In this week’s podcast, Anna speaks to Tom Pullen in the latest in her Escaping the 9 to 5 series.
Tom left a successful corporate career in FMCG – including big-name employers like Boots, Mars and Danone – to study an Executive MBA at HEC Paris. Soon after, he founded Innovinco, an innovation agency start-up specialising in short high-impact innovation accelerator programs for large established corporations.
Escaping the 9 to 5 with Tom Pullen
Tom started his career in 1998 at Boots, the largest retailer of health & beauty in the UK. After winning the Roosevelt Scholarship in 2001, Tom spent 4 months in the US, where he undertook a significant research project, interviewing directors from leading multinationals to better understand how to drive brand growth across different geographies.
In 2002, Tom joined Mars where he was responsible for growing their large UK Seasonal Chocolate business, innovating to create a new range of 80 products per year. He also drove significant business growth on leading brands such as Twix and Bounty.
In 2006, Tom joined Danone, initially managing the Evian, Volvic and Badoit brands for the UK. In 2009, he moved to France, successfully leading the business turnaround of the Evian brand in its largest market. In 2011, Tom was appointed Global Innovation Director, responsible for the acceleration of innovation at a global scale, reporting directly to the CEO/Board. During his 5 years in this role, he supported many country teams with their innovation challenges, as well as creating commercially successful, award-winning innovations.
After being trained in Design Thinking by Stanford University, in 2017 he started his Executive MBA at HEC Paris [#1 business school in Europe 2020 – Financial Times], majoring in Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Quickly afterwards he founded Innovinco, a start-up specialising in short high-impact innovation acceleration programs for large established corporations. In 2017, Innovinco was selected to be part of the HEC Incubator, based at Station F, the largest start-up campus in the world. In 2018, Innovinco was awarded Laureate status at Réseau Entreprendre, France’s biggest entrepreneurs network.
In 2019, Tom delivered his first TEDx talk: “When did innovation get so complicated?”
In 2020, Innovinco launched Innoflix: an online digital learning platform for corporate innovators – and InnovincoTV: a dedicated innovation YouTube channel.
*Resources mentioned during the episode*
The Outsiders Business Incubator – This is your roadmap to transitioning from a corporate job into setting up a meaningful business that will bring you more freedom, flexibility and fulfilment outside of the corporate 9 to 5. www.onestepoutside.com/9to5
Okay. Hello, everybody. So, for this month’s Escaping the 9 to 5 interview, I’m here with Tom Pullen from France, which is very exciting in this day and age that people are actually in different countries. Tom, why don’t we dive straight in, and can you tell us please what you were doing before in your previous corporate life and what you’re doing today?
Tom Pullen: Yeah, of course. Great to be here, Anna. Thanks very much for the invitation. I basically spent 18 years working in big corporates, big multinational corporates. I started my career actually at Boots, which those of you based in the UK will know. So pharmacy, healthcare, beauty stores and manufacturing as well. Then I moved to Mars. So worked in the chocolate factory for about four years, working on some of the big brands there that you know and love. And then I spent the last 10-11 years working for Danone. Obviously famous for yoghourts, but also heavily into healthy waters, and obviously healthy beverages as well. The last 5 years at Danone, I was the Global Innovation Director there, helping the business really to drive growth through new products, new business models, new services as well.
Anna: Perfect. What are you doing today then, Tom? That sounds like the dream. The teenage me would have loved to work in beauty and chocolate and yoghourt. It sounds amazing. [inaudible 00:01:32] to leave that innovation role and to start something up on your own?
Tom Pullen: Actually, I think around 2016, I’d been working there for about 18 years and I’d loved my corporate life. I loved the people that I worked with, I loved the ability to work on big brands, I loved all of the international travel. Really, I feel very blessed to have had such a great corporate career that I enjoyed a lot. It got to the stage in 2016 where I think it’s because I was getting a bit older, and corporate life can often be quite cyclical, and I was going through the annual cycle again, and I thought, “Oh, crikey, we’re going to spend a long time working on these budget presentations, and I know that we need to get them right, but maybe we’re not going to deliver the plans that we are going to put down on PowerPoint. Really, is this what I want to spend the second half of my career doing?”
So I took a long, hard think and I had some support as well from an executive coach during that time. I decided that actually, I really wanted to do something that was connected to what I was doing for the second half of my career, but in a way that did give me more autonomy, more freedom, more ability to create my own path, if you like. So I actually left the corporate world at the end of 2016 and created my company at the very beginning of ’17 whilst also starting an executive MBA at the same time.
