R.I.P. Orange Labs Cambridge (2002-2009): A Story of Opportunities Missed

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move products from innovation to deployment—there are challenges around the stakeholders you need to get buy-in from across the company,” he says. “But there was another layer on top of that, which was that we were based in Boston, and we were very removed from the market in some ways. In terms of getting traction toward commercialization, we really would have needed to be in the 17 European markets where Orange was operating. So a lot of my time was spent trying to understand the visions and dreams of people in those operating countries, and listening to what those [local] business units were trying to achieve with their products, and then taking that back to Boston and trying to map it onto our technologies.”

One of Karas’s allies in that task was Rybchin, a former consultant with high-flying Web consulting firm Viant. Miner had brought Rybchin in to be his man in London, representing Orange Labs’ interests to the company’s UK-based executives. It was a big job, to hear Rybchin tell it. “You had a bunch of guys in Boston who were out of touch with the Orange consumer, so part of my job was to create more communication between the people managing P&Ls [profit and loss statements] in Orange’s 22 countries and these smart guys in Boston who have great ideas but in many cases don’t have any telecom experience or customer-facing experience,” he says. “The job was to focus on the things that were market-relevant, so that when it came time to make a business case we weren’t trying to put round pegs in square holes.”

But sometimes it wasn’t just a case of the pegs not fitting the holes—the way Karas and Rybchin describe it, there were often people inside Orange’s operating units pushing the pegs back out.

“I think there are a couple of issues that doomed the organization from the start,” Rybchin says. “One was the sheer distance. These guys were literally outcasts on an island that didn’t have any Orange customer touch points. On top of that, you had the cultural issues—remember, 2002 to 2004 was not a very good time in American-European relations. There was this kind of distaste for a bunch of smart, mostly MIT-educated Americans coming in on a plane every month and telling these people who had been with Orange for years what the future of the business was going to be like. So there was a lot of tension, and frankly, there was a not-invented-here, don’t-give-a-shit attitude from a lot of people two or three levels down the product chain.”

Without buy-in from the middle managers, in other words, it didn’t matter how much Orange’s executive vice presidents loved what Miner and his crew were doing in Boston—almost nothing got deployed. In the end, Rybchin says, “We could probably count on one hand the number of things that went from the Orange lab in Boston all the way into a customer-facing product.”

2003 is a big year in the Orange labs story. That year, France Telecom bought back the Orange shares it had spun out in the 2001 IPO, becoming Orange’s sole owner once again. The UK-based managers who had been the Cambridge lab’s main proponents and protectors began to be edged out by executives in Paris, according to Rybchin and Karas. “A lot of the believers and stakeholders were in the UK organization, and as the power shifted, we lost a lot of the decisions makers, who either left the company or became subordinate to product people based in France,” Karas says.

That led to more discomfort in Cambridge, he says. “The Americans and the French and the British all do business in slightly different ways, and we had to relearn the French approach, which is … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Surj

    It’s a shame. I worked there and Ilya was right. The cultural (French, UK,US) differences killed any reasonable chance of ideas working. Sad part is that we prototyped services similar to twitter in 2003 and ideas that we see others succeeding with now. Truly brilliant crew there. It’s rather like Orange created their Xerox PARC story. Amazing. ( Xerox PARC created many of the things we see now in computing – ethernet, the PC, the Laser printer, the Desktop Interface – they made zero dollars from it, as talent just walked out the door frustrated)

  • Dave

    If you tell how Wildfire began, you should also tell how it ended.

    From 2000 to 2002, Orange invested heavily in Wildfire. Dozens of new people were hired at generous salaries, and the company moved from one cramped floor into a spacious, custom-renovated three-story building.

    In May 2003, Orange closed this office, effectively ending Wildfire development. A few employees followed Rich Miner to Cambridge, and the rest (about 140) were let go.

    Did the people interviewed for the article give any reasons for this reversal?

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