Today we announced that Productable signed a $1.2 million deal with the U.S. Air Force as part of an initiative to bolster the National Defense Strategy. Seeing our deal on paper makes it seem so simple, but our journey has been a hustle.
In late 2019, before we knew COVID would end up shutting down the globe, I was eagerly hitting the phones to get commitments from corporate innovation leaders to be the first to use our platform. We targeted fundraising a pre-seed round at the end of March. On top of all the startup excitement, I had so much energy from also planning our dream wedding weekend in The Redwoods and surrounding vineyards. It was supposed to be a memorable event with family and friends. But...
I’m clearly not a psychic.
What happened to Productable at the end of March 2020 is a pandemic story told by many in my shoes: Our corporate conversations completely fizzled and word on the street was absolutely do not try to fundraise now.
I had no idea what to do, so the running in circles began. As easy as it would be to say give up and go get a job, I couldn’t for two reasons: first, the market clearly wasn’t in a place to hire. Second, and more importantly, I just couldn’t go back to the broken innovation industry. I couldn’t stand the idea of throwing my heart into another “big corporate transformation,” where there was too much red tape, politics and silos to allow anything to happen; where there weren’t enough resources to see it through; and where the team had their hands tied behind their backs but was asked to keep working in the name of trust.
COVID may have shut down the world, but I wasn't going to let it shut down Productable. Who knew the answer to making it happen would lie within a 700,000 person government organization.
Letting Opportunity Lead the Way
In February 2020, my friend Sassie Duggleby, founder of Venus, an amazing hypersonic transit company, told me about an Air Force innovation group called AFWERX, which had an open challenge looking for software like Productable. I heard breaking into a government contract was almost impossible, so when I applied to the AFWERX Base of The Future Challenge, I wasn't expecting much to come from it.
This is where our partnership with the Air Force began. The relationship has since flourished into two contracts, and we're now working side-by-side to help solve military challenges on a daily basis.
The DoD innovation challenges align wholly with those of large corporations. Just like in the corporate world, leadership needs transparency into innovation progress to make better decisions; innovation teams need a structured process and standardized resources to drive opportunities to scale; and they need the risk mitigation of a portfolio approach to create more room for experimentation.
Productable addresses these innovation challenges, all in one platform, and we have the experience and know-how to set organizations up for innovation success through the right process, but also the right technology.
Developing Problem Solvers
The major difference between integrating innovation process into corporations and creating an innovation program for the Air Force is the enormous size of government. The Air Force has 700,000 people, so their challenges are more than 20x the size of a Fortune 10 company.
In the aforementioned Air Force memo entitled Accelerate Change or Lose, General Charles Brown, the Air Force Chief of Staff, outlined challenges facing the National Defense Strategy. If the United States Air Force doesn’t get better at innovation, we could fail as a country, and they need to empower all Airmen to be problem solvers in order to rise to the challenge.
By working with all the right people in the Air Force, who were entrepreneur-level passionate about solving problems, we developed a model for collaboration, got through all the competitive, procurement and certification hoops, and began officially working together to solve their challenges earlier this year.
We couldn’t have been any luckier to connect with William ”Brou” Gautier, Lt Col Taylor “Bingo” Herron and Col Bill Waynick, who embody the ideal Air Force innovation mind and spirit.
We kicked off the Air Force partnership with a prototyping contract with AF CyberWorx, the U.S. Air Force’s leading problem-solving unit, and a development and pilot phase funded by the Small Business Innovation Research program and SAF/MG, the department responsible for developing and implementing Air Force business transformation initiatives. This is just the beginning, and we can’t wait to see where the collaboration takes us.
In 2019 I would have told you entrepreneurship is all about hustle. In 2021, I think it’s letting go of what you thought the path to success looks like and seizing opportunities that come your way. If you are solving a big enough problem, your hard work will eventually lead to timing and luck if you let it.
Here’s to a strong ‘21 to my fellow entrepreneurs and innovators!
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