How to Think Like a Startup When You Work at a Big Company
Tips for cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset.
One of the best, most fascinating parts of working at an agency is that you get to see the unfiltered, often gnarly insides of lots of different companies. Sometimes it’s a small startup with a dream, trying to figure out how to get a product off the ground. Other times, it’s a group in its awkward teenage years, seeking to take a big leap in scale. But my favorites are when we get brought into the big ones — the large corporations with entrenched teams, processes, and platforms, and they need help doing things differently.
Typically it’s a senior vice president who will reach out, someone who maybe has a year or three under their belt and isn’t satisfied with the pace of development they’ve inherited. “We’re stuck in the same old way of thinking,” they say. “We’ve missed the mark on our last three releases, and each one is taking months. Can you help?”
We love this kind of opportunity. More and more, leaders are realizing that they need to bring startup-style thinking inside of their decidedly-non-startup cultures. They need a sort of digital incubator, operating within the larger umbrella, to cultivate new ideas and new ways of going after them. There are a few hallmarks of a successful approach — here are the ones we’ve seen work.
#1: Wall it off
In order to spur different thinking, you have to change the environment. Giving the team space to define a new and different culture is essential to catalyzing change. The most straightforward way to do that is to provide real (and sometimes physical) differences for the innovation team. Give them another floor if you can or a dedicated area in the office. Assign the group its own brand and do some internal marketing around it.
Successful examples of this approach include Marquee at Goldman Sachs and Lifion at ADP. These teams were given the latitude to break from the larger whole and define a dynamic wholly different from the mothership. In doing so, they’re free to blaze new trails and discover new ways of doing things that can bring tremendous value back to the org.
In this model, disruption is fair game! Each team must embrace that it’s okay to explore, suggest, and prototype approaches that conflict with The Way We’ve Always Done It. If it touches the core business, all the better; not every suggestion will get implemented, but we’ve seen that the most impactful change at large companies can come from rethinking what was previously seen as untouchable.
#2: Bring in new voices
When you’re breaking the mold, you have to get people in the room who think with a fresh perspective. That means shaking up the team: The product managers, designers, and engineers who join the effort must come at the problem without the baggage of history. Inertia is a powerful force though, and it’s easier said than done.
An effective shortcut is to bring in a third party. Experts who know digital and can learn your business are keenly equipped to bring new ideas to the table. They’ll also introduce industry-wide best practices and processes to a team that may not know them. It’s a huge accelerator to jump-starting an innovation practice.
Another way to do this is to identify the up-and-comers already on the team and give them a new mandate. It’s rare that a 15- or 20-year veteran is going to want to reboot the way they’ve been thinking. What we’ve seen work is hand-picking a small group of folks who maybe joined the company in the past five years and have been vocal about wanting a change. If you can pair these people without outside help, you add rocket boosters to the whole endeavor.
#3: Consider your APIs
When you’re working in an environment that has decades of software development invested in a production platform, it’s impossible to completely ignore the app of today while you think about the app of tomorrow. Points of integration, connection, and migration become essential parts of success as a new way forward gets defined. In order for the new system to succeed, it must expose some of the power of what’s existed for years.
This is why extra energy must be put into the programmatic interfaces that will connect the old to the new. APIs are the bridges that enable new functionality to be backed by existing data. It means that your team will need to devote energy to exposing data and functionality in a clean, well-documented API, as the innovation group leads the charge on finding new ways to display and interact with what existed previously.
We’ve seen how this can be a tough mindset shift to make. Our technical architects will often have to spend significant effort helping teams refactor existing back-ends into an API-first way of thinking. As you get more and more comfortable with this approach, though, it offers tremendous benefits for allowing teams to run in parallel.
#4: Build a speedboat
Big companies are like giant tanker ships — once you’ve set your course, it can be tough to adjust to winds of change even when you see a better way. Creating a new group that has the freedom, autonomy, and mandate to be a speedboat in the same fleet, heading in the same direction but with much greater flexibility, is an incredibly effective way to effect change for a better future. And if you’re in this situation and would like some help getting an effort like this going, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Chris LoSacco (he/him) is President of Postlight. Drop him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
Story published on Jun 8, 2022.