How one entrepreneur aced prioritization and found intrapreneurs to help her along the way (and how you can, too)
Nicole Verkindt is on her second business, but she still learns as she goes when it comes to prioritization. From manufacturing in the Dominican Republic with her first business to helping government and business align their procurement strategies with her current business, Offset Market Exchange (OMX), she’s faced losing customers, having the government threaten to build a competitor to push her out of business, and more.
Verkindt has prioritization almost down to a science, though. It’s been the secret weapon that powered her business growth with OMX; business growth that wouldn’t have come without the help of some amazing intrapreneurs.
Speaking to PulseBlueprint, the two-time founder shared how she prioritizes her work, sources intrapreneurs to help her on the journey, and how to work with intrapreneurs to give them freedom to perform.
Prioritizing which customers get resources and which don’t
When Verkindt started OMX, she thought big corporations would love it. They have huge procurement reporting obligations and little technology to help them.
Perhaps foolishly, Verkindt assumed these large corporates would love her. She was wrong. She would jokingly come to know the first 12 customers she interviewed in 2013, when OMX was getting started, as “The 12 Angry Men”.
“We went into this meeting one day with 12 super users – they were from huge corporations that would make up our revenue base,” Verkindt said. “And they attacked us for areas of the platform they couldn’t stand or would never use.”
Despite being perfect clients on paper – they had even signed letters of intent (LOIs) to use the platform – the individuals couldn’t grasp what OMX was doing and attacked the company for it. The work that CTO Timothy Quinn’s team put in on multiple features leading up to that meeting basically became redundant.
“They just knocked on everything,” Verkindt said.
Far from retreating and accepting defeat, Verkindt and Quinn “went back to work, after [licking] all your wounds”. Instead of trying to appease the 12 Angry Men, they simply found new customers.
“We found 12 new people and asked them if we built [the product they wanted] would they pay for it two weeks later; that was the threshold,” said Verkindt. “We actually went downstream, got away from big companies, and started working with some more entrepreneurial manufacturing companies that still had to submit this reporting. We spoke to the owners that would actually be using [the platform].”
She was very direct with her potential customers. When she asked how much they’d pay, she wanted to see the money – not be given a favour.
“Customers will tell you all sorts of things they want,” she said. “But there’s a couple threads here: there’s how painful is it and how urgent is it? If you’re missing those two things… you’re in trouble.”
Two day-to-day prioritization strategies
Finding new customers with Verkindt’s straight-talk strategy worked well. The platform began to thrive and grow, giving Verkindt and her team endlessly more on their plates.
“There’s tons of days where you get trapped in all sorts of noise,” Verkindt said. “You finish the day and you’re saying to yourself ‘I wasn’t very productive’. But if you want to be innovative… you’re going to go on these paths that are not relevant and you’re going to fail. And then the next day you’re going to be starting out more behind than you were the previous day. And that sometimes can be the process.”
In a noisy world where there’s nearly unlimited information to digest, events to attend or sponsor, or industries to consider, Verkindt does two things to keep her working life in check.
“I start my morning with ‘what are my three biggest priorities today,’” she said. “And then whenever I get on a long flight – anything over an hour – I look at my biggest priorities this month.”
With these two tools, Verkindt is able to process the noise and focus on what’s important.
“Lots of negative things happen in startups,” Verkindt said. “You go backwards before you go forwards. If I just go back to remembering I only have these three things to get done, it’s helpful.”
Wanting 2-D diversity
Nicole Verkindt is a big fan of what Harvard Business Review calls “2-D Diversity”, looking at both who someone is and the experiences that person brings to the table. Taking it in a different direction from the classic understanding of workplace diversity and inclusion, Verkindt talks about diversity from the perspective of what makes someone uniquely qualified for her (or anyone’s) company.
Speaking about why people hide so-called “weird” experiences from their resume, Verkindt called out that discomfort. For example, she said, if you’ve lived in a hostel in Thailand, don’t hide that fact – the company could be looking to sell into Thailand and you would be able to provide invaluable cultural knowledge.
According to Verkindt, facing the fear of looking unstable because you took a weird career tangent could showcase the precise experience a company needs.
“The fact that I have a very different background – worked in the Dominican [Republic], worked in government, and done tech – is actually my advantage,” said Verkindt. “As you build your team, you start to realize that… the things that make them so different is their big advantage.”
Mental health conversations
Going off-script in your career is not something that happens for everyone. Naturally mental health becomes part of the conversation, something Verkindt is grateful we’re finally talking about.
However, she worries if people focus too much on the idea of mental health over the practical realities of it, we risk not addressing root problems.
“We can’t ignore the fact that if you’re in an early stage startup, and you have no revenue, and you don’t have a huge cushion, you have to hustle and work late,” Verkindt said of the huge potential for burnout in startups. “You’re not going to be in balance. You’re not going to be working nine to five.”
“Everyone needs to be prepared for something that’s going to be a big strain on your mental health,” she continued. “But then if you pull that thread a little more, even just talking about it, I believe, will do a huge service.”
Talking about mental health helped Verkindt develop empathy for herself, a skill she frequently uses. She said she previously “had zero empathy” for herself and didn’t care if she was tired or had a bad week.
Now, the tactic she uses to get through rough times is surround herself with other people who have similar experiences.
When chatting with those people, she gets “a whole bunch of ideas” to solve the problem. Ideas over just sympathy, she said, is amazing because “the most important thing, especially in an early stage startup, is to have options.”
Intrapreneur prioritization and embracing the misfits
Getting the right people in the door is make-or-break for any company, but is especially crucial for early stage startups. After a person has the basic skills, Verkindt says grows requires finding people with drive to succeed. Once they’re in, treat them like adults.
“I think when you start to embrace the misfits of society – people that don’t feel like they’re cookie cutter in one specific role – you can harness that and they start to figure out where they fit and add value,” she said. “Then it’s like they’re an entrepreneur within an organization.”
But simply hiring someone to be an intrapreneur and leaving them alone is not an option, said Verkindt.
“It’s all about communication,” she said. “Being honest with each other about what the organization needs and about what each individual person needs.”
If someone realizes they have a bad fit – an accountant should be in sales, for instance – Verkindt said it’s a matter of having “adult conversations”. In those chats, clearly discuss company needs and transition planning. Clear expectations, for example indicating how long transition timelines will take, you respect your team’s needs without harming the organization.
If the intrapreneur really needs to transition quickly, then include them in the replacement process.
As Verkindt said, if the person wants to transition faster than the company can organically let them, then help the company recruit and find the next person. “You’re motivated for it,” Verkindt said.
Creating a system that centres on company needs mixed with individual needs empowers intrapreneurship, builds successful business, and ensures that prioritization is followed. As OMX continues to grow, Verkindt is aware that she needs intrapreneurs and prioritization to help her along the way, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be hard.
“I think I had to go on a journey,” said Verkindt. “It’s the cheesiest word on the planet, but I had to go on my own. And people can be very critical – it doesn’t stop hurting. But being really different and thinking differently, especially in this new economy that we’re all entering, is going to be your advantage.”
Header image courtesy Ivey Business School