Working at the World’s biggest startup


How IBM is hacking its way into the future inspired by entrepreneurs and startups

The background

Big corporations are taking a new approach to innovation that originates from the tech startup-scene. Think about some of the hottest and most growth aggressive startups out there like Dropbox, Evernote, Airbnb, Facebook, Spotify, Podio, Zappos (and even Motorola in its new shape). Companies coming out of nowhere and seriously threatening established businesses.

The common determinator for those successful companies is growth hacking. The idea of growth hacking is bascially to make stuff people actually want to buy and share with their friends and family and then make it easy for them to do so — building virality into the product instead of as an add-on. In practice it is done by constantly, learning iterating and developing new elements based on user feedback collected through analytics that derives new insights.

I like to refer to it as data-driven creativity.

The mindset of growth hacking makes it easy for brands to get closer to the customers. As more and more products and services have some sort of digital component or touch, usage of it can be tracked, learned from and optimized unbiased. By actually understanding what customers like about your offering presents the opportunity to not only be more creativity and make a bigger impact, but also make greater products and in the end happier customers.

If you study the concept and mindset of Growth Hacking you will find that it is most often applied to startups.
The reason for this is simple. They do not have the money or experience to do what is consider traditional marketing. That is spending millions on advertisements and being influenced and restricted by textbook thoughts. Meanwhile they achieve better results and ROI than companies that has the luxury of million dollar budgets and they manage to compete against major and well-established players within their industries.

What if you took the very same mindset and techniques and applied it to a major corporation like IBM?

In the heart of New York City, the center of some of the most exciting developments within technology happening right now, on Madison Avenue we opened the IBM Design Lab (now M&C Lab) in 2012. The perfect place to redefine how marketing is done – taking it back to its core; whatever gets more customers can be considered marketing.

As the discipline of marketing is shifting from gut-centric to data-centric, but still with people at its core (not just treating them as numbers) we have approached a new way to corporate marketing. Design Lab was established as a joint-venture between the CMO and CIO parts of the organization recognizing the importance of a cross-organizational partnership as data and analytics are becoming a part of the main foundation of marketing.

“The Lab”, as it is called amongst my colleagues, functions as an incubator for internal startups (scrum teams) working on a variety of digital projects. Each scrum team consists of different skills like content strategists, designers, developers, information architects, data analysts, social business managers, along with experts of any other relevant business area required for the project. They are given almost total autonomy to spot new trends, adjust to changes and try new ideas, while focusing on designing experiences that enhance the customers’ interaction with IBM and ultimately form a scalable system of engagement. Working in this fashion minimizes the traditional big company-lead time and makes the teams very agile, similar to many startups.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good!

The teams deliver the minimal viable product that meets the need, then measure and improve repeatedly. By treating marketing as code it becomes about constantly testing, tracking, iterating and improving ‘till we make something anyone would actually care about. By thinking small, making it work and then thinking big, the enourmous gambles that typically comes with big budget launches and campaigns are not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive. It removes the pressure and adds nimbleness to the way we work, but most importantly it gives people the freedom to experiment without the fear of failing.

To get growth hacking right we needed to break with the antiquated notions of what is or is not marketing and understand that what may seem like a product development strategy is also marketing. By building marketing into the products and services we launch make them more effective than bolting it on post-launch. An example that always comes to mind is how DropBox in less than three years became a multi-billion dollar brand.

This couldn’t be further from the heydays of Mad Men, billboards and celebrity endorsment and yet the Design Lab is located on Madison Avenue, which is a signal of the changes hitting the marketing discipline and the need for adopting new ways.

As Ryan Holiday puts it: The future of marketing is simply going back to its roots, where whatever works is marketing.

Next step: from product to experience

The next evolution in growth hacking will be the move from product-centric to experience-centric; focusing on creating great and shareable customer experiences. As customers’ decision making becomes increasingly more dynamic and complex, the holistic brand experience takes center stage and companies need to adapt by enabling their organization to engage with customers in each moments of truth that follows.

These moments are no longer limited to a single channel. Customers discover, consider, purchase and advocate on social, mobile, web and in real life, but they don’t treat any one channel the same. Each channel is leveraged differently and satisfy different needs. Depending on the stage in the decision making different touch points occur and presents the opportunity for a brand to influence the customer. It is imperative to get those engagement opportunities right, regardless of source or shape, as they affect the next steps and impressions of customers and ultimately decide whether a customer will move along in the brand’s favor.


The challenge presents itself when you look at most organizations where different groups own different parts of the experience and the customer journey. The mobile experience is handled seperatly from the social experience and none of them are connected with the web experience and you can add customer service as well as any offline experience. Usually they are developed independently of each other. The big issue of course is that customers only see one brand! So when the different channels work independently of one another the experience becomes broken and there is no way to create a customer journey that is optimized for the moments of truth. The challenge will be to create an organization that enables the creation of a unified and frictionless experience in every moments of truth no matter the context.

To deliver this takes vision, courage and to marry organizational stakeholders (does breaking down silos sound familiar?). It is nothing new, but forward-thinking organizations are already doing interesting choices that leads in that direction. Some appoint Chief Digital Officers (CDO), but there are different ways to the end-goal of an unified brand experience and engagement. By having multi-skilled scrum teams co-located in the Design Lab working on parts of the holistic experience of the IBM brand sharing the same vision and with the ability to be very agile and change with the speed of social, I believe we are paving the way for a new type of customer experience.


A model that combines the CDO’s vision and ability to bridge organizational groups with the ability of something similar to the Design Lab to execute and iterate fast is where the future lies for customer engagement. In the future these will be the owners of the entire customer lifecycle optimizing and enhancing every touch point along the customer journey, not just online but offline too. It cannot be a someone, a person or team that is bound to a specific function, but it needs to be someone that bridges internal interests, while still focusing on what really matters; the customers and their experience with the brand.

Thank you

Written by

Social Business Manager @IBM Mind like a growth hacker. Learner. WaIks in orange pants. Tech geek. Optimist. The 80,311,717,044th person born. Views are my own.

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