How Any Company Can Think Like A Startup

Common wisdom states that startups are hothouses for creativity and innovation, while large corporations are too jammed up with bureaucracy and hierarchy to push the envelope and arrive at new solutions. It’s why more and more companies are trying to “think like a startup,” some even forming smaller divisions that can operate more nimbly and loosely within the larger structure.

But is it that simple? Is simply being small and new a recipe for creative thinking, and if so, what happens when a startup gets bigger, and older (presumably everyone’s goal)? How can we define what’s working so well at the startup level, in order to cement these principles as part of a company culture that can be maintained throughout growth? 

My branding and design consultancy works almost exclusively with startups, but in my previous life as a brand planner at large global advertising agencies working on multinational clients, I had my share of exposure to how the “other side” operates. And I actually think that when it comes to fostering new ideas and strong creative work--internally or when working with an outside agency--both sides of the scale can learn from each other. So let’s start with the startups, and what they’re doing right.   

1. Startups are flatter. 

Yes, yes, we’ve all heard this before--less hierarchy equals greater creativity. But hierarchy cannot be avoided when a company grows; it’s simply impossible to maintain a flat structure as employees multiply. So why does this even matter?

In my experience, the reason it matters is largely related to the role that the people at the top play in the creative process. My partners and I talk a lot about why the work we do with startups is so rewarding, and a key reason is that we’re working with the final decision-makers from day one. The founders (who are often the sole staff) are in every meeting, they’re collaborating with us on strategy, they’re reviewing work in progress. They’re getting to know us, and us them. By the time we reach a solution, everyone is so involved and so on board that there’s never a question of whether or not the best ideas will move forward. Compare this to “selling in” creative when I was back in agency land, which I used to not-so-affectionately call Chutes & Ladders. We’d work closely with the brand team, we’d get further along towards a solution, everyone would be happy, and then we’d climb the ladder to the division head who would reject the work and we’d be sent down the chute, back to the beginning.

Not only was this demoralizing, but it was unproductive, and always led to a compromised final product. It's not realistic for the higher-ups to attend every meeting and review every idea along the way. But if we agree on the value of creative process, then it follows that the people who are intimately involved in the process should have a stronger say in the outcome, regardless of corporate politics. So if you can’t flatten, delegate and empower.       

2. Startups have tighter timelines. 

If any clients or potential clients are reading this, I do not mean “we have two weeks to get our brand and website up.” That is not a tight timeline, it’s an impossible one. Inspiration can’t be rushed, and creative thinkers need time to play. But within reason, a tighter timeline for any type of creative process works in everyone’s favor, internally or externally. It means feedback must happen promptly and efficiently, which leads to less wavering and belaboring. It (usually) means decisions must be stuck with, so everyone has to trust their gut a little more. A few years ago I saw Seth Godin give an incredible talk at our client Behance’s 99% Conference about how our fearful “lizard brains” are what cause us to “thrash” in the final moments and start second-guessing ourselves just before project completion. But a mandatory deadline is a pretty good way to shut up any last-minute hesitations. So even if you have six months to complete a project, consider taking two. And stick with it.   

3. Startups value disruption. 

By nature, they must. When your entire purpose as a company is to create something that never existed before, it trickles through the entire culture. There’s an embracing of the unknown, of doing things differently than what everyone else is doing, of risk. And these are prime ingredients for creativity. When companies are defining their values, I wonder how often risk gets included. I’ve never seen it on a list. But risk is an inherent part of disruption, of forging a path that hasn’t yet been paved. And the best ideas, the ones that everyone remembers, are always disruptive. So next time a company is setting out to define their corporate culture, I’d love to see “risk” make an appearance right between those old standbys of “honesty” and “respect.”

As my own company grows, I am determined to maintain the principles that define us as a startup working with other startups. Consider this article one of those letters that children write to their adult selves, promising not to make the same mistakes as their parents. But as I said earlier, both sides can learn a lot from each other. Next month, stay tuned for my thoughts on what startups can take away from large corporations. 

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[Image: Flickr user mtsofan]

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3 Comments

  • Michaela Angemeer

    This is really great - definitely something larger companies should be thinking about - @michaelwithana

  • Takhta Pandu Padmanegara

    "Inspiration can’t be rushed, and creative thinkers need time to play" .. this is so true.. 

  • Peter Cook

    Great article - anthropology advises us that tribes cease to function around the 100 / 150 level and some smart companies have designed their structures around such principles.

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