- BCG Digital Ventures team
- Work as a Venture Architect
- Switching from public to startups
- Balancing risk and career guidance
Christoph began his career with EY’s audit practice. From there, he joined a startup in London, got an MBA, and has carved out a space within BCG’s Digital Ventures team. Read on for more!
Immediately after university, I started my career by joining EY in their audit practice. I joined EY for the reason that probably a lot of us joined public accounting, which is to get an understanding of how the world works as it pertains to running big, successful corporations. I stayed there for a little over four years, by splitting my time between LA and Houston. In Houston, I focused on oil & gas companies and I had some early exposure to media & entertainment, before moving to LA to work on media & entertainment clients exclusively. This was quite fun and I worked on some cool clients - including some of the film studios - some perks included getting to see some of the big films before the official release.
I then had the opportunity to join the management team of a startup in London. It was a B2B event tech company, named zkipster. When I joined the team it was me, the two co-founders and the head of product, full-time. I joined to help grow the team and set the foundation for growth as their Head of Operations and Strategy. After about two and half years of doing just that I felt it was time to move on to continue to push my problem solving and critical thinking skills, so I did an MBA at London Business School (LBS).
During my time in the MBA program, I dipped my toes into strategy consulting, and while I enjoyed the intellectual rigor and problem solving, I missed the start-up thinking from my time at zkipster. In start-ups it’s all about hustling and finding a solution rather than drawing up a perfect strategy that ends up in a slide deck. During my second year at LBS, I managed to secure a gig with BCG Digital Ventures (DV), which is BCG’s venture building arm. The work we do sits at the intersection of startup building and consulting. It combines the professional services model, which we know from Big 4, with startup and business building. I joined the team then and have been there since.
Yeah, well, it’s mostly right. Innovation is one part of the process. In today's world it feels that innovation has been commoditized. A lot of companies have corporate innovation teams and functions that come up with ideas, but as we know, the devil is in the detail and sits in the execution, not the idea. This is why a lot of companies struggle with the actual business, venture and product build to launch businesses to market successfully.
This is where DV comes in. The idea is one thing, but at DV we join the corporate team to co-create a new venture, which includes the product build but also everything else including business and venture related. Think of it as a traditional startup team - you need engineering, product managers, growth, commercial, and design. We staff a team that can come up with the idea, validate the concept (i.e. does it make sense?), and then define the MVP and go via alpha and beta to the commercial launch. So, it’s the end-to-end zero to one life cycle.
My role is a Venture Architect. The Venture Architect is the business lead who drives the commercial strategy, which includes anything from business case to go-to-market as well as the business / venture operations. At DV we used to describe it as ⅓ entrepreneur, ⅓ VC and ⅓ consultant. As Venture Architects we are also generally the folks that will GM the venture and sit at the intersection of the client, the BCG / DV team, and the wider multi-disciplinary team that delivers the work. It’s still a service-based model, so if there are any problems that pop up, it’s the VA to help problem-solve and help connect the dots and work with the partners / clients.
To set the scene, I joined a seed-stage startup with just a few people. When you get there, by design there’s not going to be much structure. In the early days it’s all about figuring out what the customers want and what sticks. Too much structure would be prohibitive. However, setting yourself up for growth and scale, you need to have some idea of how you want to organize yourself as a company and as a team. You need to have some idea of the operational processes. You need to be on top of all the administrative things such as accounting and finance, which for many entrepreneurs is not the fun part. But it's the part that's going to become the sort of bottleneck if you don’t have it sorted, particularly as you scale quickly.
Overlaying my experience from EY and relating it to this environment, I was able to apply what I had learned about working with a diverse set of skill sets and people. I also learned what the best practices are for some of the largest public and private entities. You know what you're working towards to be able to scale. I think just having the training from the Big 4 firms is invaluable coming into these startup environments that haven’t always had the same experience. Oftentimes, people joined from just startups or straight out of university, either way, it doesn’t come from the Big 4 background. Both backgrounds are needed and the combination of the two types creates a strong, multi-disciplinary team with different backgrounds and viewpoints, that can challenge the thinking and push you forward.
