“The energy and enthusiasm in the room was worth doing in its own right,” Andy Haywood, Group COO of online retailers N Brown said of adopting an accelerator partner for an innovation programme that enables the Manchester based fashion business to work with startups.
Retailer N Brown is the parent company behind brands such a Simply Be, JD Williams and Jacamo. “70% of revenue is online, 25% by telephone and some shops,” Haywood told peers at the Fuse conference in London. “We are not a bunch of lawyers,” he quipped. Haywood joined N Brown in August 2014 and has been a retail CIO stalwart having led technology at fellow Manchester retail conglomerate The Cooperative and prior to that pharmacy business Boots.
“We are replatforming our whole business, a huge nine-figure technology investment on a multi-year heavy engineering project,” Haywood said of one of the largest responsibilities he and his team are managing at present.
“In many ways the last thing we should be doing is working with startups…but innovation is the key to competitive advantage,” Haywood said.
Haywood explained to peers the importance of having the board involved in innovation and startup programmes. “The board defined the problems, so we have seven directors that want to see progress on things and they want to own the solutions. My job is to work with people identify those problems and the startup solutions.”
Liberty Mawhood, COO with L Marks, the accelerator organisation that N Brown has partnered with said board level champions is critical for success; adding that she has seen examples of organisations saying to the CIO ‘if you are really sure let’s do it’. Mawhood says businesses must do as N Brown has done and ensure the entire board is actively involved.
“The breakthrough moment for N Brown was when we had a board meeting going through problem definition so that every director got to pitch their own challenge into the innovation process,” Haywood said. The N Brown COO said a key challenge to those board meetings was ensuring that the meeting did not damage the spirit of the startups and that board members were invigorated by spending time with startups. He joked: “We are all my age, no hair and long in the tooth.”
N Brown began working with L Marks having already begun an innovation and startup programme internally that needed the benefits of the framework L Marks introduced.
“An accelerator structure is a good balance of getting the best from the internal teams and the best from the accelerator,” he said, adding that L Marks bring a framework to the relationships between a major retail corporate and startups. “The structure has given it the oxygen to flourish.”