The Power Of Competition In Creativity: Cisco's "BIG" Jolt For Startups

How Jenny Griffiths inspired winning innovation in her future-facing, clothes-buying company, Snap Fashion.

Jenny Griffiths had a breakthrough idea and a running start, but then she found herself toiling in the tech industry's biggest blind spots.

As the CEO and founder of Snap Fashion, she’d developed a so-called “computer vision” app and website that let shoppers use their smartphones to take pictures of clothing they liked--a photo of a photo in a magazine or a candid shot on the street somewhere--and then search for it visually to find matching outfits and compare prices from the stock of other retailers. More than 110 of those retailers, from Gap to Bloomingdales, had signed up.

She'd come up with the concept in 2009, while struggling to stay hip as a poor college student at the University of Bristol. “If I found something I liked, I couldn’t afford it,” she says. But searching online for alternatives was a serious pain. “It struck me as sort of obvious to shop with a photo because we shop with our eyes,” she says. After graduating, she tinkered for a few years with the site design and functionality while working as a project manager at a cyber-security firm. In early 2012, she quit to take her business live.

That's when she hit a wall. Despite her momentum and the strength of her idea, Griffiths struggled to get noticed by the tech community that commands the kind of attention and funding she needed to stay afloat.

Fashion magazines seemed to like it, but most male-centric tech publications ignored it altogether. “Technology wise, it was hard to get noticed, probably because we are a female-based product,” she says. Also, Snap Fashion is based in London, meaning many of her 110 partner retailers were the U.K. divisions. Or they were U.K.-identified stores: Selfridges, French Connection, Reiss, New Look, and Dorothy Perkins. They weren't always household names to the kingmakers in Silicon Valley.

Then in April 2012, Cisco announced the inaugural British Innovation Gateway, or “BIG” Awards, an annual contest offering $135,000 in prize money, an additional $75,000 in marketing, public relations, and legal support, plus a 12-month mentorship with Cisco’s own in-house business coaches for a company working in an undiscovered, tech-savvy niche.

The contest is an offshoot of Cisco’s half-decade-old I-Prize circuit, a worldwide contest created by the company’s Emerging Technologies group that acts like an internal innovation pipeline, partnering with global entrepreneurs to identify new business tech and market opportunities and acquire them. For Griffiths, BIG was a perfect fit, if not a long shot. Still, she submitted her business plan and some tech specs--along with 300 other entrants.


Contests Within Contests

The Emerging Technology group itself consists of about 600 employees, half inside the company and the other half from startups that Cisco has invested in and acquired. Since being formed in 2006, the group has been responsible for establishing company’s Telepresence, Smart Grid, and Physical Security products.

Two of the biggest ways the ET group has been able to churn out such innovative products is, one, by partnering with separate talent incubators like Start-X at Stanford to spot and help finance promising ideas; and, two, by maintaining an internal wiki called I-Zone that lets employees communally share and help develop ideas the company might be missing. That site, which is open to all of the company’s 60,000 worldwide employees, draws about 200 submissions and edits a month, mostly from people logging in on lunch breaks or after hours to tinker. It’s meant to tap into what ET Chief Technology Officer Guido Jouret calls Cisco’s “internal entrepreneurs,” those who are creative and would be problem solving anyway, simply for the sake of the challenges themselves.

The projects that surface through I-Zone don't win any monetary payouts. Instead, teams who come up with great ideas might be invited to join ET and help develop them. The reason: The lure of a big payday might not only distract workers from current tasks but stop collaborations, which often improve ideas exponentially. “Engineers need to socialize their ideas,” Jouret says. At its core, the program is also used as a way to help people leapfrog into new jobs without having to leave the company. Over the years, though, Jouret has noticed that the program suffered from “expert bias.” Some ideas are more like incremental improvements to existing tech, not radical game changers. “We have a highly technologically savvy view of the world but we don’t always understand how to address market needs or what we might be missing.”

The I-Prize circuit hedges against that. Early competitions in 2008 and 2010 were structured a lot like the internal I-Zone; because there were thousands of applicants, all projects were listed on a contest page, so those with similar ideas could decide if they wanted to co-develop them instead. Those early contests were wildly ambitious. Each breakthrough needed to have the potential to yield $1 billion in revenue over the course of the next five to seven years of further development, yielding concepts like the smart grid technology.

Since then, the company has shifted to focus less on grand individual ideas and more on building eco-systems that could ultimately incubate more inventors. To that end, BIG is an I-Prize spin-off that operates more regionally and is part of a broader network to help entrepreneurs in far-flung places build communities and stay sustainable. In the U.K., the company has pledged $500 million toward entrepreneurship and innovation projects, including building two new innovation centers to raise the R&D curve for local startups. Those shops will eventually connect to the recently launched National Virtual Incubator, a program meant to spark more regional collaboration.


Incubation At Scale

Several more incubation centers around the U.K. may get synced up as well. Cisco is doing something similar in Russia. There, it has committed to spending $1 billion on new entrepreneurship and sustainable innovation opportunities and partnered with a regional group to launch another I-Prize circuit called the Skolkovo Innovation Award.

This summer, the company announced the creation of a separate tech fund of an undisclosed amount to finance more ambitious, early stage in-house engineering projects.

For BIG, the contestants were vetted by a six-person team of judges that included Phil Smith, CEO of Cisco U.K. and Ireland, and the heads of other corporate partners like JP Morgan Chase, who narrowed submissions to 30 semi-finalists. Each contestant was then asked to make a 3-minute commercial and, in an odd twist, log on to a virtual trading platform to buy or sell shares of each other’s ideas. Judges used the alternative stock exchange to help gauge which ideas were getting traction. They eventually picked six finalists, who had to make another 60-second commercial and pitch their product to the panel personally, Shark Tank-style.


Griffiths's "BIG" Moment

In September, Griffiths won it all with a pretty basic message. As her 60-second spot put it: See something you love, want, need? Get your phone out… That’s led to some of the more widespread attention she’s been seeking. The U.K. Apple app store made Snap Fashion a featured download, which helped boost user traffic: The app has since had more than 10,000 downloads and the site attracts tens of thousands of users. Mega-retailers that seemed unreachable before (think: Net-A-Porter) now cold call her to get more involved with the service.

Griffiths plans to use the windfall and mentorship to expand. This year, she is releasing an Android app, building better platform compatibility with likes of iPads and iPad Minis, recruiting local designers to the site, and unveiling a men’s section. By fall, there should also be a U.S. version out. In the meantime, she's added a sales tracker so that shoppers can be notified if something on their look-alike wish list falls within a certain price range. Another feature lets users filter results based on favorite retailers.

Cisco hasn’t offered to buy the company--at least, not yet. They seem to be betting that the example of a homegrown startup making it on its own in London will be more powerful encouragement to the legions of startups now sprouting in East London, the country’s so-called Silicon Roundabout region. Do that, and eventually there should be even more good ideas out there worth acquiring.

“It’s a really growing scene,” Griffiths says. “It’s become really cool to try to be a tech entrepreneur out here.” Thanks to her own service, Griffiths even looks cool these days. After all, when she wants something, she knows exactly what stores have it.

[Image: Flickr user Sascha Pohflepp]

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