Thinking like a start up

I have been advising a Start Up in the HR Tech space over the past 18 months whilst also doing my "day job" of running a boutique consulting firm.

While doing both of these things at the same time has certainly been challenging, it has also provided me with the rare opportunity to simultaneously observe how a Start Up and an established business operate, and particularly what the latter can learn from the former.

Here are a few of my key learnings:

  • Start Ups have to focus on the outcomes. Resources are scarce and must be applied to the tasks that will generate the greatest return at that time (whether that return be monetary, product development, or simply learning more about what the customer will really pay for).
  • Established businesses can emulate this focus by breaking the capital they invest in new projects into small "chunks". Project teams are then provided with a chunk at a time, and focus is directed to the work that will deliver the highest return for each chunk of money. In the organisations I have worked with, this has resulted in not just better outcomes, but also a much shorter time to achieve a return on investment.
  • In a Start Up, your role is "to get the job done". Successful Start Up teams have a high degree of alignment of purpose. I've never yet heard someone say "that's not my job". On the contrary, people in the team have to do things that they've never done before, as a Start Up doesn't have the luxury of paying for specialists for every task.
  • This sense of camaraderie can also be nurtured in larger organisations through the development of "long-lived" teams. These multi-disciplinary teams stay together for long periods of time (preferably years, rather than months), and work collaboratively on whatever they need to achieve. Yes, they do need to call on experts periodically, but their first port-of-call is always within the team. This has the added benefit of new skills development for both the individual and the organisation (something that people working in Start Ups get in spades!).
  • "We're all in Sales" is a key theme in the Start Up world. As part of a Start Up team, we are all vested in its success, so it's in our collective interest that we help the business get customers in the door.
  • Larger organisations often lose this amazing connection to the customer through the specialisation of roles (i.e. sales, marketing, product development, etc) as the organisation matures - "that's the job of the sales team". But it can be reignited by co-locating teams around products or markets (rather than specialist skills), and by promoting a culture of transparency throughout the organisation.

Established businesses carry many advantages over Start Ups, especially in terms of market access and economies of scale. Unfortunately, the benefits that these advantages bring can often be lost when we try to specialise too much. People end up too far away from the core objective.

Bringing some of the thinking of a Start Up into these larger businesses helps nurture the energy and enthusiasm that every business needs to do well.


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