Celebrating the innovators, risk-takers and change agents that are building the products of the future within large organizations.

Q&A with Michael Cohen

After building a startup in university, Michael Cohen was hooked. He knew he would be an entrepreneur for life. Then, he went one step further and became an intrapreneur. Michael honed this creative mindset at LoyaltyOne, learning to take risks, fail fast, and think beyond tradition. Now, as Director of Digital Strategy and Product Development for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, he’s in charge of innovating a legacy brand looking to connect with a changing landscape of Canadians and future fans. How does he do it? Read on for Michael’s take on being an agent of change for one of Canada’s oldest and most recognizable brands.

What does intrapreneurship mean to you? How has it played out in your career?

For me, intrapreneurship has always been about trying to be the square peg in a round hole at a company and being okay with being a little bit of an outsider and a little bit of a dreamer.

Out of university, I started a small technology-based startup with a friend. It was our first foray and we were able to have an exit. At that moment I really felt like that would be the story of my life – I’d become a serial entrepreneur, and I would just continue to work on new ventures.

Then I started spending more time with seasoned business people I was learning a lot from. I began to see intrapreneurship as this great opportunity for people within companies to forge new ground and take organizations to a place that would otherwise be uncomfortable for them. I think most companies want to be innovative but don’t really know how, because, for the most part, advancement at most traditional companies is based on tenure.

Most companies are good at running the factory, but they’re not amazing at building the rocketship to the moon or Mars. I think the best companies try and embrace both.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role at MLSE and how innovation plays out in your day-to-day work?

Most teams in sports are doing the exact same thing as other teams in sports: they’re very heavy in social, reporting on their teams, and building an active fan base in social media, but they’re not actually converting that fan base into anything useful.

The thing is, fans are just like any other set of consumers: they’re looking for you to be the best of everything. When you say you’re giving them a personalized experience, they compare that level of personalization to Amazon or Facebook. When you say it’s going to be convenient and offer utility they’re thinking Uber. They don’t compare the Leafs’ mobile experience to the Vancouver Canucks. They compare us to other great, digital-first companies.

The path we’re taking at MLSE is really around where a lot of great digital companies have gone: trying to know our customers, treat them like the individuals they are, and give them the personalized and contextualized experiences they’re coming to expect from all the companies they deal with.

Could you talk a little bit about a recent successful project, and what made that tick.

Around the NHL Draft was an exciting time; the Leafs had the first pick overall, and we knew there were going to be a lot of eyeballs on us. Traditionally, the draft is a kind of “made for TV” moment. This was one of the first times in my tenure that we put together a robust plan of how we were going to sequence the messaging, where we were going to drive people, what the calls to action were, and what metrics were going to articulate whether we were successful.

We were able to use the weeks leading up to the draft to inform our fans by creating draft cards, so they could get to know the prospects. We also involved the talented content creation team in creating teaser videos to really build a digital buzz, all with the purpose of driving people to a fan profile page, where we were able to get the start of who they are as fans.

We also surprised the hockey world by changing our jersey at the same time – we had a whole digital campaign ready to go, including a microsite. We saw a ton of traffic to that webpage and we garnered more sign ups for our Leafs Nation fan profile site than we’d seen in past in one single swoop.

What skills and tools are required for intrapreneurship to occur, and how do you identify those qualities in potential employees?

What I look for is an intellectual curiosity – somebody who isn’t satisfied with just reading a headline but wants to go in and read more. Someone who wants to see around the corner. You need somebody who can see something a little bit further out, and then can translate that into what that means for the company or the industry or the clients they’re working with.

In interviews, I always ask for people to tell me about a company or two that’s doing wonderful things that are kind of outside the box. I generally ask people for the name of a small or startup company that they think is about to take off. To me it’s not so much about that they’re right or they’re wrong, it’s just about the fact that’s the kind of stuff they’re thinking about, that’s the kind of stuff they geek out on a little bit. That they don’t think so linearly that all they have at their fingertips is Google, Facebook, Uber.

What are some examples of companies you think are doing innovation well? Who do you look up to and feel inspired by?

