SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR & INTRAPRENEUR (COWAN+) and ADJUNCT LECTURER & BATTEN FELLOW, UVA DARDEN SCHOOL OF BUSINESS
Alex Cowan has been an entrepreneur (5x) and an intrapreneur (1x). He’s currently teaching product design @DardenMBA and advising corporations on product development and innovation practices at COWAN+. His Venture Design framework is widely used by practitioners and instructors for new product and venture creation. His online course ‘Agile Development’ is a top 10 computer science specialization on Coursera.
Alex teaches three courses in the area of design and digital innovation: Software Design, Software Development, and Applied Innovation (in Silicon Valley). With Darden, he also created the Coursera specialization ‘Agile Development’ , one of the top 15 specializations on Coursera. His Venture Design framework is widely used by practitioners and instructors as a systematic approach to developing new products and businesses. Alex divides his time between instructing, advising and consulting. He’s delivered workshops to student and professional audiences at venues like General Assembly, The Lean Startup Circle, Startup Weekend, SVPMA, Swissnex, UCSC, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the UVA iLab and Stanford’s d.school. Alex currently serves on four corporate boards and as an advisor to multiple startups and ‘intrapreneurial’ ventures. Prior to his time at Darden, Alex has been an entrepreneur (5x) and an intrapreneur (1x). His most recent ventures are Brand Lattice, a brand strategy platform and Leonid Systems, an enterprise software vendor in the cloud communications space.
I got into the business of startups in the technology space my freshman year of college. An upperclassman I knew wanted to start a consulting firm and so I dropped out of college and we did that.
We got the business up and running and they’ve done over 1 billion dollars in business (it’s now called GovPlace). I can’t claim much of the credit for where they are now since I went back to college after 18 months, but that was my first startup/innovation experience.
We’re in a golden age of innovation. The idea that a startup is not a small version of a mature company but rather this learning vehicle is widely accepted. That’s a huge deal because it removes a lot of waste and theater. The use of design thinking and Lean Startup is growing and producing strong, observable results.
Most exciting to me is the use of agile and techniques like design sprints to really scale up the use of those innovation practices. Agile isn’t just about getting more software out the door sooner anymore- it’s increasingly used to organize the discovery and testing of what’s really valuable to the user. That’s where I’m focused with my work on Venture Design.
Ironically, I think the biggest opportunity to apply these more mature innovation practices is with large corporations. These corporations don’t want to become the Blockbuster to someone else’s Netflix, and yet they’re been stuck in the innovator’s dilemma where they struggle to divert meaningful resources to disruptive innovation.
Now there’s enough structure and enough teaching material (at MBA programs, on platforms like Coursera) where if they have the will they can more easily scale up programs that produce meaningful innovation.
I sold my last company in 2015 and now basically my business is a platform of teaching, advising and publishing around the Venture Design process.
My inspiration for the work around Venture Design came while I was running my last company. I was advising more and more friends about their startup ideas. Those long emails morphed into a book with Wiley (‘Starting a Tech Business’), which morphed into a series of talks, which morphed into a series of workshops, which morphed into a series of classes, which morphed into a series of online courses. Like so many things in my professional life, I can’t say I had this great plan. I was focused and observant, and that’s just how the work evolved.
I just launched a product management class on Coursera: ‘Digital Product Management- Modern Fundamentals’. That’s going great and I love hearing the stories from learners.
I’m really interested in corporate innovation. I’ve been doing startups my whole adult life, and I’m interested in how that process works inside the corporation- I’ve done it just once as an ‘intrapreneur’. Certain things like personal risk & raising money are easier, and certain things like focus & freedom of action are harder. How do managers inside the corporation do better on the hard things? That’s my area of interest.
I think there are certain questions need better answers:
How do we (in the corporation) choose the right innovation goals?
How do we bring focus to our innovation goals?
How do we charter projects to balance alignment and autonomy?
How do we monitor and evaluate progress on innovation projects?
I’ve been using this innovation canvas with a few teams and so far so good. I’m interested in exploring more work around that. It’s exciting to see what’s possible both for the corporation and for the individuals inside the innovation teams.
Joining the faculty at Darden has been terrific. Before I started at Darden, I thought I was pretty good in a classroom/workshop. Boy, was I wrong. The faculty at Darden are obsessed with teaching quality. I was just reading an article called ‘Should We Lose the Lecture?’ and I was thinking ‘Darden hasn’t used lectures in years.’ Everything is either case-based or experiential.
I’ve gotten fantastic coaching over the years from my colleagues and I’m so glad to have upped my game in the classroom/workshop. As the world moves from a plan/strategy driven business environment to a more creative maker/doer driven environment, I think being able to teach new skills is a critical capability. Darden’s also been great for scaling my classes online- they have a terrific instructional design team and I’m so proud of the success we’ve had on Coursera.
I was sitting in my beautiful corner office on the San Francisco Bay thinking ‘I should take this other job where I’ll be demoted and have to move across the country.’ You see, I’d been running sales engineering for a hardware company that was struggling- lots of expensive engineering and not a lot of traction with customers. I’d just been recruited to join a software company in the DC area, which was doing great and I’d enjoyed working with as a partner. The job was a long way from SF and a more junior position, but I knew I wanted to get back to software. I had just turned 30 and I was on the cusp of being pigeonholed as a ‘hardware guy’.
