential of Smart, Connected Products. To succeed, it’s going to take a new set of skills, processes, and behaviors. The IT Leaders that emulate successful startups will not only create competitive advantage for their companies, they will put themselves in a position to transition from Chief Information Officer to Chief Innovation Officer!

About the author: Colm Lennon is the VP of Customer Solutions for RL Canning ( Colm is also Founder of Haka Products (, a tech startup. Prior, Colm held Marketing and IT Leadership positions in a Fortune 100 company. In addition to his LinkedIn profile, you can also interact with Colm on his Twitter account @ColmLennon.

WebmasterCIOs, want your IoT initiative to succeed? Innovate like a startup.