The secret sauce to build a genuine startup culture in a big company

Everyone now talks about fostering a startup culture in their company. But few do the work of building a genuinely innovative program to fuel and then reward such a culture. Last year, dtac, along with other companies from the Telenor group’s 13 markets, launched the Ignite program, to stimulate fresh projects from within our ranks. The initiative is for employees to pitch business ideas; and the winners get developed into full-scale products. Last week,we kicked off the third batch of Ignite. Here’s how we’re using lessons learned on the first two editions to make it our best one yet.

Keep it Clear

First of all, if you want employees to put in the kind of work they’d put into a startup, you have to offer some clear and compelling end-goals. At Ignite, we guarantee that, while some projects sputter along the way, there is a real possibility of hugely rewarding outcomes. In Malaysia, we have a project that was spun off as a separate company. In Thailand, parts of one project–incidentally, the winner of Ignite’s first batch–was recycled into our dtac rewards system. I’ve worked in big companies where “intrapreneurial” programs were just for show. Ours is very much for real.

A successful internal incubator must also be very clear and honest about who profits from the work and ideas participants pour into their projects. We now have a policy that employees retain full intellectual property rights to any projects submitted to Ignite that don’t get selected. If their projects do get selected, they can enter in a partnership with dtac, in return for an intensive boot camp and three months of paid leave to develop their project.

Work with Great Mentors

On that topic, mentorship remains a critical component in any incubator. For this batch, I want to work more closely with the teams than ever. We can bring our deep experience from dtac accelerate (dtac’s hugely successful startup incubator) and provide them with some of Thailand’s best pitching coaches. In fact, one of them won Best Pitch at Echelon 2014, which is one of the biggest tech conferences in the region.

Think Customer First

Finally, we’ve learned that the customer still gets overlooked too often. Both externally, for dtac accelerate, and internally, for Ignite, we get a lot of projects from geeks who are excited about their idea but haven’t bothered to ask end users what they want. If you’re not solving a real pain point, your project is useless. For this batch of Ignite, we brought in a user research expert from our regional office, which is located in Asoke. She hosted a great workshop on how to best interview users to find out what they really want.

Ignite has been so powerful at changing the culture of its participants, it’s almost impossible for them to go back to the old way of doing things. That can make for a culture shock. In some ways, dtac remains a traditional telco focused on infrastructure. But we need to keep up with evolving lifestyles and we need to build better digital services for our customers. With Ignite, we’re transforming ourselves to get better at doing that.


Chalermyuth Boonma is a senior manager at dtac accelerate, Thailand’s number one program to help startups accelerate their success thanks to world-class curricula, intensive mentoring, leading investment opportunities and business support from Telenor Group. Chalermyuth also oversees the Telenor Ignite Incubator, dtac’s internal counterpart to accelerate.

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