That job got me back into software and I learned a lot besides- in retrospect, it was certainly the right choice. What I learned from that moment in my career was that you have to be ready to pivot professionally, even if that means a major demotion in your title/how you perceive yourself. That was in 2005 and I think that lesson is even more relevant today. Our professional lives are getting longer the pace of change is getting faster- just do the arithmetic. I think it’s something many of us need to learn to do more to lead happier work lives.
For my MBA students, I’d say it’s exiting the program with the creative confidence to be pivotal in a digital innovation team. That might mean becoming a product manager at tech company or starting their own digital venture.
For my online students, it’s taking some new skill back to their job and seeing them actually work. Pretty much, that means changing their practice of agile so that their team more consistently produces software that their users value.
For my advisory clients (corporations and startups), it means getting on a trajectory to create a wildly successful new venture. Generally, that means having the confidence and tools to focus more and do less, but with a faster more testable process.
I wish I was better at it! I don’t think What my students and advisees need to do is hard. They’re generally discarding some kind of big plan that provided a false sense of security and getting ready to learn fast and hard under conditions of uncertainty. Most of what I teach is not difficult to understand intellectually, but it’s hard to have the confidence and discipline to do it consistently.
To answer the question more directly: We focus on visualizing and discussing an outcome that they really want- their happy place, if you will. Then we work backward from there. As we work together, I try to spend extra time showing where I think small, incremental progress is contributing to that larger picture (because it rarely feels that way at the time).
Broaden your horizons and get outside your comfort zone- and not just once in awhile, but every week. If you’re on the business side, learn how software gets made- tinker some. If you’re a designer, learn more about when and how your designs do or don’t make money for the company. If you’re a developer, learn whether your users are finding what you build valuable and why.
There are two good reasons to do this. First, big handoffs kill innovation. A successful team is a team where there are experts but the lines between everyone’s ‘area’ are a little blurry. Second, you will literally get smarter. I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re interested there’s some exciting science emerging about neuroplasticity that I think is important to everyone in today’s fast-paced, skills-intensive environment. Basically, when you push yourself to learn, you stimulate your ability to learn new things (in general) and your creativity at large.
I’d give myself a C- in a whole bunch of different things: sales, sysadmin, management, product design, coding (more like a D- there), accounting…to name a few. I have this patchy background because after my freshman year of college, I dropped out to start an IT consulting company and I had to do whatever needed to be done. I eventually went back to college, but that experience was formative and I’ve been a dabbler ever since. I think most people go to college, major in something, become part of a department or area, and then pretty much identify themselves as that thing for the rest of their life (accountant, salesperson, engineer).
There’s nothing wrong with that kind of specialization, but it turns out that an interdisciplinary perspective is relatively useful for startups and thinking about new ways to do things (aka ‘innovation’). I think that’s what I do best.
Clearly, I’m not the best innovator or founder. Probably, Elon Musk is the best living founder and I would be honored to shine his shoes.
Two main things helped me do what I’ve done. First, I never rest on my laurels. Sure, here I am talking about myself, but even when something works out well, I’m never thinking ‘OK, that was great. Clearly, that’s the way that always should be done.’ I keep looking for an even better way. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of smart people get stuck because they decided that their life’s mission is to advocate and prove some point of view they’ve created.
Second, when I get interested in something, I’m kind of a maniac. I may do it totally, laughably wrong the first time (or the second time, or the third time), but I just keep working on it until I think it’s good. My wife says I work too much, and I’m sure she’s right, but I do love is a challenge and working it out.
At the risk of boring the reader, my top aspiration is to be a good dad to my two daughters, one three and one 16 days. (Don’t worry- they’re both sleeping right now.) For most of my adult life, I’ve dedicated myself to my customers and my employees and now I’m trying to do a good job as a dad. I need to work on my focus and I have a lot to learn, but that’s job number one for me now.
Professionally, my main aspiration is to drive good outcomes for my MBA students. Do they get the job they want? Are they happy in it? Prepared? Does it put them on a fulfilling career arc? As faculty, we get evaluations for each class and those matter a lot (as they should), but I try to maintain focus on the longer/bigger picture of outcomes for my students.
I’m really proud of what we did at my last company, Leonid Systems. Leonid was an enterprise software company and while I made plenty of mistakes, the team did a great job and the execution was very tight. We managed to create a sizable enterprise software play with four products and multiple customers in the Fortune 100, and it was self-funded: we never raised a dollar of venture capital.
I would say my family is my most important asset and accomplishment, but I don’t think of it in terms of successes and failures.
When I was around 30, I had to decide whether to leave my senior job in a hardware startup for a more junior job back in software. It also meant moving from San Francisco to Washington, DC, but I’m sure it was the right decision. I wanted to get back into software and I needed to reinvent myself some, even though that meant a ‘demotion’.
Professional Life: Focus, and keep moving.
Personal Life: Relax and smell the roses.
Professional: Elon Musk for his boldness, commitment to humanity, and incredible executions.
Personal: My lovely wife for her patience, good judgement, and general wonderfulness.
Most of the year I live in Aptos, California near the beach- that’s my favorite.
With a friend, I built a pair of 4’ x 4’ vertical succulent gardens on our balcony. My relationship with them is a little obsessive- so far, I’m still experimenting to find plant placements and care routines that consistently work (i.e. don’t result in dead plants). In the sense of favorite, they’re the single physical object I favor most with my time.
Professionally, I’m really interested in corporate innovation right now. Specifically, I’m interested in how corporations can charter their strategy to better enable agile teams to produce real disruptive innovation. I’ve been using this corporate innovation canvas with a few clients and that’s been the anchor point for most of the work so far.