by Madeline Weiss, June Drewry

How CIOs Can Learn to Think Like Entrepreneurs

Sep 28, 20123 mins
CIOIT Leadership

To be an entrepreneurial CIO, you’ll need to experiment and think about your business in new ways. For example, have you thought about exploiting big data to offer an information service?

Pundits say one of the roles CIOs must play is entrepreneur. But what does it mean to be an entrepreneurial CIO?

To figure that out, the Society for Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council invited a successful entrepreneur–Bryan Mistele, CEO and co-founder of Inrix–to a recent meeting. Seven years ago, Inrix was merely a dream. Today, it’s a leading global provider of traffic information and services, helping drivers avoid major traffic delays. It has the largest traffic-information network in the world. Customers include Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Garmin and Apple.

Here’s what CIOs can learn from Mistele’s entrepreneurial work.

Think about customer needs in new ways. Historically, traffic data was collected from roads through magnetic coils in the pavement. They are costly to build and maintain, and supply only a limited amount of information on a limited number of roadways. To achieve Inrix’s scope and reach, Mistele thought beyond that network of coils to find other sources of traffic data.

How might you think differently about your company’s products and services? Could you create an information service? For example, Medtronic saw that its implantable pacemaker could also collect data and transmit it to physicians and clinical staff.

Build ecosystems with business partners. From the beginning, Mistele sought ways to get incumbent businesses to complement and extend Inrix’s capabilities. He obtained traffic data from commercial vehicles (such as taxis and delivery trucks) already equipped with GPS devices. He also negotiated a swap with digital mapping company Tele Atlas: Inrix gave Tele Atlas traffic data and, in exchange, got 12 blue-chip customers, $1.5 million in revenue and a 50-person sales force. Last year, Inrix acquired a competitor, gaining 200 customers in 30 countries.

Can you think of creative ways to build an ecosystem that complements and extends your firm’s capabilities?

Leverage data and predictive analytics. Inrix has real-time data about traffic, weather, construction schedules and sporting events. But the customer value hinges on using that data to make predictions and answer questions such as: Which route should I take home from work today?

Mistele found the ideal predictive analytic software while watching his kids play soccer. Chatting with another parent, he learned that Microsoft had developed a predictive engine that was built on sophisticated algorithms, but the company had no intention of using the software. Mistele quickly secured an exclusive licensing agreement.

How are you exploiting the power of big data and predictive algorithms? Hedge funds are experimenting with scanning comments on Amazon product pages to try to predict sales. Traders are analyzing Twitter streams to get news before it’s officially confirmed. How widely are you searching for sources of algorithms and talent? (Hint: Colleges can provide both.)

Experiment. Mistele’s first experiment was a software startup that he launched from his apartment while he was at Harvard Business School. Later, at Microsoft, he developed Home Advisor, a website to assist and inform homebuyers, but the dotcom implosion scuttled its release.

Mistele’s experience at Inrix has also included experiments–with technologies and partnerships–that weren’t always successful. But entrepreneurs have a special quality that allows them to cope with setbacks and failures.

Can you build that capability into your makeup and that of your company?

Madeline Weiss is director of the Society for Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council (APC). June Drewry is former CIO of Chubb and an adviser to the APC.