HT Media shares how to nurture start-up innovation in a legacy media company

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


HT Media has embraced a start-up culture in the last few years, building new businesses within one of India’s oldest media groups.

During an INMA members-only Webinar on Tuesday, Ramesh Menon, HT Media’s chief business officer of digital innovation and new businesses, shared advice on how to build, operate, and transform in a way that helps the organisation create new businesses and an innovation-enabling culture within the company.

Ramesh Menon of HT Media shared some of the most important factors in transforming from a legacy print organisation to a new digital organisation.
Ramesh Menon of HT Media shared some of the most important factors in transforming from a legacy print organisation to a new digital organisation.

Building start-ups in traditional organisations

The concept of building start-ups will be critically important in the post-COVID world and imperative for organisational survival, Menon said.

“It will become critical for survival in every organisation that has been jolted, in a sense, because of the pandemic. The ones who take it up in all seriousness and stick with it will be the ones who thrive in a post-COVID world.”

But what prevents large, legacy organisations from taking up the innovation challenge? What is it that differentiates the successful ones from the ones that fall by the wayside as the world transforms?

Menon believes what fundamentally prevents organisations from successfully transforming through crisis and change are several attitudes:

  • Viewing the situation as hopeless.
  • Inertia.
  • Excess of pride in past performance.
  • Overconfidence or arrogance.

“We’ve seen it in a lot of companies,” Menon said. “Just before their demise, it sort of peaks — the inertia, inactivity, sluggishness, and of course, short-sightedness.”

The inability to see beyond the here and now, spending too much time reviewing their current performance and not enough focusing on the future, all contribute to large companies failing rather than adapting and growing.

“New” versus “old” organisations: Decision dilemmas for traditional CEOs

These are symptoms of “pre-existing conditions,” which, if not taken seriously and treated in time, can have devastating consequences on the organisation, Menon said. He shared five decision dilemmas CEOs face:

  • The here and now versus the future.
  • Order and discipline versus organised chaos.
  • The optimist versus realist conundrum.
  • The responsibility versus autonomy dilemma.
  • Peter Drucker versus Silicon Valley.

“Rules and principles for a new organisation are being sort of re-written in Silicon Valley on the American West coast,” Menon said. “A lot of these start-ups are applying principles that are very different from what were considered important principles when we were starting up. The old organisation is working on very dated principles.”

Some of these dated things are processes that become embedded in the organisation just for the sake of having processes, and they can accumulate so that it becomes very difficult to get out of them. New organisations, on the other hand, are characterised by initiative, ownership, and entrepreneurial spirit.

The dilemma between the "here and now" and planning for the future is a major challenge CEOs face in transforming their organisations.
The dilemma between the "here and now" and planning for the future is a major challenge CEOs face in transforming their organisations.

“There’s a premium on getting it done and getting it done quickly. One common word that comes across whenever you talk to new organisations is agility. Try, and if you fail it’s no problem. But fail fast. That’s the motto of new organisations.”

The dilemma between responsibility and autonomy is a major challenge, he added. The old organisation thinking is, “Behave responsibly and I will give you the autonomy and freedom to operate.” Whereas, the new organisation, or Millennial mindset, is, “Give me autonomy and I will be responsible.”

Menon had several questions for CEOs to ask themselves:

  • Are the people in your organisation sitting in front of screens with shackles on?
  • Are your employees leaving their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in the locker room before walking into work?
  • Is your team systematically killing new initiatives and new ideas?
  • Do you have committees or do you have solver groups and agile teams?
  • Are you prioritising discipline over flexibility?
  • Are you running your calendar, or is your calendar running you?
  • Is there time to talk to people on the ground and observe, listen, and absorb?
  • Is your organisation run on a Powerpoint from the conference room?

“Giving autonomy is a good way to release creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit,” Menon said. “Agility and creative think time is sort of de-prioritised” in the old organisation way of thinking.

Leaders of old organisations often recognise the need for change, he added, but they may be steeped in inertia and waiting for some external force to move them out of that state.

“COVID could certainly be that external force that moves you out of that state of inertia. I think it’s time now for most organisations to really look at this very differently.”

HT Media has transformed by taking a different path to the "old organisation" way of thinking.
HT Media has transformed by taking a different path to the "old organisation" way of thinking.

The alternative: HT Media’s path

HT Media has been conscious about making this transformation happen and seriously working on it for the last couple of years, Menon said.

“How do you create a new age media organisation that is as relevant in the next 100 years as it has been in the last 100 years?” he asked INMA members in attendance. “Generally that’s making sure there’s enough time spent on the future as there is on the here and now. Making sure the need for discipline and process isn’t killing the bits of organised chaos in the parts of the organisation that releases the potential and entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are many best practices these new media organisations have that legacy media companies can adopt to help them along that path, Menon said.

Building islands of innovation is one way HT Media has seen success with new business development.
Building islands of innovation is one way HT Media has seen success with new business development.

Innovation and new business PODS

“The crux of this presentation is how to innovate and how to create new business,” Menon said. HT Media started doing this when it realised existing businesses were finding it difficult to incubate new ideas — so it created an in-house incubator.

He shared the route HT Media took to that model, as well as the steps taken to make sure the company transformed and survived.

  • Build islands of innovation. New, independent teams that do not report to legacy teams and are distributed across various categories and business lines.
  • Form independent, empowered, and agile teams. These are often Millennials who act as the equivalent of founders for each project. The teams should be fully empowered.
  • Create a few visible successes through quick launches without seeking perfection.
  • Build, operate, monetise, and transfer. Continue to incubate until the business has wings to fly, and ensure leadership focus and clear metrics.
  • Evangelise the new way. Talk about successes and milestones, and recognise/reward the achievements publicly.
  • Repeat and replicate process until the culture changes.

Using this route, HT Media created four new businesses in the last year and is in the process of creating three more. “Hopefully, in the next four to five years they will have the kind of valuation that most start-ups have,” Menon said.

Some of the most important factors include not “giving” the new business back into the organisation too early before it has legs to stand on, and making sure that the new business successes are very visible throughout the organisation.

“We ensure that the teams have visibility,” Menon said. “These launches and successes across the organisation are talked about. It’s important that people feel it’s aspirational, feel it’s something important to do.”

Ultimately, all of this is instrumental in effecting culture change across the entire organisation.

Menon shared several case studies, including:

These case studies can be detailed further in the Zoom Webinar recording.

Start-up values           

Menon shared seven key start-up values for large organisations to emulate to transform into new media organisations.

  • Humility: Have your feet firmly on the ground, with the ability and willingness to get one’s hands dirty.
  • Agility: The ability to move fast and not get stuck, to learn as well as to unlearn.
  • Passion: Infectious energy, the desire to create growth and excel.
  • Perseverance: Hard work and the ability to look beyond the clock and go beyond the call of duty.
  • Integrity: Being honest, transparent, and in your face — the ability to call a spade a spade.
  • Entrepreneurship: Ownership, the ability to connect the dots and pick things up when the ball is dropped.
  • Resilience: The ability to get back on your feet again quickly when you’re down; being comfortable with ambiguity and chaos.

Of these, Menon rated humility and resilience as the two most important qualities for building start-ups.

“That’s really what will transform organisations from being traditional, legacy organisations to what a start-up really entails — making sure the culture is something that really encourages innovation.”

About Shelley Seale

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