How to Stay Innovative After Acquisition: Insights from the Former COO of Behance
Header image by Juan Díaz-Faes via Behance
Just over four years ago, William Allen was working as the COO at Behance when Adobe acquired the company. Allen has continued his work at Adobe, now a Senior Director overseeing Behance, 99U and Adobe Portfolio. In the tech world, that kind of commitment to a gig post-acquisition is a rarity, and it’s also a testament to how both companies handled the acquisition and transition. Today, Behance is the leading online platform to showcase and discover creative work.
At SXSW, Allen shared some of the strategies he used to keep his team innovative post-acquisition.
Building Beyond Acquisition
Many believe that a product is at its peak on the day of its acquisition, and things only go downhill from there. However, Allen believes Behance is helping change that perception.
“We’re better and more innovative today as a team operating within Adobe then we ever were before,” he said.
Significant improvements have been made to the Behance site and product offerings since the final acquisition papers were signed. Creatives now have a number of different options to display their work thanks to a complete redesign. Through the development of various apps, this work can also now be consumed seamlessly across different devices and platforms.
Strategies for Success
It was no accident that the Behance team continues to innovate long after their acquisition. These key strategies have ensured innovation and long-term success for Behance as part of Adobe.
Behance was located in a loft in New York City at acquisition and Adobe was, and still is, headquartered across the country in San Jose. “The day after acquisition, your new parent company comes in with a long laundry list of things you need to do, and as a start-up it can be completely overwhelming,” said Allen. “You previously controlled your own fate, and now you’re partnered up with teams and departments you didn’t know existed.” By not moving at the outset, it allowed the team to slowly acclimate to a new reality.
However, it was critically important they ultimately moved their team into a shared space. Innovation is born from interactions over lunch, coffee, and off-the-cuff meetings with members of other teams.
The Behance team, and a number of other Adobe employees from across New York, moved into a new Adobe office in Union Square about a year after acquisition.
Assimilate, But Strategically
Every startup has something that makes it special. For Behance it was two things: its philosophy on community and its ability to ship great products. Like any company, there were also things Behance did that ultimately didn’t shape the company, such as managing bank accounts and back-office tools.
“When assimilating into a bigger company, very quickly adapt to things that don’t matter, but hold onto the things that make you special,” said Allen. If that means adopting a different email system, don’t sweat it. That’s not the soul of your company.
By assimilating quickly, you can impact the rest of the company more effectively. “Since you’re now one of them, when the rest of the company sees your team as having a best-practice, they’ll want to adopt it. That’s a huge win for everyone,” said Allen.
Want To Be There
If you want to be innovative and keep building new products, you’re going to have to want to be part of the company that acquires you. After an acquisition, some employees do the bare minimum to get by. “If you go that route, you’ll never ship great products,” said Allen. You have to want to be there, and be fully committed to making an impact in order to do great things.
“We felt like joining Adobe was a continuation of our mission of empowering the creative world,” said Allen. “We weren’t changing the mission or selling out – we were all in.”
Change Your Perspective
When you join a big company, you need to change your perspective. You become one piece of a larger framework. Allen described this with the analogy of Behance as a city, Creative Cloud as a state, and Adobe as a country.
When you make decisions, you need to have the right frame of reference. After acquisition you have new customers, new colleagues, and new employees – you’re making decisions for a new groups of people. Understanding the impact of the decisions you make on the various levels you’re now operating within is imperative.
When you’re operating a small company, you’re able to make decisions quickly, easily and often. In a big company, it’s harder to do that because the stakes are higher and there’s more information to gather. “Resist that, and keep making decisions like you did before because making decisions is key to keeping progress happening and to building innovative products,” said Allen. In order to do that successfully, follow these two principles:
- Make decisions with the highest ethical standards.
- Know the level you operate at and stay in your lane – understand the limit of your decision making ability.
Just. Keep. Shipping.
You can’t be innovative and build great products if you can’t get them out the door. “New products get out as fast as we can build them,” said Allen. “That is a fantastic practice because it forces you to be innovative and build the feedback loops you need to have.”
Stay Focused, Stay Innovative
The high water mark of your product shouldn’t be on the day it was acquired. The Behance team has shown how with the right strategies, you can be as innovative as ever.