Anna: You didn’t make it easy for yourself, but I love that. That you say that you’ve enjoyed your corporate time. Since the beginning, and I’ve been talking about this for many years now too, I’ve been reluctant to be negative about it because there are so advantages, and I too, I didn’t hate [inaudible 00:03:27] it’s sort of fine, and a bit like you maybe. It was a bit repetitive maybe, and they were, it was more [inaudible 00:03:33] a new challenge, something exciting, autonomy and freedom that you mentioned. I love when you’re talking about the second half here too, because I don’t know if [inaudible 00:03:40] but certainly there are different acts aren’t there, there are different seasons these days.
Tom Pullen: Yeah. I think-
Anna: What else do you got because of someone who your work organised for you, or did you go out and seek to work with someone?
Tom Pullen: Yeah. So during that year of 2016, I started to ask a few questions about what it was that I wanted to do. And the Danone, as an organisation, was hugely supportive around trying to support that process of finding what I wanted to do. Did I want to stay in the corporate world? Did I want to go and do something completely different? And so they actually found for me an executive coach, a very excellent executive coach who I still work with actually. And that was really helpful because I think especially when you’ve spent so long in the corporate world, and so long within one company, you can become a little bit blinkered about the different options that you have. You can start to think that certain paths are closed to you and the path that’s most open to you is really a continuation of what you’ve already been doing. And that executive coaching actually really helped me to think much more broadly about what was possible. And I think without that, that transition, might’ve been more tricky and I probably would have been a bit more linear in what I went to do next. Probably taken a safer route, which might’ve been good for the short term, but maybe not as exciting for the longer term.
Anna: But I think that was natural, and then that’s what we see [inaudible 00:05:14] in a particular sort of path. It’s hard to open [inaudible 00:05:17] even just the sort of creativity and imagination to realise all the possibilities that are out there. And when you do it it can also be quite overwhelming, I suppose. How did you then narrow in on what you’re doing? Is that thread between the innovation, but what have you been doing differently? Can you talk us through sort of what are you working with?
Tom Pullen: Yeah, so I think the big area that my executive coach helped me with was to really challenge me on what was possible. And I guess some of the things that were a little bit frustrating at the end of my corporate life, I realised that I could get rid of by starting on my own, and yet still help people and deliver the stuff on innovation that I really loved. And so that was great, and that was a real impetus to actually then create in the company that I set up at the beginning of 2017. Where in essence, I’m doing quite a similar type of role and quite similar types of service towards different teams and different organisations, just now instead of doing it just for one company and a set of different country teams within one organisation, I’m now able to do that across … Worked across 25, 30 different corporations, across all different kind of industries. And I really love that kind of diversity of challenge, the diversity of industry, the diversity of working across lots of different teams. And so that provides a very challenging kind of stimulating environment in which I now work.
Anna: And what were some of the challenges? So you mentioned obviously thinking perhaps a little bit narrowly initially, and you worked with the executive coach, weathered some other difficulty in going out on your own after those 18 years, working within a big corporate structure.
Tom Pullen: Yeah. I think you always ask yourself a question of security. I think whether rightly or wrongly within the corporate kind of structure, you feel very safe. And often in reality, that’s a slightly false safety, I think, because organisations do change and they do evolve and that’s going to only accelerate, I think, with everything that we’ve seen happening with COVID over the last 18 months. But I think when you choose to leave behind the company car, the pension, the bonus, all of those nice trappings that come with a senior role in the corporate world, it can be a little bit scary because suddenly you have to buy a car, and I hadn’t bought a car 15 years. And suddenly you’d have to organise your own health insurance and your own pension. And I think if you’ve never done that, it can feel a bit really am I doing the right thing? But then you realise that actually there is a huge number of entrepreneurs out there who all just do this. And so there’s so much information and support that you can get to solve these challenges that you come across.
I know one of the big ones for me when I started the company was everything to do with accountancy. As part of my executive MBA I’d studied accountancy, I’d studied business finance, corporate finance. And obviously in my corporate career, I was managing P&L’s and all of those kinds of things. But in reality, if you’ve never managed the accountancy for your own company, the only way to learn how to do it is to do it. And so often at the beginning, there was that slight apprehension about, “I don’t know how to do this,” but then you do it and then you get better at it, and that fear gradually dissolves over time.
