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  • 04.28.11

Lessons In Uncommon Sense: Five Things Corporations Can Learn From Entrepreneurs

It’s obviously different when there’s more to loose, but if large company teams had the everything-to-gain perspective, things inside of multinationals might be very different in terms of culture and results.

CorporationsCanLearnFromEntrepreneurs

There’s a stark contrast between sitting in an endless meeting with 10-15 people on a product development team in a multi-national, listening to rationale and pontification versus the focused energy of a small team in a entrepreneurial start-up with a mission to change their corner of the world. There’s an expectant air of world-changing-can-do-ness where anything’s possible (if only they had more money) in a start-up versus the challenges of process-heavy, ego-dodging, rear-end covering, grandstanding that often wastes so much time and focus inside of multi-nationals.

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It’s obviously different when there’s more to loose, but if large company teams had the everything-to-gain perspective, things inside of multinationals might be very different in terms of culture and results.

Here are five valuable lessons that corporations can learn from entrepreneurial-driven start ups:

1. Ditch Democracy: Build from the Pursuit of Love or Pain

Your average super-charged entrepreneur usually starts their journey because of a passion or painful epiphany that spurs a moment of genius to develop a new product or service. Personal experience, downright frustration or simple observations lights the fuse. And, once lit, entrepreneurs are unrelenting in thinking about how to change the world and bring a new product solution to market.

Product development teams in larger companies can benefit from modeling or mimicking the individual obsession and observations of the single entrepreneur around key passion and pain points. Instead of running projects in a democratic fashion, consider remaking some of your teams into smaller passion-based teams to get closer to the individual passion and drive of the entrepreneur.

The Honest Kitchen, a pet food company in San Diego run by a passionate husband and wife team, developed their original recipe in their home kitchen to feed their sick dog. Today they allow everyone in the company to bring their dogs to work. Every meeting, no matter whether it’s the board meeting, a product development meeting or an investor meeting has pets in their meetings–reminding everyone who they’re in business to serve.

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2. Get Scrappy: Maximize Resources and Results

When you’re driven by a vision to change the world and operate on a shoestring, there’s motivation to be highly resourceful. Starting a company from nothing, investing life savings and using credit cards to fund product development and payroll makes the clock tick faster and the mind sharper. A limited funding runway, responsibility for the monthly burn rate and knowing exactly how much money is in the bank are all motivators that drive the entrepreneurial engine to be highly resourceful and operate with a sense of urgency. Time isn’t wasted in endless meetings, people are only included if vital to the project. Speeding up the time to market and reducing the cost of getting there focuses everyone involved. Well-resourced corporations with larger teams and bigger operating budgets are typically less courageous, less resourceful and generally take longer to get to market.

Consider setting up an experiment where you find a project that can be run independently from all of the other things going on in your company. Give the project a limited budget, a limited set of resources and an audacious goal. Set the team running and see how masterfully (or un-masterfully) they tackle the challenge and what comes back out as a result.

The team at Freshguide.com (now PopSugarCity.com), an early-stage business in San Francisco’s Bay Area, started their business in one direction using the rapid prototyping model of learning what their consumers wanted, learning what moved every aspect of their business and, as a result, evolved their business purpose and concept mid plan to a more focused and more relevant and robust concept.

3. Share the Dream: Instill Passion and Purpose

Shultz from Starbucks, Gary from Clif Bar and Branson from Virgin were all scrappy, “work out of a garage” entrepreneurs once upon a time. Each of them was in a hurry to change their corner of the world and started with little more than a larger-than-average does of passion and super-human perseverance. As their stories unfolded with employees, they built fans on the inside. As their companies grew and their stories were told externally, they became inspiring and relevant to consumers and built serious fans on the outside. Unlike these examples, one thing large companies often lack is the connection to their original story. If there was a passionate founder at one point, his or her purpose has often been overtaken by years of changing teams and Wall Street expectations.

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Take time to look into the passion that started the company and explore how to bring it back into the organization in a meaningful and current way. Being directed by a purpose creates real connections and opportunities for new thinking. It also gives your employees a reason to come to work, and customers a reason to believe in what you’re selling.

Gary had his father’s name on the Clif Bar, on the building and on every product the company makes. The story behind the brand is inspiring and one that everyone working for the company and buying the product can relate to. Gary was a cycling nut and a weekend warrior who wanted a bar made from real food that would give him energy on his rides. He took off on a 175-mile bike ride armed with energy bars and water and the rest is history. A story of simplicity and determination that has driven the success of the company from day one.

4. Go Fast: Fine-Tune Intuition

Start-ups often move at breakneck pace because they don’t have the luxury of time on their side. Decisions need to be made rapidly. Names need to be decided. Partners need to be hired. Products need to be designed and produced. Using a unique blend of intuition and trust, entrepreneurs make fast decisions that don’t rely on thousands of dollars worth of research, extensive approval processes or vetting from all the higher-ups (most times because there aren’t any).

Larger companies are often weighed down by complex layers and processes, especially when it comes to new thinking or innovation. Everyone has to have their say and opinion for a good while; agreement and alignment takes and wastes time. This often results in months of back-and-forth where very little of tangible value is accomplished. Good ideas lay dormant and often lose steam.

Set tight deadlines that create pressure for teams involved in product development or innovation scenarios. Teach them how to rapidly ideate, building on both good and bad ideas, relying less on judging ideas right then and there, but developing the largest range possible. Set them free of the typical process and let them ideate openly based on their own intuition. Even if the outcomes have to run through your corporate process eventually, hold that step to the side as long as you can and see what happens as a result.

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When American Eagle Outfitters decided to create 77Kids, the company dedicated a stand alone team to immerse themselves into the target, the business space and the category. Working with a dedicated team unencumbered by the larger business, but yet able to tap into their expertise and resources, enabled them to build a business from the blank page to launch in just 18 months.

5. Mix It Up: Discover Brilliant Ideas Through “Collabotition”

It’s counterintuitive to look at who you might view as a potential competitor and reach out to collaborate, but brands with shared values and complimentary missions may very well be excellent strategic partners. We’re seeing a growing trend in competitive cooperation or what we like to affectionately call “collabotition.” It’s most often entrepreneurs who are willing to do this, either out of necessity, desire or shared interest. Large companies often shy away from “collabotition” in an effort to keep information confidential, ensure market share isn’t lost, and assets are protected.

Give the people on your team some freedom to explore potential partnerships with your competition and chart the places you think rich collaboration might happen. You don’t have to act on the synergies if they don’t align with your goals, but even the exploration could yield interesting and new ideas to feed back into your organization.

Working as a founder member of the Cleanwell team with our friends at IDEO, we developed a mission bring a better way to clean to consumers, developing a company from the ground up. Cleanwell has been highly collaborative, and has been able to take its ingredient technology platform and partner with other disruptive and progressive cleaning companies like Seventh Generation and Method by licensing the ingredient technology and the “Powered by Cleanwell” brand to increase their product efficacy. This type of “collabition” benefits all parties involved, most importantly the consumer.

About the author

Shawn Parr is the Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Sony, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, Kashi, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision.

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