Intrapreneurs talk about their experience of corporate startup life
Business Management

Intrapreneurs talk about their experience of corporate startup life

Throughout its 40-year history, the New York-headquartered application development company CA has made over 200 acquisitions. But these days, the company is eager to focus more on its internal innovation than splashing the cash.

To this end, the company launched the CA Accelerator in 2016: an internal startup incubator that lets current employees create and run startups with the safety net of CA’s resources and a regular salary. 

We’ve already looked at the history and internal workings of the accelerator, but what’s it like actually being an ‘intrapreneur’ being incubated within a larger company? We talk to Waffle and WhoZoo founders Andrew Homeyer and Simon Cockayne. Automating project management for software teams

One of the most mature projects in the Accelerator program, Waffle is an automated project management tool for software development teams using GitHub. The Boulder, Colorado-based startup is more than a veteran of the program, it actually pre-dates it. When CA acquired  Rally Software in 2015, it inherited Rally Labs, the company’s own internal startup incubator in which Waffle was residing.

“Rally had one core product and Waffle was one of the first things that we tried to create a second product around,” says Waffle founder Andrew Homeyer.

“People think that large companies are stodgy and they're not a great place to build companies. But in smaller companies you have a lot of built up antibodies: They try to make one business model work that's their core function, and then when you try to create something new it's just not something that people are used to.”

Interesting in the startups currently gestating inside CA? Take a peek inside CA’s internal startup accelerator.

“Trying to incubate new within a small company was really, really difficult because there's just not a lot of available resources to make that happen. Being acquired by CA was probably the best thing for Waffle.”

And the results of the accelerator seem to be paying off. Waffle now boasts over 140,000 users, and many within the wider company expect Waffle to be the next startup to graduate the accelerator and become a full standalone product or business unit.

“It's been something unexpected,” says Homeyer. “I didn't think CA would be a good place to do innovation, but I'm still here which is surprising to me because they’ve been so great at supporting us and giving us that autonomy, empowerment, and freedom to really try to build new businesses.”

CA’s SVP of Incubation Howard Abrams talks corporate startup incubation: Lessons from CA’s internal startup accelerator

Projects and related IP within the accelerator are entirely owned by CA, so there’s no shares divided between the founder and the company as often the case in traditional accelerators. But the company does offer an incentive program so the founders can share in successes. It also operates a job rotation scheme where employees can rotate back into their old role, something similar, or have a grace period to apply for something different either internally or externally if they so choose.

“We get so much value out of it. Those serious risks for startups when you're in the early stages of creating a business; knowing you have a consistent paycheck and healthcare, that if you fail you’re not losing your job, we're protected from that. So, it's really worth it to help CA support us better so that we can work together to build on new things.”

While Homeyer’s job is creating a new business within CA, he also feels that it’s his responsibility to help the company be better.

“CA has been around for a while, we've built these practices that help us to be effective and efficient. But those things have to be iterated on and changed to support us.”

For example, he says, Waffle is a low price point product - $5 per month on the personal tier - that people just go in and use their credit card to purchase. That makes it something that is very different from CA’s traditional, enterprise-grade products, and requires a different approach.

“CA doesn't have many things that look like that, so you can imagine all the different accounting practices, sales practices, business model changes etc. that affects. We're innovating on those things for CA and teaching CA how to help us be successful so they can make this pattern repeatable for other businesses.”

Although Waffle is the old project and poster child for the accelerator, Homeyer is still one of the youngest on the program. Does that mean he is full of sagely advice for the other startups?

“We do try to share our learnings a lot. Going back, I would do a lot of things very differently, but it's really fun to go to share those learnings, and see other people not make the same mistakes. They can fail in brand new ways.”

“We like to think of [the accelerator program] as a sandbox. Not like a playground where we can play around with technology, but where we can build new businesses where there are guardrails. You bump up against the guardrails, you move them, you break a few things, but you make those guardrails a little more defined, and it protects the rest of the business.”