For me, right now, it’s the companies that are putting together the idea that relevance is more important than reach. In our own backyard here, Loblaws has done a good job of building a loyalty program that’s based on personal shopping habits, versus just sending you a list of offers that are available in their store.

I also pay attention to companies that are doing interesting things with location and proximity. Another local company, Rover Labs, is building these contextualized and personalized experiences based on who you are and where you are.

That to me is where the world is really going: people don’t want to work hard to find the information or the things that are important to them. They want it to be hand-delivered to them. A lot the retail world is still in this mode of, ‘I want reach, I want to email people,’ but I think relevance is more important. To me, it would be better to send multifaceted emails to a million people than a single email to three million people.

Is there a particular person or group that you get mentorship or support from?

Before I came to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, I was working at LoyaltyOne – it’s a company full of really smart people who are generous with their time. Bryan Pearson and Todd March, the CEO and COO there, certainly opened the door for me to think outside the box and be able to live what they’ve termed a culture of experimentation. It’s not just a set of single individuals – it’s the environment they create.

LoyaltyOne was a great breeding ground for me because they really created an environment where it was safe to come up with ideas, it was safe to bring ideas to the table. It was celebrated to fail fast and learn from it.

What are some other elements you need to create that kind of environment where innovation can flourish?

We are such a meeting and structured culture in the business world right now. You look at your calendar most days and there’s barely time to breathe. I’ve always been a big believer that it’s important to find time for thinking. You need to actually put time in your calendar to think of ideas, to put them down, to work them out in your head. I have a slot in my calendar, and I try and have it multiple times a week, where it’s TFM – that is, ‘Time for Michael.’ I think companies need to encourage that. If you don’t do that, then you’re in execution mode all the time.

On the flip side, what are some of the mistakes organizations make when it comes to fostering innovation and creativity?

The number one mistake is companies who want to leap to monetize everything too quickly. Not every company can afford to have a lab-type environment, but I think every company who does, benefits from it.

The other thing i think that can be a pitfall for companies is to talk about experimentation, but when somebody is actually doing it, they don’t celebrate it enough. They point to only the successes, and not the learned fast failures. And so they don’t breed that safety ground that we talked about.

What resources do you look to in order to stay on top of the industry and keep the innovation engine running?

I always try and make sure that at least once or twice a week I’m meeting someone for a coffee who I think is a bright mind and who is doing interesting things. I’m not afraid to ask them to open the door to someone else who might be a bright mind for me to meet.

I also try and read voraciously. During my ‘Time for Michael’ I will spend a lot of time reading blogs, or I’ll take a small list of people I follow on social media and I’ll look at what they’re working on, or what they’re reading. And again, not being afraid to reach out to people and say, would you mind having a conversation about this with me. Because most of the people that I found who have taught me the most or who are the most successful, are the people who are the most generous with their time.

If you had one final takeaway about nurturing innovation, what would that be?

This is going to sound a bit cheesy, but I love that Apple Computer ad about the crazy ones. Those people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones that do. You’re going to get told a lot of the times that you’re going in the wrong direction, or just that you’re going in a direction that no one else has gone before. Or, you’re going in the right direction and the other people around you can’t see it. But you can’t stop based on that; it might be the first sign that you’re onto something.

My biggest piece of advice to people is, believe in yourself, find the right people around you who can give you mentorship and give you advice, but just because other people around you don’t see what you see, doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?

I think that as a culture, particularly in tech space, we’ve become so focussed on startups and net new – I don’t think big companies get celebrated enough for doing innovative things. Mastercard, Walmart, Scotiabank – all of those companies should be celebrated too, and there are people within them who are helping drive that forward. Not every advancement we’re going to have comes from four people in a basement. Intrapreneurship is just as important. I think if more big companies put their stake in the ground to say, ‘we’re going to formalize innovation,’ they would find that they’re able to do it, it’s just a hard thing to get off the bench on.”Michael Cohen works at the intersection of business, marketing and software development, with particular focus on product and building high-performing teams. Michael currently earns his intrapreneur stripes as a Director Digital Strategy & Product Development at MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment)