The Power of Collaboration

December 02, 2019

Case categories include: Leadership   Strategy & Planning   

By Warren Lutz

Dean Zikria remembers it was hot outside when he struck up a conversation with fellow Alliance member, Joe Heanue, as the two left an Alliance group meeting last spring.

“I needed a company I could work with to bring a product to market,” said Zikria, who had been working on a new technology to manage asthma at the point of care. “I’m a commercial guy, not an R&D guy, and I thought, ‘let me see if Joe will work with me on this.’”

Heanue runs Triple Ring Technologies, a research and development firm that works with medtech companies. After listening to Zikria’s idea, he offered to help develop a prototype—and did. Zikria is now using the prototype to raise capital.

“It made sense for us because a key part of our business is incubating startups,” Heanue added. “We like to partner with companies that have experienced CEOs we trust.”

To be sure, the Alliance of Chief Executives isn’t a typical networking group where CEOs exchange business cards. The Alliance creates private, safe environments where leaders have confidential conversations, exchange strategic insights, and challenge conventional thinking. However, something magical often happens when talented leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences come together. They find ways to collaborate on new strategies, ideas and opportunities, and sometimes create entirely new companies.

In fact, Zikria and Heanue have collaborated on not just one venture, but two. Currently, they are building a marketing agency that will help medtech companies bring their products to market. Zikria plans to take an executive role in the firm, which will start by helping companies in Triple Ring Technologies’ incubator take their products all the way from the concept stage to customers and market adoption.

“It’s a really good fit,” Heanue said. “We’re well equipped to solve our clients’ technical problems, but often their biggest challenges involve their go-to-market strategy.”

Zikria credits the unique Alliance culture for setting the stage for collaboration to happen. “It’s such an interesting setting,” he said. “There are no facades. The varnish is ripped off, and you see the kind of people you’re dealing with, and that helps develop trust that these are people you can work with. You also learn how people think and see how they solve problems in different ways. The intellectual capacity of the folks around the room is quite incredible.”

Across the Alliance, other collaborations have taken shape.

Alex Ashton and Phil Murphy, who met two years ago in their Alliance group, are working together on two museum redesign projects, one for the Oakland Museum of California and the other at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. The two members have found a perfect fit between their respective companies; Ashton runs Image Design Works (IDW), a creative branding agency, while Murphy leads GNU Group, which provides environmental branding, wayfinding, identification and sign programs for built environments.

The collaboration began when Ashton approached Murphy to add GNU Group to an RFP to re-brand UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science project. In addition to a visual re-branding, launch campaign, and interactive design, the project also involved environmental design and a complete update to museum and wayfinding signage. Murphy, who has started to transition away from the business, put Ashton in touch with his head of design to start working together. It was such a good fit that IDW engaged GNU Group to collaborate on a re-branding initiative for The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), which also involves an environmental signage program.

“It was a good moment of chemistry,” Ashton said, noting that GNU Group was able to provide a cost analysis of building and installing wayfinding features that clients would not have had otherwise. “It’s all fun and games until you have to start making and installing signage,” he said. “We help clients envision where their brands can go and create that experience, and then say, here’s a trusted and best-in-class partner that can help with the execution and follow through.”

“That’s exactly how I think collaboration works,” Murphy added. “You have that ‘Aha’ moment for what each company does. Alex’s company creates the foundation of everything GNU Group does. We both build brand and imagery and culture, only we do it three dimensionally. The two go hand-in-hand."

Many collaborations take place between Alliance members who participate in different Alliance groups. For Nate Harding and Lynn Heublein, it took an introduction by Alliance Founder Paul Witkay to set things in motion. The two members are now working together on a new company, currently in stealth mode, that is bringing robotics and artificial intelligence to the beauty industry.

Harding said it began when he told Alliance Founder Paul Witkay about his startup and how he was having a hard time finding a partner in the beauty industry. “I had zero connections in that market,” Harding recalled. “I was trying everything, but I wasn’t coming up with anything.”

Witkay offered to introduce Harding to two Alliance members, one of which was with Heublein, CEO of SkinSpirit, a chain of skincare clinics. “Nate explained to me what he wanted to do, and I thought it sounded pretty hard,” Heublein said. “But I thought if it was possible, it was a really good idea.”

Heublein agreed to partner with Harding and become a co-founder of the company, as well as a major investor. She then spoke with another Alliance CEO with extensive experience in the beauty industry, who came on as an angel investor.

Heublein says she’s typically careful about working with new partners, but trusts Alliance leaders to set up introductions when it’s appropriate. “They have a good sense for who and what kind of CEOs are in the Alliance and what might be a good connection,” she said.

“That’s the great thing about the Alliance,” Harding says. “The Alliance community includes CEOs in almost every industry sector and, as a result, we have the ability to connect to leaders who are willing to help us make relevant and powerful connections.”

Occasionally, Alliance members collaborate on ideas that never get off the ground, even if they seem great at the time. That’s what happened between Dave Summa and Cal Lai, who together discovered a unique opportunity for car companies to get into the automobile insurance business.

It began three years ago, when Lai was working with Volkswagen to improve their track record of innovation. He teamed up with Summa to develop the idea of using computers in the vehicles to collect information on drivers and how they behaved behind the wheel. The idea was to use the data to build actuarial tables for insurance purposes, which automakers could then use to sell car insurance at the point of sale.

“Car companies have something like a 90 percent close rate when offering a maintenance and service package at the point of sale. Imagine if you had a 90 percent closing rate on insurance,” Summa explains. “In a couple of years, one car company could be the biggest auto insurer in the country.”

“The car companies already have all this information,” Lai added. “They know everything about how I drive. When you think about the car insurance companies that put a little device in your car that tracks your driving – why would you do that when cars already collect all this data?”

Lai and Summa took it to the management of Volkswagen, then to Mercedes and Ford. They all turned down the idea for the same reason, saying, “We don’t do that.” “It was the funniest thing,” Summa said. “We mapped the whole thing out and the answer came back, ‘we’re not in that business. Our collaboration generated a really cool insight, one that would be a great opportunity for a startup.”

In spite of not finding success in this initiative, both members say the experience was a perfect example of how great ideas are created. “The kinds of relationships that develop in the Alliance are deep, trust-based relationships, where people are baring their souls without personal judgment,” Lai said. “This type of collaboration comes because of the real transparency in which we operate, and our honesty and willingness to share ideas even if they’re stupid.”

“My colleagues in the Alliance are not afraid to put out ideas without fear of being judged, because they know that they are among equals,” Lai said. “That kind of collaboration grows out of the transparency, trust, and willingness to share raw thinking.”

Indeed, bringing together talented leaders with different backgrounds and perspectives can frequently lead to extraordinary ideas. The above stories are just a few examples of the many impactful connections made by our amazing members. Feel free to let us know of any connections which resulted from your participation in the Alliance.