Alex Cowan: Adjunct Lecturer & Batten Fellow, UVA Darden School of Business

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Alex Cowan teaches three courses in the area of design and digital innovation: Software Design, Software Development, and Applied Innovation (in Silicon Valley). With Darden, he also created the Coursera specialization 'Agile Development' , one of the top 15 specializations on Coursera. His Venture Design framework is widely used by practitioners and instructors as a systematic approach to developing new products and businesses. Alex divides his time between instructing, advising and consulting. He's delivered workshops to student and professional audiences at venues like General Assembly, The Lean Startup Circle, Startup Weekend, SVPMA, Swissnex, UCSC, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the UVA iLab and Stanford's Alex currently serves on four corporate boards and as an advisor to multiple startups and 'intrapreneurial' ventures. Prior to his time at Darden, Alex has been an entrepreneur (5x) and an intrapreneur (1x). His most recent ventures are Brand Lattice, a brand strategy platform and Leonid Systems, an enterprise software vendor in the cloud communications space.

What do you do best?

I’d give myself a C- in a whole bunch of different things: sales, sysadmin, management, product design, coding (more like a D- there), accounting…to name a few. I have this patchy background because after my freshman year of college, I dropped out to start an IT consulting company and I had to do whatever needed to be done. I eventually went back to college, but that experience was formative and I’ve been a dabbler ever since. I think most people go to college, major in something, become part of a department or area, and then pretty much identify themselves as that thing for the rest of their life (accountant, salesperson, engineer).

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of specialization, but it turns out that an interdisciplinary perspective is relatively useful for startups and thinking about new ways to do things (aka ‘innovation’). I think that’s what I do best.

What makes you the best?

Clearly, I’m not the best innovator or founder. Probably, Elon Musk is the best living founder and I would be honored to shine his shoes.

Two main things helped me do what I’ve done. First, I never rest on my laurels. Sure, here I am talking about myself, but even when something works out well, I’m never thinking ‘OK, that was great. Clearly, that’s the way that always should be done.’ I keep looking for an even better way. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of smart people get stuck because they decided that their life’s mission is to advocate and prove some point of view they’ve created.

Second, when I get interested in something, I’m kind of a maniac. I may do it totally, laughably wrong the first time (or the second time, or the third time), but I just keep working on it until I think it’s good. My wife says I work too much, and I’m sure she’s right, but I do love is a challenge and working it out.

What are your aspirations?

At the risk of boring the reader, my top aspiration is to be a good dad to my two daughters, one three and one 16 days. (Don’t worry- they’re both sleeping right now.) For most of my adult life, I’ve dedicated myself to my customers and my employees and now I’m trying to do a good job as a dad. I need to work on my focus and I have a lot to learn, but that’s job number one for me now.

Professionally, my main aspiration is to drive good outcomes for my MBA students. Do they get the job they want? Are they happy in it? Prepared? Does it put them on a fulfilling career arc? As faculty, we get evaluations for each class and those matter a lot (as they should), but I try to maintain focus on the longer/bigger picture of outcomes for my students.

Biggest Success?

I’m really proud of what we did at my last company, Leonid Systems. Leonid was an enterprise software company and while I made plenty of mistakes, the team did a great job and the execution was very tight. We managed to create a sizable enterprise software play with four products and multiple customers in the Fortune 100, and it was self-funded: we never raised a dollar of venture capital.

I would say my family is my most important asset and accomplishment, but I don’t think of it in terms of successes and failures.

Most Challenging Moment?

When I was around 30, I had to decide whether to leave my senior job in a hardware startup for a more junior job back in software. It also meant moving from San Francisco to Washington, DC, but I’m sure it was the right decision. I wanted to get back into software and I needed to reinvent myself some, even though that meant a ‘demotion’.


Professional Life: Focus, and keep moving.

Personal Life: Relax and smell the roses.

Favorite People/Role Models?

Professional: Elon Musk for his boldness, commitment to humanity, and incredible executions.

Personal: My lovely wife for her patience, good judgement, and general wonderfulness.

Favorite Places/Destinations?

Most of the year I live in Aptos, California near the beach- that’s my favorite.

Favorite Products/Objects?

With a friend, I built a pair of 4’ x 4’ vertical succulent gardens on our balcony. My relationship with them is a little obsessive- so far, I’m still experimenting to find plant placements and care routines that consistently work (i.e. don’t result in dead plants). In the sense of favorite, they’re the single physical object I favor most with my time.

Current Passions?

Professionally, I’m really interested in corporate innovation right now. Specifically, I’m interested in how corporations can charter their strategy to better enable agile teams to produce real disruptive innovation. I’ve been using this corporate innovation canvas with a few clients and that’s been the anchor point for most of the work so far.