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

Q&A With Nicolas Dinh

Payments have been at the centre of the innovation conversation since the smartphone launched. The challenge is this: Canadian consumers love their smartphones, but they’re conservative when it comes to adopting new financial technologies. How does a company like MasterCard create a mobile payment experience that customers embrace? We spoke with Nicolas to discover how he innovates within MasterCard to build great products, take risks, and keep pace with what’s next in this fast-changing industry.

What does intrapreneurship mean to you? How would you define it?

Entrepreneurs embody self-made success. They’re celebrated because they put in their own blood, sweat, and tears to build something from the ground up. Intrapreneurs? They work with a foundation, a base that already exists. Whatever they achieve is within pre-existing walls and constraints. And because of these existing constraints, they also have amazing stories to tell.

Tell me about your role: how do you do what you do? What motivates you to keep moving forward?

I’m [formerly] the VP of Mobile Payments for MasterCard Canada (recently transitioned into a global role within Commerce Platform Group at MasterCard Labs). Part of my role is to help accelerate MasterCard’s relevance in the digital commerce space. In the past, consumers paid with plastic cards – and that’s still the largely the case with payments today. But the future is in mobile payments. I work to bring mobile payments into the mainstream, so consumers can easily pay with smartphones in-store, within an app, or online. We started out with a first generation of digital wallets aimed at tech-savvy early adopters that were flawed because of how challenging it was to get your cards into these wallets. Then, we saw an opportunity to manage digital card credentials on behalf of the banks; this allowed us to create digital tokens of cards that we could distribute to and manage on connected devices. I’m now responsible for the MasterCard Digitally Enabled Service (MDES) in Canada, which is the platform going forward that powers digital wallets by enabling the distribution for digital card credentials for mobile, in-app and browser-based commerce.

In case this all sounds very technical (and some of it is!), here’s what drives me: The payment network model has been around for over 50 years now; it’s a truly a success story of business model innovation. This business model has stood the test of time and allows for the instant exchange of value between the cardholder and a merchant without the need of cash. So, how can we improve upon that? With this new digital card tokenization model, I believe that we’ve hit on “next big thing” that will fuel the next 50 years.

Describe the most interesting project you worked on recently. What happened? What are the results of your work?

Definitely enabling MasterCard partner banks to issue their cards into Apple Pay. From MasterCard’s perspective, this really underscored our B2B capabilities; with MDES we did a lot of integration work that allowed us to digitize cards into the Apple Pay wallet. We had to work with multiple partners – MasterCard issuers, acquiring banks and Apple. And, this was our first time introducing this technology to the mass market. It was a steep curve for everyone involved.

What would be, in your opinion, the top conditions for successful intrapreneurship in large organizations that can at times get caught up in established processes?

In my mind, the first criteria for success is business alignment plus buy-in. The challenge is getting everyone on board in time to get your idea off the ground. It requires articulating your idea or objective, what it looks like, and how it can potentially be profitable for the organization. It’s an exercise in going out there and selling a vision and a dream, as well as creating the business case that justifies the buy-in and investment. Justifying value is extremely important and it becomes an exercise of internal evangelism, before you even get to the challenge of designing the product or solution.

Another condition for success: the culture of an organization, which has to be open to new ideas – to growing and diversifying through calculated risk taking. You also need internal processes that support people with novel ideas. For this reason, MasterCard Labs was formed to promote a culture of innovation, through R&D – creating proof of concepts, and testing and incubating them to determine whether these would be viable lines of business.

What are some of the skills and tools you rely on to succeed? When hiring, how do you identify that type of thinking?

Like it or not, I’m constantly putting together powerpoint decks and tweaking business model spreadsheets which are indispensable for selling the value proposition of products I’m responsible for, and I’m always on reporting tools to measure success. Data warehouse and enterprise reporting tools are key in measuring consumer engagement and ‘stickiness’.

As for hiring, I look for people who are open-minded, open to change and taking on new challenges, and who work well in dynamic environments where things are fluid. People who love technology and work well with others. People who don’t treat work as just a job – who are truly passionate about what they do.

Which company or large organization in your mind is doing innovation well? Who do you look up to and feel inspired by? Who are you mentored by?

In the Canadian market, I think RBC is really excelling. I’ve seen transformative changes in the way they operate – they’re focused on digital banking and payments, with dedicated teams that can iterate and build quickly; this allows them to be innovative in the traditional banking industry. I also think of RBC as a model for more traditional organizations looking to change and adapt to digital as a differentiator.

I’ve also got my eye on companies like Ripple that are using blockchain technology; they’ve been working with industry giants to help build new rails for the transfer of funds almost instantaneously. I’m definitely keeping track of them.

How do you create an environment and culture where innovation projects can move forward and ultimately thrive?

If there are ideas that my team is interested in and passionate about, they can definitely bring them to me, and of course we’ll do the necessary due diligence, but I’ll be supportive and will champion it internally if we decide that the idea is worth our time. Also, it comes down to having an open dialogue. Instead of having regular weekly or bi-weekly meeting, we’ll have discussions throughout the day, and regular chats about anything that crosses the their minds. I find this really helps to keep an open environment that promotes an open dialogue..

What are the most common mistakes or pitfalls you have seen large organizations make in regards to intrapreneurship? How do you break through and overcome those barriers?

The most common mistake I see is innovating for the sake of innovation, where there’s a shiny new object that people are enamoured with – without any real business justification.

Solutions looking for a problem end up like a square peg in a circular hole. It sounds obvious, but you need to approach technology innovation with a business mindset: how do you use technology to bridge a market gap, or solve a business problem? Instead of thinking, ‘oh, this is cool, what can we use this technology for?’ That’s when it becomes counterintuitive and counterproductive.

How do you keep on top of what’s coming next, that would influence the way you think and work?

For keeping up with the payment industry, I’m really engaged on the LinkedIn community; I’ve built a strong network with lots of smart people sharing interesting articles and blogs, so it’s easy for me to stay on top of things.

At MasterCard, we also have great career development tools at our disposal, including access to Lynda.com, a repository of courses and webinars, which I find helpful. In particular, I’ve been looking at better understanding the new programming framework called React Native (a Javascript-based framework that Facebook created for simplifying native app development). Geeking out helps me get a view of where the industry’s headed, while deepening my knowledge of the technology behind it.

What’s your best advice for intrapreneurs and companies interested in nurturing the culture of innovation?

Particularly in large organizations, innovation has to start at the top. Senior leaders must demonstrate passion and commitment to cultural change – and that means the money and resources to go with it – rather than just ‘checking the innovation box.’ When you’re setting goals and objectives, if innovation is just seen as a throwaway item, a buzzword, the culture within your organization will not change.