“We know we [CA] have to innovate. so instead of just acquiring companies now we are investing in our own people. It’s really great for our internal brand; developers knowing that if they have a great idea there's a place for them to go build it, and now there's a lot of muscle memory around how we actually do that.”

So, what next? Assuming Waffle does indeed become a permanent fixture of the CA portfolio, standing still wouldn’t be right for something born out of the need to drive innovation. Homeyer is keen to talk expansion and a bigger vision, and he doesn’t just mean adding support for BitBucket or GitLab.

“We work really well with individual software teams, and there's this huge opportunity to take that to the next level, about the teams working around the software team.”

“Whether it's building ourselves or integrating with CA products, or integrating with other products, we’re just trying to figure out how we expand the value that we can provide to companies. I don't actually know the answer but that's what we're thinking through and working with our customers to solve right now.” Using Machine Learning to foster better collaboration

WhoZoo aims to make it easier to bring people from within the company together for different projects. It uses Machine Learning not only to find the right skillsets within the organization, but ideally people it thinks work well together.

Where Waffle pre-dates the CA Accelerator, WhoZoo’s founder Simon Cockayne is a CA veteran having been at the company for some 17 years. He joined the accelerator program in August of 2016.

Though he had previously attempted a project with WhoZoo co-founder Rob Layzell, based around taking SOAP-based web services and turn them to REST APIs, it didn’t work out.

“It was magical stuff, it could do in seconds what it might take a developer hours or days to do. But nobody wanted it. We thought we were solving a problem people cared about and patently they didn't.”

Undeterred, he developed an interest in lean methodologies for his next project, which coincidentally was around the same time CA launched its incubation project.

“Given the context we were in, it was astonishing. We're a 40-year-old company with policies and processes, and a way of doing things, and lean startup is quite a difficult thing to do or try and have a go with.”

“To think that someone could make a decision on an investment of time and money based on a single sheet of paper and a ten-minute pitch was out of this world.”

So how is he finding the experience?

“It's wonderful. It's an emotional rollercoaster. It's the hardest job I've ever done. The most challenging, the most rewarding.”

“That's the journey; from an idea in my head and maybe a tagline, and fast forward a year or so and here we are with a team of people.”

Howard Abrams, SVP of CA’s incubation project, was keen to emphasize how such programs are opportunities for personal development as much as products.

“I'd never been a manager before in my life. No one had ever reported to me, I'd never hired anybody. I'd never been in charge of a budget before, there's all these new things that I do,” Cockayne says during his first press interview.

“I'm pretty verbose, [but] I'm growing in the ability to speak to executives. In that context you've got to be super crisp; what is it that you want them to know, what questions you ask, what decisions.”

Cockayne is clearly enjoying the experience, and has nothing but positive things to say about the experience and the program.

“[There has been] incredible support from people around me. Whether that's the angel team of people in or around the accelerator management, and the supportive folks there, or mentors around the organization, everybody wants people to succeed.”

“I guess the biggest thing that jumps out for me is the autonomy the founders are given. [They] give you the autonomy to say, 'this is your thing, you’re leading it, you go, let data drive you and see how it goes’.”

While intrapreneurs are often shielded away from some of the riskier elements of startup life, they are not protected from the arrival of competition. Nexus Teams and a number of other startups are looking to make surfacing skills from within the organization easier, and at its Universe conference GitHub spoke about using its extensive data pool to do the same and plug at least part of the current and future skills gaps.

“I think when I first stumbled upon that there was a company in the space, my heart sank,” says Cockayne. “I thought I was the only person on the planet who had observed this problem and got this idea. There was brief moment where I thought, ‘well that's it then, I might as well pack up and go home’.”

“But then you pause, and then you get a bit of a perspective. Google wasn't the first search engine. Being first and not being the only one doesn't mean you can’t be successful. I took a lot of solace from that.”


Also read:

Lessons from CA’s internal startup accelerator
A peek inside CA’s internal startup accelerator
Q&A: Barcelona and the Spanish startup scene
Why Venture Capitalists are looking at Latin America’s tech sector again


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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