• Ferhan Bulca

    I am an executive leader and a serial intrapreneur focused on innovation and design thinking. My purpose in life is to create products and services that make the world a better place to live in.

    In the course of my career, I have developed a deep understanding and expertise on all aspects of technology commercialization and product/service development. As a result, I have built multi-million dollar businesses from the ground up.

    I am the creator and the Lead Instructor for Business Innovation Certificate Program at University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies.

    I offer business consulting services and I am available as a speaker for private and public events.

    Watch my recent talk at Ashoka Canada's Changemakers event at University of Toronto on YouTube.

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Lessons from my grandmother’s life that I only realize after her passing

My grandmother passed away on October 29th, at the age of 89. Remembering my interactions with her and re-thinking how she lived her life, I realized that some of the career choices I have made are strongly influenced by my grandmother. This was a revelation to me.

Here is what she (subconsciously) taught me:

  1. Own your destiny
    My grandmother absolutely rejected the idea of abandoning her home and living under someone else’s care. Even after she reluctantly accepted to have a live-in helper, she insisted that she did most of the housework herself and took care of herself. All her life, she believed that if you wanted something done, you would do it yourself. Actually, I do not remember she ever telling this in words but her every action was a confirmation of what she believed.
  2. Be strong and be approachable
    She had a tough life, especially earlier on. Being the oldest of three daughters to a carpet tradesman, they did not have much to live on. She had to take care of her younger siblings to allow their mother to take care of their household when every housework was a manual task. She developed an enormous amount of strength and drive, which was visible until the last days of her life. Despite this drive, she never lost her human touch. Always genuinely happy to interact with her grand kids, I remember my early interactions with her with a smile on my face.
  3. Get things done first, rest later
    As you may get the picture, she was a go-getter. When I was a little kid, I would watch her in autumn when she prepared for the upcoming winter. She would make tomato paste, pasta, dried soup mix, sausages, pickles and many other staples for the winter. Everything was hand-made. She was known as the machine, who would get her preparation done and go help others.

Now she is gone but the lessons I learned from her will always be with me.


Financial Post Q&A on Intrapreneurship & Innovation

My Q&A session on intrapreneurship with Dan Ovsey of Financial Post is available here.

Dan did a great job in capturing the essence of my points. This is to add a supplementary piece of information regarding the five-step process I mentioned in my Q&A with Dan. You may find more information on my process at a series of my blog posts:

  1. Overview of the five-step process
  2. Step 1: Business design
  3. Step 2: Go-to-market strategy
  4. Step 3: Development
  5. Step 4: Launch
  6. Step 5: Monitor

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please share this posting if you find it helpful. If you have any questions, comments or thoughts, I would love to hear from you.

Art of Starting a New Business in a Large Organization

These days there is a lot of emphasis on entrepreneurship and start-ups. Intrepreneurial activities, on the other hand, are mostly off the radar of bloggers and authors. As I stated in an earlier post, I believe large organizations can have an innovative advantage if they know how to use it. And, it is a big “if”! The secret sauce is in the organization’s culture. When the culture is open to change, the infusion of innovation can be done publicly and quickly. Otherwise, a more controlled but still transparent infusion is the way to go. Either way, the main ingredients of this secret sauce are the same:


It all starts and dies with the leaders. We need a flag-bearer, a visionary, a committed person who can assemble, motivate and support the cast of characters that will join and leave along the way. The leader needs to be behind the initiative because of belief and commitment, not for personal benefits. This is usually where most large organization initiatives fail. It is hard to find that person who wants to do whatever it takes out of pure commitment to the cause. This feature exists in entrepreneurs and founders. They put their heart and soul into what they believe. That is hardly the case in larger organizations, where many political forces are at play. An innovation leader in a large organization has more responsibility on their shoulders than an entrepreneur does. The job of an innovation leader is roughly a combination of those of an entrepreneur, a VC board member and an independent advisor.

Commitment to Long-Term

Innovation typically requires a substantial investment with a hope for future return. There is an upfront investment of resources (money, time, effort). The hope is that return on investment will be substantial and timely. Well, one of these (amount and time) or both may fail, especially the first time around. As s0meone said “all overnight successes have been in the works for a decade.” This is true for startups and it is true for innovation initiatives at large organizations. Commitment needs to be to long-term success, not a quick win.