Anna: And we laugh, but that’s so important, isn’t it? And I’ve got my little [inaudible 00:09:11] learning to sit up and walk and so on. And it’s such a cliche, but they don’t fall over and go, “Oh well, no one will ever learn to walk. It’s far too difficult. I see all these other people, but no, no, I’ve never walked before, so I can’t do it.” And it’s too [inaudible 00:09:25]. And we can. We’re competent, capable people with many years under our [inaudible 00:09:31] don’t have the confidence we had when we were naive students coming out of university thinking we could change the world. There’s so much, as you say, learning as we go. Where else did you [inaudible 00:09:44] did you take any courses? Did you partner with any business coaches? What did you do-
Tom Pullen: Yeah. So I kept my executive coach over that whole period of transition. And that was super helpful because it helped guide the direction that I was taking, but also the direction of the business, and also provide a bit of … It’s probably not the right word, but emotional support, and the fact to know you’ve got someone who is there to get your back. So that was a big help to me. The executive MBA, so I did it at HEC Paris, which is consistently ranked as the number one business school in Europe. So it was a real exciting period as well to suddenly be working with some of the best professors in the world. And I was able to do two specialisations in innovation and entrepreneurship. So that also really helped to compliment the experience that I’d had within my corporate role, with some more sort of academic structures and frameworks.
And I think when you leave the corporate world, you can quite often get into this imposter syndrome kind of mindset. And I think knowing that I was going to come out after 18 months with a certificate that said, “Yes, you are now an executive masters in how to run a business, and you’ve got everything to do with leadership, you’ve understood a bit more about those things that you maybe didn’t touch within your corporate career, like finance or HR and some of those things.” It was a great way to transition, if you like, from the corporate world to then becoming a startup founder. And that’s a big jump. And I think the executive coach and the executive MBA on top of that really helped me to make that transition in a much more, I would say, comfortable way, even though it was a lot of work to do.
Anna: Yes, that is a lot of work. Was that something you were doing part [inaudible 00:11:45] as you were founding the business? So you were studying while you were building? Yep.
Tom Pullen: Yeah, that was a part-time modular programme actually. So it was about one week physically at the campus, the university campus, every six, seven, eight weeks. So those weeks were very intense, and then there was reading and exercises to do around that. But in the time that wasn’t taken up with that, obviously I was focusing really on trying to design the business and then launch the business and then deliver the different elements of the business after that.
Anna: That sounds like a great combination because [inaudible 00:12:24] academic and corporate backgrounds have that tendency. And I have clients who say, “I’ve got to now retrain, I need to invest in this four year course before I can even start the case.” Yes, there is that imposter syndrome of course, yes, it builds our confidence [inaudible 00:12:37] that credibility externally, especially when we’re working with high level [inaudible 00:12:41]. But I think that combination of you can already start building, designing, and working with clients [inaudible 00:12:48] you said a year or two later coming out with this additional proof for your own sake, but also then externally for [inaudible 00:12:56].
Tom Pullen: I think the other thing that’s quite interesting is there, and HEC was particularly good at this, but I know a lot of other business schools are catching up, is that they do have a business incubator and that’s open to any of the current students or alumni of the business school. So I was very lucky in the fact that I was selected for that based on the business plan and based on the pitch that I did. And so I very quickly got taken into the world’s largest start-up campus, where their incubator is based. So surrounded by 3000 startupers, every single day, which really helped to accelerate the business. Because everyone’s had the same challenges and the same questions as you’ve had, and so if you’re really surrounded by people who’ve kind of going through it or have been there, then there’s a huge sense of being able to help one another and actually bring everyone upwards in the right growth dynamic. And so that was an additional bonus, if you like, of getting into that business school world that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, actually, when I signed up.
Anna: [inaudible 00:14:01] your network is so important, isn’t it? And having more ongoing implementation, accountability support. I know when I did my coaching qualification, it was great, but we will graduate from that thinking, “Hey, I’m a coach. I know what to do, and I can build my business.” Especially those who don’t come from the business marketing background are a little bit clueless. Even I put up a website thinking, “Ta da, that’s [inaudible 00:14:22] I’m going to get lots of clients with this totally different business.” And actually having that incubator model [inaudible 00:14:28] to sort of stay in touch with people and then learn as you went, and of course get access to the mentors as well.
So we talked about autonomy and freedom before. Is that what your life looks like today? Paint a picture of the dream that you’re living now that you’ve assumed [crosstalk 00:14:40] that looks like. What’s the best parts?
