The Intrapreneurship Journey at Zalando

by Luis Jose Borges Salazar - 21 Jun 2018

Sharing our innovation stories: success, failures, and learnings

Franzi, Humberto, Neil, Lenia, Vivek... These are just some names of the people who are willing to put in the extra effort and run the additional mile to impact the organization in a way they haven’t done before. The stories of these Zalando intrapreneurs are the ones I summarized at the Innov8rs conference in Madrid.

Back in October 2015, Zalando took a leap and opened a new playground for Tech Innovation. It allowed tech teams to experiment with emerging technologies, support product discovery, kickstart hardware initiatives around 3D printing, and for prototyping of all sorts. Since then, our innovation strategy and approach have completely changed. How do we innovate in what we do at Zalando? One of the many vehicles for innovation is Slingshot, our intrapreneurship program.

Slingshot
A name drawn from aerospace engineering and orbital mechanics: “a gravitational slingshot is the use of the relative movement and gravity of an astronomical object to alter the path and speed of a spacecraft, typically to save propellant and reduce expenses”. Same as the influence it has on a spacecraft, Slingshot is Zalando’s intrapreneurship program aimed to accelerate ideas or redirect their path. Fostered by the Innovation Lab, it is the opportunity to validate ideas in a fixed time frame of 12 days within a three month period. Open to everyone at Zalando, it allows individuals and teams to dedicate 20% of their paid working time to the project, and provides plenty of space, help and expertise to validate their ideas for further funding: more time, more money, more support and much more passion and commitment.

Our initial approach
Our playground a couple of years ago was mostly aimed at developing tech-focused ideas. This meant that innovators came to our lab to experiment with brilliant visionary ideas with topics around chatbots, AR/VR, IoT and Conversational Technologies. Some of these ideas were built based on how we understood the technology and how customers could use it to browse and buy products from the Zalando Store. Good things happened back then, media coverage was one of them and the team who developed our first fashion chatbot made it to the Facebook F8 Conference. We were just on the right track! At least, that’s what we thought. We were not. Our use cases couldn’t be validated and our customers didn’t find them useful. In simple terms: we were trying to create solutions where we didn’t understand the problem of our customers. Our teams got so attached and fell in love with their solution to the extent that sometimes the problem lost its meaning along the way.

Our most valuable pivot
Lean startups talk about quick iteration, pivots, and how to be more innovative while maximizing precious resources. Honestly, we failed here and there. It took us some time to realize some of the mistakes we made until we finally decided to move away from a “Solution first” approach to a “Problem first” approach. What does this mean? Our innovation approach focuses first on the customer problem backed with relevant insights and data, and then a defined problem statement. Only then are we able to explore many different solutions, prototype one, two or three of them and validate with the defined target audience. We didn’t reinvent the wheel for this, we relied on wide-spread tools and methodologies, especially on Design Sprints from Google Ventures.

An example of this approach is a recent project which came to us. These intrapreneurs wanted to explore Computer Vision as a solution for Search. When we started the project, we first tried to understand the problem from a user perspective. We got out of the building, crafted a research question to know how our customers search for outfits and met several of them. We came up with the user journey in figure 1 after talking to them. The important revelation here was that most of our users started their journey on social media channels and then had a lot of hacky ways to find a similar outfit. This changed the course of the whole project and we figured out how to innovate these journeys and provide a superior experience with less effort for our users. Starting with the customer problem: different approach, huge impact!


Support is paramount
The work of our innovators can’t be done by themselves. We relied on the expertise of hundreds of our colleagues who help us move forward every single one of the 12 allocated days. We are more than thankful about their willingness to cooperate and work together to validate ideas. There are teams whose leads are keen and open to share their talent: designers, developers, business, product people, etc. On top of that, none of these initiatives could happen without the support of the management in Zalando, who invest in and support fostering a culture for innovation across the company boosted by quarterly events like Hack Week.

Our impact
Slingshot has been around since the end of 2015. Small experiments have been created in Hack Week, validated in Slingshot, and new teams have been created and grown to something big, as big as Zalando’s Sizing Team, creating remarkable business impact. It all started from the bottom and that is how we succeed with our people: we foster an environment for bottom-up innovation boosted by the passion and drive of our people who have a deep desire to engage in building new products that reinforce our platform strategy and shapes the future of Zalando.

Stories such as Innovation in Digital Experience by a Zalando data scientist, also feature in this blog, showing how deeply we impact our people; people who are able to follow their passion, are truly obsessed of solving customer problems, and who are eager to see their products coming to life.

Moving forward
Slingshot is everywhere. What started as a “tech only” initiative has spread around the company and our learnings have helped us have the right tools in place, iterate faster on our learnings, and offer a compelling value proposition company-wide. That is to say, enabling a platform for intrapreneurs to kickstart radical ideas that generate business value or fail fast. Our vision is also clear: to be the accelerator for Zalando visionaries to innovate our business.

At Zalando, more than 100 nationalities are represented, and we are all able to innovate and reimagine our business. When it comes to business success, it is all about people, people and people.

Interested to know more? Luis gave a talk about this journey at Innov8rs Conference in Madrid in May. If you have any questions or want to get in touch, you can reach him through his LinkedIn.

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