Inclusive Behaviour 

Organizations have many micro-structures that obey Newton’s third law of motion. That is, they apply an equal and opposite force to the innovative forces being applied. Exclusive and secretive behaviour fuels this attitude as departments and divisions try to maintain what they are mandated to do. The solution is to exhibit an inclusive and open attitude towards supporters and resistors alike. While not all resistors will become supporters through an inclusive behaviour, they are guaranteed to resist in the face of a secretive behaviour.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

Innovation is a Skill, Not a Job!

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who made a statement that I used in the title of this post: “Innovation is a skill, not a position or job description.” I wholeheartedly agree with his statement.

Our Business Innovation Certificate program at University of Toronto primarily attracts entrepreneurs and middle managers. These two groups of people face different challenges. In a couple of earlier blog posts (here and here), I wrote about the differences between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur. Middle managers fit into the description of intrapreneurs, at least the ones who come to our classes.

The most common challenge among intrapreneurs is breaking through the culture of their organizations to bring new and experimental ideas to life. As they correctly notice, taking an idea through the treacherous path of commercialization is their true challenge. There is no one simple solution to this challenge and, in my opinion, this is why innovation is a mystery to many organizations. To deal with this mystery, organizations typically add “innovation” into job descriptions and titles, hoping that if it is somebody’s job, that somebody will be motivated (or, obligated) to figure it out. WRONG!!!

Innovation, in fact, is a personal skill that needs to be developed and nurtured. Innovation, just like any other skill, requires a supporting environment (organizational culture) and relevant tools and techniques to practice it. Therefore, the role of organizational leaders is to create such an environment where people are motivated, not obligated, to learn, practice and improve their innovation skills. Culture of an organization is the one single thing that makes or breaks innovation. All leadership energy needs to focus on creating an appropriate culture or modifying the existing one to support innovation. It is not an easy task but it is possible. Just one hint, do not start with making it a job title or part of job descriptions.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

Making Innovation Everybody’s Job

Class after class I receive the same question as I teach my course on Business Innovation at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education: How do you make innovation everybody’s job?

The fundamental principles are easy and Dan Pink (http://www.danpink.com/drive-the-summaries) stated them succinctly. Three things motivate people to their best and create best results:

  • Purpose –  the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
  • Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters
  • Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives

If people feel and experience an environment, where these three components are engrained in their daily professional lives, they will happily make innovation their jobs. Let’s take a look at what most, if not all, corporate warriors actually experience instead.

Sloganism without Purpose

Take your regular management and all-hands meetings where business goals are shared, sometimes to adrenalin-rushing background music. You may feel good about the show C-level puts on but do you feel like you have an inspiring purpose to run back to your desk/lab/kiosk and start doing things better, faster, cheaper? I doubt that you do.

On the other hand, take Vijay Govindarajan’s $300 house vision (http://www.300house.com). Govindarajan simply explains how a $300 house can help billions of people on the planet and challenges everyone to contribute to such a house. Does that inspire you to do something new, novel and amazing? I would think so.

Hierarchy without Autonomy

Hierarchy may help you run your daily business but it won’t help you inspire people to do better everyday than they did the day before. For some reason, we all realize that we are at our best when we can decide for ourselves. But, most people do the exact opposite when they take on a management/leadership role. Even spectacular examples (eg. Linux, Wikipedia) of self-driven success do not deter many from their iron-handed approach to manage others.

Management without Mastery

Almost all companies I have dealt with emphasize the need to create detailed job descriptions, processes and procedures. These are presented to the employee under the disguise of “providing clarity of expectations” and are used for basis for discipline if not met. Training requests of employees are routinely turned down because “they are not in line with the company’s expectations”. How many people feel trapped in their jobs with nowhere to go? Taking away opportunities to build mastery does that to people.

Bottom Line

As I have been advocating before, large organizations have many advantages if they can overcome the obstacles I describe above. There are examples of organizations that successfully overcome these obstacles but their numbers can be significantly improved with appropriate leadership practices.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan [at] ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.


Large Companies and Innovation – An Oxymoron?

For long, innovative and new products are associated with entrepreneurs who pursue their passion and succeed. Many think that large companies get caught up in their routine operations and are not good sources of innovative solutions.