Tom Pullen: So in terms of autonomy, definitely. In terms of freedom, they’re kind of similar, but definitely. I think if I look over the last four and a half years since I created the business, being completely honest, it’s been a huge amount of hard work. I’ve worked probably more hours and invested more energy that I could have ever possibly imagined when I set up the company. And that’s not because I was naive, it’s just that I’d never done it. I think the key difference is that because you know that you’re creating exactly what you want, exactly on your terms, and that you can design that around the real needs of your clients, that makes all the difference. And so it feels like you’re building something that has real value. And one of the things that I love is getting really positive feedback from our clients where they feel that, and they really appreciate that. Because that validates, I guess, the choice that I made and the choice that I made in setting up the company that I created.
So worked super hard, but zero regrets. Much more autonomy and freedom than I had before, and that’s really important to me. That’s one of my core values actually, when I went through the analysis as a lot of people do when they leave the corporate world. Autonomy and freedom were two of the biggest anchors that I had. And so zero regrets. And now, I guess the dream is that we have offices about five minutes bike away from where I live, when I think I walk it in about 15 minutes. So I’m getting the fresh air, the exercise every single morning, without any big, long commute, which is brilliant. Got to work with about 25, somewhere between 25 to 30 major corporates, which I think is a little bit unheard of, but also way beyond the dreams that I had when I set up. And most of those are repeating, recurrent clients. And we’re consistently solving their problems. And that’s what gets me up in the morning. It’s not about the method, it’s not about the doing the work. The question really is are we able to deliver concrete, tangible value to our clients? And that’s irrefutably yes, in every project. So super happy about that, and really proud of that as well.
Anna: Sounds like you’re exactly at that sweet spot. It’s where you have the autonomy and the freedom and you’re enjoying it, [inaudible 00:17:28] genius as to say you’re [crosstalk 00:17:30] that concept, you’re jumping out of bed in the morning. And then on the other hand, [inaudible 00:17:34] solving problems. So the fact that you have those 20, 30 companies, and as you said, coming back to you, it’s such a testament that you really are solving their problems and it’s a great business model as well. So I guess to someone in your situation … Go ahead, continue.
Tom Pullen: No no. What I was just going to say is that the challenge there is really one of the things I’ve been obsessed about since the start actually is how do we scale that at the ability to scale it as a digital startup? And that’s kind of been a bit of an obsession of mine for the last four years. Nearly there. We’ve got some big things coming up, some exciting new projects coming up, and some big launches coming before the end of 2021. But that’s really the next big challenge to crack, to make sure that we can impact more companies, more clients, and all around the world as well. Because this is a global need that we’re serving, and we should be able to spread … I’m not sure genius is the right word, but we should be able to spread that to a much more broad geographic community than we do today. Which is primarily Europe, but with a bit of [inaudible 00:18:49], a bit of Asia. But I’d love to see that be really, truly global by this time next year.
Anna: Oh, that’s exciting. Sounds like there’s some big news coming up later this year. That is the next challenge isn’t it [inaudible 00:19:03] whether it’s individuals or companies, but then as you say, you hit … And even you have a team of [inaudible 00:19:08] offices and so on, so that’s exciting. That that leads me to ask another question, which is what does scaling on to global, more countries, is there a limit to your vision of where you want to end up? Are you just going to see how far you can go and just keep growing and keep [inaudible 00:19:27]?
Tom Pullen: I guess … I know that there’s significantly greater potential than what we’re delivering today. And the last four years have proven that. I guess I don’t put any specific limits on the dream, if you like. I’ve got some secret KPIs, some secret objectives that I won’t share with you here, but I really hope that we can find this model that gives even more autonomy, even more freedom. And most importantly, even more increased value to our customers, which is the real obsession that we have every day. So no specifics to share with you today, but watch the space.
Anna: Absolutely. No, I won’t let [inaudible 00:20:17] shed your secrets. They’ll be safe. Don’t worry. We won’t reveal them. And so the question I was going to ask you was, of course, what advice could you give to someone who’s in the same position as you [inaudible 00:20:30] very comfortable, happy even in their role, it’s fine, it’s interesting, but getting a little bit repetitive [inaudible 00:20:36] a bit more of this excitement, autonomy, and freedom that you’ve been talking about. What [inaudible 00:20:42] that fear of being behind the security and dare to go out and see what they [inaudible 00:20:47].
