Innovation in the time of COVID: S&P 500 companies disrupt from within

Techstars Accelerator By Margaret Fogarty July 2, 2020

Techstars and Western Union hosted a robust discussion on innovation in the time of COVID with S&P 500 leaders and concluded that innovation, while critical for both startups and large corporations, requires a defined focus. For startups, fast-tracking innovation is a question of speed, and for large corporations it is a question of synchronicity.

The webcast in late June attracted a global audience of more than 200 people from more than 20 countries. It was moderated by Laila Partridge, Managing Director of the STANLEY + Techstars Accelerator. The panelists included:

  • Marty Guay, Vice President, Business Development, STANLEY Black & Decker, Inc.
  • Jeff Hochstadt, Chief Strategy and Development Officer, Western Union
  • Terry Luciani, Vice President, Enterprise Innovation, MetLife

MetLife, STANLEY Black & Decker and Western Union have all been serving their customers and adapting to market forces through innovation for more than 150 years. Today, all three companies work with Techstars to drive innovation through their annual mentorship-driven accelerator programs. The Virtual Roundtable replay is available in its entirety, and below are a few highlights and key themes that emerged from the conversation.

Western Union’s Jeff Hochstadt responded to some additional questions on the topic of innovation after the panel:

How do companies with 150+ year legacies continue to innovate in economic downturns?

Innovation is hard-wired in Western Union’s DNA. We have a track record of disrupting ourselves and transforming our business model during all economic cycles. Our heritage of innovation and staying power might be constructive for startups, as Western Union is living proof of our own ability to innovate. Today, we’re focused on connecting our global network of 550,000 agent locations to our fast-growing digital network, driving innovation to serve our customers in a more inclusive manner.

We are also leveraging these capabilities to enable third parties, including banks and other financial institutions, to tap into our ecosystem to better serve their customers. Driving this constant reinvention is a culture that truly believes good ideas come from everywhere, and a deep sense of purpose that connects us to what customers really want and need.

How is COVID-19 driving innovation?

Market disruptions create business opportunities as well as risks. For startups, fast-tracking innovation is a question of speed, and for large corporations it’s a question of synchronicity. Now is a great time to fast track innovation, and it requires founders and corporate innovation teams to work collaboratively to navigate the path to market with speed and synchronicity.

Western Union demonstrated this synchronicity at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as we mobilized Rally Teams to focus on addressing customer pain points exacerbated by movement restrictions, to enable a rapid and nimble response. These cross-functional teams embody the spirit of customer-focused agility by providing customers with increased access, options, and ease-of-use in the digital environment.

The Rally Teams worked in overdrive to deliver solutions to our customers. Our leaders also helped by removing roadblocks to enable teams to support these efforts. And we are learning that one digital solution does not fit all. On many occasions, it requires a hybrid solution to bridge the physical and digital worlds seamlessly.

How have your business goals changed and how will you innovate to achieve those goals as we navigate a pandemic?

Our business vision and goals have not changed. More than 15 decades of connecting our customers has taught us that building trust underpins our success. Earning trust comes from listening to customers’ needs based on the current landscape. Now is a particularly important time to listen to our customers.

Listening helps us understand what is affecting customer decisions today and tomorrow, and informs our outlook on the future. This means translating what we hear into solutions that address our customers’ most pressing needs in current times.

How has your organization worked with condensed timelines and accelerated speed to market in recent months?

We have been focused on initiatives that are critical to deliver on our customers’ rapidly changing needs. It’s been rewarding to see these actions quickly turn into live pilots and launches across many countries, helping to enhance existing services and introduce new services to help customers safely and conveniently transfer money and make payments around the world.

  • We collaborated with our Agents to deliver money to customers at their homes in some countries as they were locked down with dusk to dawn curfews.
  • We set up digital concierge services to guide first-timers to navigate our digital services.
  • We worked collaboratively with Agents and Governments to shift in-person compliance checks online.

What inspires agility and keeps the Western Union team focused with employees working remotely?

We have gone through incredible shifts as an organization in recent months with minimal business interruption. As we implemented the Rally Teams to move with agility at the onset of the pandemic, there were some clear guard rails established that were grounded in being customer-obsessed; namely, to drive immediate solutions for our customers’ pain points that were exacerbated by movement restrictions.

We used our WU Way tools and practices to operating with agility at lightning speeds to drive rapid progress – including using visual task boards, holding frequent 15-minute huddles, and making decisions in the meetings rather than having offline discussions.

It is genuinely incredible what our teams around the globe have been able to accomplish to keep our business running and support our customers so efficiently and effectively.

How are you working with startup founders to innovate now?

Incumbents and start-ups have a lot to learn from each other. Legacy financial services firms are thinking more like technology and fintech companies, and vice versa. As illustrated by our active engagement and investment in Techstars, we believe working with founders continues to be an important new way to partner with innovative start-ups across all spheres. From digital customer experience and point-of-sale solutions to fraud prevention, anti-money laundering, digital wallets, stored value, blockchain, artificial intelligence and machine learning to name a few.

We are ready to learn as well as mentor, as we have demonstrated with our relationship with Techstars. Increasingly innovations will continue to commence from interesting partnerships and integrations.