In audit, the work we did was mostly backwards looking. It was important work, but the focus was mostly around what had happened. Within the startup environment, you layer on quite a different mindset and muscle. When it comes to building a business, talking to customers, defining a forward-looking strategy, setting commercial targets and creating the teams’ incentive structures that make those numbers real, that’s very different. However, what I had learned in audit was still relevant and shaped my role at zkipster.
So it’s just a different muscle that we don’t train as much as an auditor. But that is not to say that it’s not a trainable muscle. Just like starting on an audit, you often don’t know about the industry or what you’re doing when you start but you just learn about things very quickly by doing it day to day. You still have a team around you that helps and supports you, and you’re ultimately just adding more layers to your skillset to become a more holistic professional.
The startup provided a lot of great ‘hands-on’ experience and I felt a lot of the things I wanted to achieve at zkipster had been completed. However, while at zkipster, there were a few moments where I could have benefited from some more strategic problem-solving skills. At times, I felt a bigger toolbox could have been useful to solve some of our complex questions around commercials, growth or go-to-market. Also, I knew I wanted to get into a role that aligned with what I’m doing now at BCG DV and realized the MBA was a very good path forward to bridge that skill set gap and give myself the best possible chance to land the job.
The venture I'm currently working on is really about both, creating a market and a business at the same time. In most instances, when we build a venture, the market is there and regulation will already be in place. The space in which we want to launch this concept has limited infrastructure, supply and regulation and we need to help orchestrate a full ecosystem, both around the supply and the demand side. So on the one hand (demand), we are testing and learning from customers and refining the value proposition while on the other hand (supply), we are trying to bring in the supply of various key partners within the ecosystem. On top of that, we are building out the actual product scope, design vision and commercials. Each individual piece isn’t complicated, but getting the different stakeholders into the ecosystem, from regulators to suppliers to customers, that’s a pretty complicated puzzle to solve.
We're currently in a phase where we're doing an eight-week validation. The next phase is the incubation, during which we will go from alpha to beta to commercial launch.
Overall, during any validation, it’s about reducing the level of ambiguity over time. It’s about trying to chip away a little bit more of the ambiguity and risks every day and every week. At the end of that phase, hopefully, we will have sufficient customer feedback and other data points to say we should go ahead or shouldn’t continue forward. Both are possible outcomes.
I’d say there are two ways to answer that:
Firstly, I will say that if everything you do on a daily basis becomes certain and predictable, then it becomes less challenging and less intellectually stimulating. I think that's when we get bored and want to look for new opportunities. There's no hard rule to know when that is the case, but you’ll know when you've plateaued in a role, and you want to move on to the next thing. So, some level of ambiguity is important to keep things interesting.
Secondly, it’s also not good if things are constantly ambiguous. In the space in which I am now, the innovation and venture building space is by design ambiguous. You're starting in this very broad opportunity space, and you sort of know there's something there to go after, but you just need to perform all these different activities around to chip away at the ambiguity. You talk to customers, talk to experts, and you immerse yourself in the market. Every day you know a little bit more and it’s a little bit less ambiguous for you to push forward. But then the next day another obstacle gets thrown in the way...it’s really just about overcoming different obstacles and finding a different solution
Reducing ambiguity and pushing forward is an interesting point. A lot of corporate partners’ (clients) day-to-day environment doesn’t allow for a lot of divergent thinking, meaning to think outside the box. This means it often takes a little bit of time to break out of their shells and learn to deal with the ambiguity. And the design process is all about this divergent and convergent thinking, which is uncomfortable at times. BCG DV as a whole does a great job in creating an environment that’s supported by process and methodology to make sure people are OK to feel uncomfortable, but also to make sure they feel comfortable enough to come out on the other side.
Talking about this sparked a thought around the fact that we are never quite there. It feels as though every time we reach a promotion or our next goal, we only rejoice in it for a minute before we’re onto the next thing.
So where I am getting at, is that for my current career goal - which seems very popular at the moment - I really like the concept of a portfolio career where you’re trying to do several things at once. I’m trying to build out my skill set in a way that I’m inching in that direction where I am getting involved in different side projects and start diversifying away from one career.
I’m trying to find the path to get there while having a “very” full-time job. I just have to try to find small chunks of time over the next few years to inch myself away from being 100% percent dependent on one job. I think that’s generally a good attitude to have, and to take risks on different opportunities to keep things interesting.