Tom Pullen: So I would definitely recommend teaming up with some kind of external coach. Someone who’s not part of the organisation, and who you don’t have a personal link with. But who can give you an objective point of view and really ask you some challenging questions. For me there’s the power of a coach is really about asking questions. It’s not really about providing solutions. And some of those questions, very basic questions can be very powerful in helping you to redefine what that kind of second half of your career would look like.
For me personally, the executive MBA really helped. It helped build a lot of confidence. It helped build a lot of network. And to be honest, I just really enjoyed it as well. I loved effectively going back to school, and that feeling of investing back in myself, because I wasn’t giving every day to my corporate organisation, it was pure time based on trying to help myself and trying to invest in myself. And so that felt really good actually. And yes, it was a real investment, because these things do cost a lot of money, but I came out of it as everyone comes out of it, really feeling transformed, and I think confident that you’re able to do something that maybe you weren’t able to dare to do before. So I would recommend some kind of transition course, or some kind of transition qualification to make you more employable. If you need to go back into a more standard job or to build your own personal confidence.
And I think the last thing is, take action. It sounds crazy, but a lot of people I think have these kinds of thoughts or dreams or ideas about what they could be doing or what they’d like to be doing. And I think the reality is that life goes so fast, and you don’t often see just how fast it’s going. And so I think if you have these things, don’t let them drag in the back of your mind, either decide to do them, or decide not to do them, but don’t let them fester. Because that’s when regrets I think can happen, and no one wants to get to the end of their career and go, “Oh damn, I wish I’d done that.” So I would really … A coach can help with that, but if you’ve got ideas about how you could create something, do take the time and the effort to explore them and see whether that could be a viable next career step for you. Because in my case, at least, it was a very good step to take.
Anna: I love that. So many nuggets. [inaudible 00:23:35] and as you said, with a coach being able to open up and seeing possibilities, perhaps [inaudible 00:23:41]. One of my key values is personal development. That was one that came up for me in addition to, actually, freedom coming out [inaudible 00:23:48]. It’s so empowering, isn’t it as well, to invest in yourself, as you said. Because it’s something at least part of the programmes and training capability building that the company offered, but it’s the kind of thing that your manager would say, “Of course, [inaudible 00:24:03] invest in your own development,” Which as you [inaudible 00:24:05] really well what’s going to really add value to. And it’s exciting [inaudible 00:24:14] their studying. So I love of that kind of thing as well.
But I love-
Tom Pullen: I think all-
Anna: And again, I never want to encourage people to go one way or the other, but [inaudible 00:24:25] soul destroying to want to do something about it and not do it. [inaudible 00:24:32] then of course stay where you are, but enjoy it. That feeling of [inaudible 00:24:36] over there is really difficult to live with. So I think you need to make a decision one way or [inaudible 00:24:43].
Tom Pullen: I think building on your point, I think that capability building will become super important, especially within the changes that are going to happen in some of these large corporate organisations, and also the way in which they’re going to evolve their businesses and their business models over the next few years, whether you’re inside or whether you’ve chosen to be outside, investing in building your own capability, the capability of your team is going to be a real competitive advantage going forward. And we we already start to see that. So I think that’s a trend that’s just going to carry on and just be a rollercoaster, really.
Anna: Absolutely. And something I’ve been talking about on the podcast, in fact that the listeners will have been listening to [inaudible 00:25:32] your personal brand as well, whether you want to now have any thoughts of leaving any [inaudible 00:25:39] but proactively, whether you might want a promotion later or change role, or change to a different company, or go out on your own. That’s valuable career capital, it’s great to build those relationships and networks regardless of your future. So I think that’s a great reminder to, as you said, invest in yourself and whatever your future goals. To really focus on putting yourself, positioning yourself I guess, as strongly as possible for what you might want to do in the future.
Tom Pullen: Absolutely.
Anna: Amazing. Thank you, Tom. So many [inaudible 00:26:08] and I’m conscious of your time, but I want to let you go, but can you tell us where we can find you online. Where can we learn more about your startup?
Tom Pullen: Yeah, of course. So feel free to go to the website, which is innovinco.com. So I-double N-O-V-I-N-C-O. It needs a bit of refreshing, a bit of updating. But as always with a startup entrepreneurial life, it’s on a to do list. But probably the best thing to do if you want to see a little bit more about what I’m up to, what we’re up to, then you can check out all of our social media feeds as well. So TomJPullen on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, obviously as well. Very active on LinkedIn there. And you can check out Innovinco on all of those social handles as well.
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