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4 Lessons Big Business Can Learn From Start-ups

How to create a start-up mindset in a corporate setting

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BY Tanya Mariano - 08 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When it comes to running a successful business, corporations are experts. They have a huge chunk of resources at their disposal, a wide network, deep industry knowledge, and established processes to help protect the venture from possible blunders.

But there's a lot that these giants can learn from their smaller, more agile counterparts in the start-up world. Here are a few.

1. Speed it up

One of the most striking features of start-ups? They're fast.

Says Justin Hall, principal at venture capital firm Golden Gate Ventures, “In simplest terms, start-ups are extremely nimble. They have a quicker development timeline, a faster recruiting process, and can collect and iterate on customer feedback faster, to name just a few things. Compared to corporations, start-ups possess a much more horizontal decision structure: key decisions and information can percolate their way through the organization much faster.”

In contrast, the sheer size of corporations renders them less agile. And because they're much more vertical, Hall explains that it takes longer for information and decisions to reach key people.

To run at start-up pace, big companies can try creating smaller teams to tackle particular problems in order to speed up decision-making, and should ensure that customer queries are answered promptly. Needless to say, the leadership quality in these small teams must be top-notch.

Says Hall, speed is vital, “especially when you have small, nimble start-ups iterating and improving their product in a day faster than you can get your 20-person marketing team to focus-group a dozen names for a new product you plan on rolling out in 18 months.”

2. Get employees to speak up

Another thing that sets most start-ups apart is a culture that values open communication. Because they aren't too big and too vertical, the lines of communication aren't complicated by hierarchies. Everyone is welcome to chime in.

Like start-ups, corporations can tap into the unique strengths that each team member brings to the table by promoting a collaborative, if not necessarily casual, work environment. Assure employees that it's safe to speak up and that their input is valued.

“Strive for a fertile environment where ideas are welcome from anyone or anywhere,” writes tech entrepreneur Brian de Haaff in this Inc. article.

Farouk Meralli, founder and CEO of health-tech start-up mClinica says in this Inc. Southeast Asia article, “We have an incredibly flat structure and have created a truly meritocratic environment.  Some of our best ideas have come from the youngest members of our team.  We let the best ideas win regardless of who generated them.”

3. Take risks

De Haaff also says that big companies tend to “get too comfortable in their success and lose the edge that made them successful in the first place.”

Resist complacency and take calculated risks. After all, compared to start-ups, corporations are better able to absorb the consequences of a misstep.

“[Corporations] can stand to make mistakes and still survive,” says Hall. “Thanks to their presumably abundant resources (relatively speaking, at least), they have a certain amount of buffer before they really start hurting.”

Adds de Haaff, “A little bit of fear is healthy to have, as it keeps you on the lookout for competitors sneaking up behind you.”

4. Connect with your origin story

Stories are powerful things, and a strong foundational story tells the world the crucial aspects of a start-up: who the founder is and why they’re doing this. In short, it states the very mission of a start-up. It connects the company with its employees, investors, and consumers, writes Adam Bluestein in this Inc. article.

But this is important for corporations, too. In fact, as companies grow, it becomes all the more crucial to tap into their origin story in order to glue the team together and chart their future direction.

Bluestein writes, “The creation myth is not an asset just for start-ups. As those businesses grow into established firms and individual founders figure less prominently, the origin story can serve as both a road map and moral compass. Keeping that story alive, keeping it true, and keeping it relevant -- these are the challenges more mature businesses must contend with.”