Hire a lean entrepreneur for one year. The story of Symbio

At Board of Innovation we love to share our learnings as soon as we finish an innovation project. Not so long ago we shared the tools we used during a 3-day ideation brainstorm and a checklist to organize your own corporate innovation accelerator. Now we have something else for you, one of our colleagues joined a corporate startup for almost a year. We decided to interview Jacob Hartstra (the team lead in this corporate), to hear what it’s like to ‘hire a lean entrepreneur for almost a year’.

Allow me to tell you a bit more about this project before making you read this interview. Arne Van Balen (our guy) joined Symbio (corporate startup by Sappi, a global paper company) over a year ago, after Sappi went through a corporate innovation accelerator program with us to explore new revenue streams. One of the outcomes of this bootcamp was Symbio, a plastic reinforced with cellulose fibers which are normally used to make paper.

After talking to Jacob and Arne, it became clear to me, that this project is a success story. They started from zero and managed to gain credibility and to get traction, in the for Sappi totally new market of plastics, within a year. 

1. Discovery-phase: Symbio needs support

When did you notice you needed an external ‘lean entrepreneur’ to join your team?
Jacob: It occurred to me pretty soon that I would need external help in this project. I needed someone with a hands-on approach to develop and execute the go-to-market strategy. Since my resources for this project were limited, a consultant was the ideal solution. Sappi had hired Board of Innovation earlier, so I knew what these guys would be capable of. Arne already joined our team in the first months.


Was Arne’s role defined when he started?
Jacob: I surely had ‘the role’ in my mind, but we redefined Arne’s tasks step by step. We really used a ‘serve to needs’ approach, the focus of our lean entrepreneur was particularly on supporting in setting up marketing materials and our go-to-market strategy.

What did you expect of the ‘lean entrepreneur’ that joined your team?
Jacob: Since I am very much raised in a corporate environment and really needed someone with a strong entrepreneurial mindset with fresh and gutsy ideas on how to get discussions going with players in markets completely new to us.

Were these expectations fulfilled?
Jacob: At the start of this project, my image of what Board of Innovation would deliver was pretty clear. The most important things Arne brought to our team were ‘Out of the box mentality’ (hiring a consultant like Arne really makes you feel the sky is the limit) and business knowledge. These expectations were definitely fulfilled.

Did you get extra (unexpected) gains?
Jacob: Arne was crucial for our go-to-market strategy, he helped finding and contacting potential clients. Even today, we’re still talking with companies that were contacted by him. He also made a great landing page, explaining what Symbio is all about.

What would you tell another intrapreneur within Sappi to expect?
Jacob: Go for it! Hiring a lean entrepreneur for a certain period (my Board of Innovation experience) is highly recommended for every (Sappi) intrapreneur. An innovation consultant is good in approaching the business in a completely different way. My only point of feedback would be, that more know how on the B2B way of doing business would be have been a big plus.

Did the ‘lean entrepreneur’ accelerate the process with his approach’?
Jacob: Yes, absolutely! Especially his nerve was very important to me. What I liked a lot about this kind of consultancy, was that it was easy to get Arne on the same page. For many people it would be very hard to understand product requirements within the Paper & Plastics industry. In this case it wasn’t that hard, Arne managed to handle lots of information in a short time, on top of that he was also capable to translate this information in qualitative marketing material. To summarize, his ability to absorb new knowledge and quickly come to relevant strategic insights is impressive.

What do you consider the most important skill an external entrepreneur can bring to a corporate startup like Symbio?
Jacob: Arne is a product developer and also studied general management, so his set of skills was pretty complete. In my opinion his entrepreneurial mindset and guts brought the most to our team. These are two characteristics most people working in a corporate are lacking. Arne’s can do mentality and his ability to motivate others to start thinking and operating outside of the box made him very valuable for our team.

3. corporate startup team

How important is team fit when you hire someone on this basis for 1-2 days a week?
Jacob: Very important, but since we had a very small team, the fit with the lead (me) was most important. Arne brought support to the strategic part of our startup, and as said before, it was very pleasant to me that he always picked up things very easily. I really hope to work with him again in the future.

What would you tell companies that are starting new business ventures
Jacob: I noticed that the formation of a corporate startup team is crucial, people should invest a lot of time and research in this. These 3 things are important when you’re launching a new business venture:

  • Independency, you want to operate as much as possible like it is your own company.
  • Clear agreements about budget and required competencies.
  • Reporting should be to someone in upper management in order to avoid a slow bureaucratic decision process.


What were the other options and why did you choose to hire a lean entrepreneur?
Jacob: I considered adding someone with more experience on plastics to my team. But the entrepreneurial mindset convinced me that Board of Innovation was the right partner in the beginning of the project.

What were the biggest obstacles you encountered as a startup team within a big industrial enterprise
Jacob: It’s true that every startup has to learn from its mistakes. I’m aware of the fact that we lost time on side issues. My advice to anyone launching a corporate startup: make sure you have the right agreements on structure, competencies and budget.

What can we conclude

If you could start over, would you still involve Board of Innovation in this project?
Jacob: Yes, definitely, but for a shorter period of time. With the knowledge I have now, I can implement an entrepreneurial mindset myself. Hiring Board of Innovation at the start of such a project, is good for your business. In a later stage, it might have been better to add someone to our team with a strong network in the plastic industry.

Which things would you advise Board of Innovation to do differently?
Jacob: They have a strong focus on the startup way of doing business, which results in lots of B2C knowledge. After working with Arne for over a year, I’m sure there is lots of potential for them in B2B markets.

What was the best lesson you & your team learned
Jacob: Running a (corporate) startup teaches you lots of lessons, but the most important one, is that corporates can benefit a lot from ‘the lean startup approach’.

What would be your number 1 reason to hire a lean entrepreneur?
Jacob: Recap: entrepreneurial mindset, definitely!

Which types of companies / managers would you advise this approach to?
Jacob: Companies which are in an early stage of innovation can learn a lot from Board of Innovation. Their ability to change a mindset within a corporate organisation is golden. I was in two of their programs: a corporate innovation accelerator and I hired one of their consultants for almost a year, so I think I can judge this pretty good.

At this moment one of our consultants joined another corporate startup in the packaging industry. He will follow the same tragic as Arne did, with Jacob’s feedback in mind, of course, more on that later.

If you want to know more about this project, you can always reach out. In case you want more info about this program, visit this page or just send Arne a message, since he was in the field for almost a year.

Thanks for reading & hope you enjoyed it.


I’m Yannick Khayati, Growth Expert & Managing Partner @ The Growth Revolution. Spreading innovation culture is in Board of Innovation’s DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to their mission by sharing this article.

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