Sometimes when you have a true dream idea—a new opportunity you feel is vital for long-term strategic growth but one that doesn’t fit in your company’s priorities even if they have an incubator program—it takes a clean break from your current role to achieve that vision. In the past, this might have led to a permanent parting of ways. The company would lose a talented contributor and the employee lost access to the company’s leadership and IP.
Now companies and their employees who leave to become entrepreneurs are exploring ways to leverage their relationship to develop innovative and more competitive products and services. This external incubator–or “outcubator”–mindset gives the entrepreneur the ability to pursue their passion and apply what they know to come up with a novel solution. The former employer gets access to that solution knowing that all development and testing has been completed and it is ready to go to market.
This happened to me as I went from being an executive at ServiceMax to become a solo entrepreneur, then came back to ServiceMax as chief marketing and customer experience officer. I believe my story serves to illustrate how this kind of collaboration can create greater value in the marketplace.
Leaving ServiceMax was one of the hardest decisions of my career. The company was thriving in the field service management space and I had helped fuel six years of triple-digit growth. I had learned so much about the industry and came to know customers intimately. Really understanding the “deskless worker” led me to a potentially game-changing innovation.
Texting and messaging apps were commonly used in the workplace and collaboration platforms were helping virtual teams keep projects on track. However, working on behalf of field service teams across the country allowed me to see that there really was no communication app that was tailored to a field-based worker who needed to easily receive and share answers to job-related questions in real-time while on the job or at a worksite.
I saw the opportunity to bring something truly new to the market, but I knew the company wasn’t in a position to shift focus and resources to support the idea. After many days and nights contemplating my next move, I decided I had to pursue my dream elsewhere. I discovered Zinc, a startup with a horizontal messaging app. When I took over as its CEO, this type of functionality wasn’t a high priority for field service management software vendors, so the timing to bring the product to market was optimal.
There were plenty of challenges. Few companies in the space knew there was such a thing as a purpose-built messaging solution for field workers. Big-name collaboration players entered the market with similar offerings and created confusion as their platforms were not tailored for field-based or deskless workers. We had to do a lot of educating. Early success was also a challenge as we were approached by prospects that were not in our core market. This divided our focus and diluted our ability to execute, so we had to stay disciplined.
The idea of becoming an “outcubator” evolved through necessity, diligence, good fortune and keeping up my relationship with my former boss, then ServiceMax CEO Dave Yarnold. Dave had been a mentor to me early in my career and was a great sounding board in my first CEO role. He liked what we were doing and since Zinc was not a competitor, we were invited to join the ServiceMax partner program. We worked together to build product integration and collaborated on marketing and sales initiatives.
As the collaboration grew, I knew Zinc was a solid fit for ServiceMax. However, the company remained focused on existing priorities and didn’t think about Zinc beyond the partnership. The tide turned when Silver Lake acquired ServiceMax early in 2019. Ultimately, what sealed an acquisition deal was both our technology and the prospect of bringing on people who understood the field service industry–with hands-on experience working with deskless workers.
Even so, it can take years for a small company to find its way in a bigger organization. My relationship with ServiceMax leadership and understanding of how the company ran made it easier to integrate and ensure that Zinc could produce revenue.
ServiceMax and Zinc have been like children to me and bringing them together means I get to work on helping both reach their full potential. Coming up on a year post-acquisition, I’m still solidly a part of the ServiceMax executive team but I have an expanded role leading customer experience enablement and global customer transformation, as well as the ability to contribute across a broader set of initiatives.
It’s always hard to see a key contributor leave a company, but when they go off to develop missing link solutions that complement your portfolio and help fuel the industry forward, it’s smart to have an open mind, maintain strong relationships and look for “outcubator” opportunities to co-create and co-market. When the fit is good, it’s easier for the two companies to reunite and bring a more complete and competitive solution to market.
Stacey Epstein is the chief marketing and customer experience officer at ServiceMax.