In fact, large companies have a few advantages over their start-up counterparts to create innovation. Scott Anthony published an article to “…call to arms for corporate innovators to seize the opportunities that only a big company can realize” (http://blogs.hbr.org/anthony/2012/09/how_big_companies_can_save_inn.html?awid=6166991183274468738-3271). Scott discusses three questions companies should be asking themselves to remain active in the innovation playground. In addition to asking these questions, companies should leverage the strengths that only large companies have:

1. Access to resources

Large companies have the most important resource for innovation: cash. Many entrepreneurial activities never come to fruition because of cash-flow issues. This is less of an issue in a large organization, where mature financial management is the norm.

Large companies have people, tools, facilities and partners that are difficult for start-ups to establish. In addition, international networks of large organizations enable them to quickly and effectively assess the value of their innovations, which again is a luxury for entrepreneurs.

Finally, large companies can get the attention of distribution channels much more easily than a start-up can.

2. Established brand

Think of the difference between Google introducing a social interaction medium versus a No-Name start-up doing the same. Even if Google+ is not much of a success so far, it still has attracted a number of users, who are trying it only because it is from Google. On the other hand, we have never heard of many Facebook-like tools being created by start-ups.

A large company can put its existing brand power behind a new product or service it is introducing. An established brand does not make a sloppy product successful but it certainly ensures that the new product gets some much needed air time with potential customers.

3. Talent acquisition

I recently worked with a client, which was struggling to attract talent to a new business they wanted to introduce. While the client had a viable product, they were having difficulty convincing top-talent join their ranks because the company was not known as a development company. In contrast, IBM, for example, would have no difficulty attracting the top talent for new business ideas they are working on.

4. Create and maintain momentum

Large organizations can dedicate resources to new development while start-up entrepreneurs struggle with basic needs of life. For example, an aspiring entrepreneur I know had to pause pursuing his passion in commercializing a medical device in order to focus on making some money to be able to pay his mortgage and put food on the table. By the time he secures sufficient savings to go back to his passion, he will have lost his momentum. In the worst-case scenario, he may even lose all his progress if a competitor beats him to market.

In closing, I echo Scott’s appeal to large organizations. There is tremendous opportunity to take the center-stage in innovation by learning from successful entrepreneurial practices and executing them in large organizations by leveraging above strengths.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

Your Organizational Culture Determines How You Innovate on Mature Products/Markets

Everybody can visualize the organizational culture of a start-up company. A small group of dedicated, motivated people working shoulder-to-shoulder with visionary founder(s). Things are humming and dynamic. How about the organizational culture when the product matures and is adopted by a larger market segment? How does that culture contribute to further innovation?

Let me first frame the conversation using Geoffrey Moore’s four innovation zones, introduced in his book Dealing With Darwin. Moore maps these four zones to his famous market adoption curve.

Geoffrey Moore's Four Innovation Zones

Geoffrey Moore’s Four Innovation Zones

At the leading edge of the curve is Product Leadership, which corresponds to disruptive innovation. At the tail end, there is Category Renewal. In this post, I will focus on the middle section and discuss the role of organizational culture in the company’s ability to innovate in that area.

Geoffrey Moore identified two main innovation categories for mature products/services:

  • Customer Intimacy refers to improving the value of the product/service to customers,
  • Operational Excellence is about improving operational efficiency to gain cost advantage over competitors.

While many organizations claim or want to do both, typically their culture is geared towards one or the other, not both. Improving customer intimacy requires an outward looking culture whereas the attention is inside when it comes to operational excellence. In today’s bottom-line driven approach, operational excellence is where most organizations focus because:

  • One can readily quantify goals: Cost of materials, taking waste out of operations, automating processes are all quantifiable and easily understandable. Leaders can set goals (eg. “reduce warehouse floor usage by 50%”) and monitor progress.
  • Improvements are internal: Improvements are done in operations behind closed doors. They are under the control of leaders of the organization.
  • There is little risk of public failure: What happens in the company stays in the company. Naturally, operational changes may impact customer experience but, for the most part, the outside world has limited visibility to how operations are run.

Customer intimacy, on the other hand, requires a different culture, which emphasizes continuous effort to better understand customers and respond to their evolving needs. True customer insight comes through walking a mile in the customers’ shoes, understanding their pain points and improving the product/service to eliminate these pain points. This approach conflicts with operational excellence as it is outward looking, ambiguous, risky and potentially costly.

In summary, customer intimacy and operational excellence require two very different organizational cultures to do well. These cultures are inherently in conflict with each other and should be managed well to be successful. Otherwise, typically operational excellence camp wins at the expense of better customer experience.

I welcome your comments on my blog. If you have specific questions, please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com.

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