From its inception during team brainstorming sessions in the Summer of 2011 to just before its announcement at MAX 2013, I was the project manager for Mighty, Adobe’s first foray into the world of hardware. During that time, I got a crash-course in bringing an established company into new business, in changing concepts, in convincing, in evangelism, in skirting the fine line between “off-brand” and “quick, call the legal department”. Here are a few things of the things I learned.

1) Believe.

In your project, in your team, in your people. You must believe in it the most because you’ll spend time – a lot of time – convincing everyone else. In large companies, we’re often asked to carry out someone else’s vision. As is the case with many design teams, our designers rarely have the opportunity to see their own ideas come to light. Making Mighty was an opportunity to conceive and execute our own vision. More than that, it was the rare chance to take a software company – a successful one with legacy products and a solid business model certainly not involved with hardware, a company that has been around for 30 years (that’s 200 in non-software-company years) – and bring it into a new industry. If this seems strange from the outside, it was that much more radical from the inside. This is the equivalent of the film industry saying “For our Summer Blockbuster, instead of going with Action/Romance, we’re going with a foreign film with subtitles and hoping for the best”. When you have company with a long history and a deep-seated track record, it’s challenging to innovate from within, particularly without a marketing team to back your hare-brained schemes. The expectation of profitability is nearly prohibitve. So, in a series of weekly Friday pancake and brainstorm sessions (come for the pancakes, stay for the brainstorm!) begun in an effort to show our VPs that we, too, could innovate and execute, Mighty was born. Five other products were conceived at the same time; one of these is still in the works and 4 have since been created by other companies. Mighty was, of course, the outlier. We dubbed it as such because it is, indeed, Mightier than the Sword. It was the codename, but we liked it so much it became the Real Name. When it became apparent that it might get made, we needed to then tie it in a real, believable way, to our business. Which brings me to…

2) Solid Vision.

As your unorthodox project goes from nascent to formed, you will be asked to present. Over, and over, and over again. Not just the deck, either, but every person involved in the project will be stopped in the halls and the cafeteria and on the way to the bathroom and even IN the bathroom to talk about this Crazy Thing They Heard You Were Working On. People and companies who have a proven business model are extremely wary about anything that may disrupt it. The expectation of profitability is ingrained, and it should be – this is why we have investors, and make a profit. At every moment, you need a clear, concise, yep, I’m going to say it, Elevator Pitch for your project. You must be prepared, from 30 seconds while washing your hands in the bathroom (you do that, right? soap up past the wrist and rub for at least 15-20 seconds?), to multiple requests from various executives in every imaginable business unit and product team (marketing? check. branding? check. Photoshop, Creative Cloud, and everything in between? Check, check, check.) to present a concise vision of your project and why it ties in to your company’s vision. As an individual contributor, I was being contacted by executives with hundreds of people in their reporting structures to discuss the vision for something that wasn’t yet complete. It swiftly became my job to help them to see the whole product when we had only formed 5% of it. I had to dig deep to find the confidence to convey this. Did we know that we’d be able to get copy/paste working? No, but we hoped we would. Executives want to sell it; everyone wants to jump in on the next big thing. They just want to make sure it can be the next big thing before they do that. It’s part of an executive’s job to poke holes in new ideas before the market can do it for them. Help them – if you can’t sell it, they won’t be able to sell it.

3) Buy-in.

Whether you’re in a big company or a start-up, you need buy-in. In a big company, rather than angel investors, we have executives. Whatever you’re making, you need to know your investors. This is not about presenting to just any executive, or to your manager’s manager. This might not be someone in your direct reporting structure at all. This is about presenting to the thought leaders in your company who are sympathetic to your cause. It’s presenting to the person or people to whom your CEO turns when they’re looking to imbue your business with something new and semi-conceivable. Something … “innovative“. We presented a light-up dummy version of Mighty combined with a faux-responsive app presentation to our CTO. We demo’d what we had decided was the most compelling feature, a copy-paste from one device to another. As we’d been working on the hardware and presentation for just 6 weeks, and as this was new science for which we had no budget, of course it wasn’t yet working – tapping the device just brought about the next transition. However, our designer had created such a succinct and compelling demo, and presented it so enthusiastically, that our CTO was drawn in enough that he took the stylus and tried to get it to copy-paste on his own devices. Our designer Geoff Dowd is one of the initial conceivers of Mighty, and one of its biggest advocates. His enthusiasm is infectious. As stated above, getting the right people excited is a big chunk of your job – they will, when inspired, evangelize for you and, more importantly, make sure that you have the funds and clear the overhead to do what you need to do.

4) Be Creative.

Sure, coming up with something so far out of the norm for a major company takes creativity. But that’s just the first part. Be prepared to make close friends with your legal team, with your patent attorneys, with your outside vendors. Be prepared to rush across your city for a last-minute meeting, to get a special carrying case for your prototype so you don’t “accidentally” leave it in a bar, to hide your badge when going to see an industrial engineer because why would a software company be going there? Take your logo off of everything until you’re in the final phases. In figuring out a new way to do business, you need allies who are in the space; with a big company from which to draw, you have a wealth of skill and knowledge, people you can tell about this project when even your closest friends can’t know. Invite them into the excitement and draw on their skill.

Long after the pancakes were consumed, after we’d lost faith, regained it, lost it and regained it again, after we’d been sure it would happen and then been convinced it never would, we watched with no small amount of emotion as our VP demo’d a very real, very functional prototype of Mighty to thousands of our co-workers, and to the tech world. Our vision became unified, became Adobe’s vision for a potential future. Mighty’s future is still being written, and (in large part because of my experience with Mighty) I’ve moved on to other projects within Adobe, but I will always have my experience with Mighty to thank for showing me what is possible in the corporate tech world, and what it takes to get there.

What have your experiences been with intrapreneurship ? What additional advice would you offer?

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