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Hootsuite fosters ‘renegade’ intrapreneurial mentality

‘I wanted to put together a renegade force of people who were empowered to do things outside of the core business. Their goal is to find other opportunities in the market,’ says Ryan Holmes, CEO of HootSuite Media Inc.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Who is an intrapreneur? Usually highly self-motivated, proactive and action-oriented people who are comfortable with taking the initiative, even within the boundaries of an organization, in pursuit of an innovative product or service. This series examines eight companies that encourage an intrapreneurial culture. Read other stories about Telus, Canadian Tire, Metrolinx, Loblaw, Duha Group, Oil Country Engineering Services and Absolute Software.

Who is an intrapreneur? Usually highly self-motivated, proactive and action-oriented people who are comfortable with taking the initiative, even within the boundaries of an organization, in pursuit of an innovative product or service. This series examines eight companies that encourage an intrapreneurial culture. Read an earlier story in the series here.

When does a startup stop being a startup? At Hootsuite Media Inc., that answer may be never.

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The company is one of the biggest darlings of Canada's tech industry, employing more than 700 people as rumours swirl of a $1-billion valuation, but it's still awfully young: Ryan Holmes launched the social-media dashboard company in just 2008. And as the Vancouver company invests more and more into strengthening that core product, Mr. Holmes is making sure it dedicates plenty of resources to innovation.

Two years ago, at the tender age of five, the company launched Hootsuite Labs – a team dedicated to continued experimentation in social media development. Earlier this year, the Labs team released the Hootlet Google Chrome browser extension, a variation of a standard Hootsuite feature that makes it easier to post content to social networks from anywhere on the Web.

"A lot of companies start thinking about labs when innovation starts to slow down," Mr. Holmes says. "But I wanted to put together a renegade force of people who were empowered to do things outside of the core business. Their goal is to find other opportunities in the market."

More than 11 million people use Hootsuite's dashboard – a hub that lets them centralize and measure their social media presence, like Facebook and Twitter. With a flood of public and investor attention, Mr. Holmes and his company are plenty busy strengthening that product, which sits at the centre of Hootsuite's operations

With growth, though, comes growing pains. The 10-person Labs team is the company's answer to stave off those pains by designing products and services outside of its core offerings, continuing to foster the culture of innovation that made Hootsuite a success story.

It can be easy to lose sight of this kind of culture, says Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

"It's not the product that got you there – it's what's behind the product," says Dr. Dahl, who researches innovation and creativity and is Sauder's senior associate dean of faculty and research. "As organizations get big, there's always a danger that they lose the culture and the environment that created that initial success."

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Mr. Holmes says, "As we get more and more systems into our cash cow, failure is less accepted. People get less incentive to fail and try things with risk. There's no upside for them on that – it's only in maintaining the status quo." But the Labs team, he says, "are empowered to have failure. A good bit of failure."

The Labs team is in the business of educated speculation, says Michael Tippett, Hootsuite's director of new products. "The role of Hootsuite Labs is to anticipate what customers don't even know what they want yet," he says. He calls their idea-development process "scientific," with the odds often stacked against them: each release is an "experiment that can be validated or disproven by user adoption."

How often do their ideas fail? Both men offer hypotheticals. "Think about an incubator or an angel investor – angel investors are looking for one success in 30," Mr. Holmes says. "Can we beat that?" Mr. Tippett returns to the science analogy: "If we conduct a sufficient number of experiments, then even if our failure rate is 80 per cent, we're still succeeding in building winners 20 per cent of the time."

Hootlet was available for Hootsuite users before Labs pulled it out as a standalone browser extension, after getting customers to point out the functions they wanted the most, such as sharing videos directly from the YouTube website.

But there are plenty more ideas they've tried and failed, including URL shortening and various marketing tools. "The goal is to start with smaller investments in both time and resources, and kill quick," Mr. Holmes says. "Figure out if it's going to be a success and worth investing more, or kill it if it isn't."

Dr. Dahl says that, given the sector Hootsuite belongs to and its value proposition, "keeping innovation at the centre of their business is something that's going to be critical for them. They're in a fast-moving space and always need to be at the forefront and reinventing themselves at some level."

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He likens single-minded companies to one-hit wonder bands. "They have one great hit product, and they spend all of their energy on that one specific product," he says. "You can become like those bands that we remember from the '80s. I don't think organizations set out to be that, but sometimes they get a bit too focused."

The success of Labs has actually inspired Hootsuite to build a separate, complementary team to monetize new products: the Growth group.

When the core company gets a new product from Labs, Mr. Holmes says, "there's this risk where they don't know what to do with it." So now, the 25-person Growth team intervenes. "Their job is to take a product with a million users and make a million dollars off of it. From there, the core team can optimize and grow it."

Balancing a company's efforts, and not leaning too much toward one product, is crucial, Mr. Holmes says. "I think it's super important for people to make investments like this for the longevity of their businesses. This is why we're making a big investment in innovation. A lot of people end up leaving organizations because they find out they can't be entrepreneurial within their company. I think that's a terrible shame, because that company can lose diversity."

Innovation, Mr. Tippett says, will be the key to keeping Hootsuite's growth going: "If we experiment often enough, we'll get it right often enough to ensure we can serve our next 10-million customers."

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More

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