Being an ‘Intrapreneur’ - Millie Tan

Image from Unsplash by Christina @wocintechchat.com

Being entrepreneurial within a larger organization! Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? We are in conversation with Millie Tan to understand how she brings forth holistic thinking and an expertise in marketing to drive business. Her experiences working with Polaroid are unique and profitable due to her proactive, action oriented initiatives.

Millie, you have exemplified the meaning of intrapreneur. Your entrepreneurial activities have been within large corporations, often working on new projects that are contrary to internal stakeholders’ views of the company. You possess the unique skill-set of being able to successfully incorporate both these perspectives and bring that to a board. Tell us more about this.

“I would actually like to share two stories to demonstrate how I work as an entrepreneur within larger organizations. Both involve new product development projects while I was at Polaroid Corporation. My overarching framework is to be customer-centric and fact based. Introducing new products requires developing a comprehensive business plan that includes spotlighting the organization’s differentiation while proactively overcoming potential internal objections throughout the process.

“Many people might remember Polaroid; globally recognized for its instant cameras, to consumers, it was viewed as an ‘imaging’ company. The introduction of digital cameras and the slow response of traditional camera and film companies is well documented. There was a lot of concern within Polaroid since it would impact their business model. And it was also a company that was vertically integrated for its R&D and manufacturing.

“I was tasked with getting Polaroid into the Consumer Digital Camera business. In true Polaroid fashion, we considered how we could design and build our own entry level consumer digital camera. As a first step, I created an internal steering committee including members from all key stakeholder departments. But speed to market was critical and we soon realized we were not able to develop a camera within a reasonable timeline. In addition to consumer research, industry research was conducted to understand the business dynamics and fundamentals. I identified that numerous well respected camera companies were OEM’ing their entry level consumer digital cameras from manufacturers in Asia. They recognized the need for speed to market and cost flexibility at an entry level price point. This was not the Polaroid business model.

“I recommended we consider OEMing a Polaroid consumer digital camera. This was met with skepticism. Knowing that Polaroid highly valued its scientific and engineering expertise, I suggested that Polaroid OEM a digital consumer camera with a low cost Asian manufacturer but maintain the research and intellectual property of the camera. By allowing Polaroid to maintain scientific IP, the R&D organization agreed.

“This new approach allowed Polaroid to collaborate with partners, providing us the speed to market we needed as well as the product cost needed for a viable business plan while sustaining Polaroid’s scientific expertise. The Polaroid consumer digital camera resulted in incremental $100mm business and the #1 consumer digital camera in US mass merchandise retailers. This is a good example of being entrepreneurial within a large organization — we expanded the business into consumer digital cameras while capitalizing on our strengths in new ways.

“The next example I’d like to share is the development of a market targeted to teens and the Polaroid I-zone camera. This came about from two separate directions. I was asked to evaluate how Polaroid could enter the Kids market by expanding our current products to this audience. Internally, this caused a great deal of concern. To our scientific and engineering community, Polaroid cameras were not a toy; they were highly technical products with 32 layers of chemicals, a mini-lab in every camera. From a scientific perspective it was incredible, but the average consumer was unable to see that. To a consumer — you press a button, and the picture comes out — it’s pretty amazing.

“At the same time, a toy company in Japan asked us if we could make a small instant camera. Of course, we could. However, I wondered how and why would we market that? What use would a small camera provide? What was exciting about it? We started a small cross-functional team to look at how we could present this camera in an interesting way to kids and teens. By bringing in the R&D and Manufacturing team, they were able to hear consumer desires and help solve the issues with their scientific and manufacturing expertise. We realized that young girls often expressed themselves through pictures — it was a fun way to communicate. So the team came up with the idea of making the small picture with a sticky back and wings. With this, you could take a picture, peel it, and stick it on your notebook or your friends’ helmet and so on. We redefined the product as a communications device, not just a camera. For youngsters it was so exciting! The whole idea was to get this young demographic hooked and make them loyal, lifelong customers. Investors felt the i-Zone kept Polaroid out of bankruptcy for two years and it became the #1 selling camera globally three years in a row. It was a $250mm business and really introduced an entire generation of youngsters to Polaroid.

“Both these examples showcase how to be innovative and entrepreneurial within a larger organization. Despite initial skepticism of conducting product development outside the traditional Polaroid box, leveraging the company’s strengths while partnering with others, led Polaroid to think differently about how to get products to market. Of course, it’s never a one-man job, an entire cross-functional team worked collaboratively toward both these initiatives.”

That’s interesting, thank you Millie.

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