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3 start-up characteristics corporates can learn from

The stereotypical start-up resides in a garage with employees fuelled by pizzas and cheap energy drinks. Keeping this image in mind, you might meet some resistance when pitching in the fancy board room of a large, international corporation that there is much to learn from the attitude of start-up employees. Although often led by less experienced founders and driven by younger teams, start-ups possess some unique characteristics corporates could benefit from. In fact, falling back on these start-up characteristics in a corporate setting could solve recurring challenges, such as the difficulty to ignite employee ownership and motivation, to empower team members to challenge the status quo and question how things are currently being done, or to spark their drive to launch new initiatives.

1. Intrinsic motivation as a driver

Start-up founders and first employees typically stand firm behind their product, brand or mission without any promise of return or success. They are intrinsically motivated to support their mission unconditionally. No efforts are spared to make their dream become reality, even if that means working long hours, travelling to countless fairs, and even taking some personal financial risks. The metaphorical distance between the team and the product or service they are offering is small, which works as a strong incentive to make their product better and attract more consumers, as the individual impact they achieve on the growth of the company and market share is immediately visible and measurable.

In a corporate environment, employees can definitely be passionate about their job, but they are less likely to be as passionate about the product or service they are offering. Not surprisingly, incentives are much more extrinsic in corporates, as they are internally structured around promotion, recognition, financial benefits, and image. The metaphorical distance between the team and the product or service is bigger, which makes it harder for individuals to identify their impact on the organisation. For the company, this oftentimes results in employees taking less ownership, and difficulties to keep team members motivated and passionate.

When clients approach us with difficulties of this kind, we will typically invite them to challenge themselves in the incentives they fabricate within their company, and to investigate organisational structures. When teams and products are brought closer together, team members are likely to have a better feel with the actual impact they are achieving in the organisation. This is likely to stir up the intrinsic motivation of employees and can even trigger them to launch new intrapreneurial initiatives.

As an example, a pharmaceutical client approached us with the need to reignite energy, belief and a winning mindset in the commercial organisation. The company was facing a drop in employee motivation and had struggles inspiring employees to take ownership and initiative. This was partly due to fierce competition for the most important growth product, putting a lot of stress on the organisation. However, there was also a clear loss of connection with and belief in that growth product. Together with the organisation, we brought the team members closer to the product, on the one hand by reigniting the focus on the unique selling proposition of the product, and on the other hand by providing them with concrete tools and means to be a true advocate of the product during client interactions. The combination of both elements gave team members clarity on how they as individuals could have an impact on the organisation, resulting in a significant improvement in their belief in the product and motivation to take actions in the field.

2. Learning mindset

Start-ups typically have a lot to learn, they are unexperienced and will run against some heavy roadblocks. However, any start-up is aware of this and will constantly strive to learn and adapt. This learning mindset is embedded in everything they do. As Steve Jobs once said, “it’s impossible to fail if you learn from your mistakes.”

On the contrary, experienced corporate employees typically have a track record of years in the industry, the market or even the company. The knowledge of what always worked before gives them the confidence of experience and control. In reality, however, environments change so quickly that knowledge incorporated in the organisation yesterday can easily be outdated today. If corporate employees have evolved away from this learning mindset as adopted by start-ups, the company risks being disrupted at some point in the future by smaller, more nimble start-ups.

We are regularly being approached by leadership teams of our client companies, who tell us that the way the business has operated in the past is not working anymore, and that a mindset change is imperative to the future success of the company. In essence, they feel the need to bring team members back to this humble mindset of experimenting, learning, and adapting to strive in rapidly changing markets.

At one of our clients, a leader in energy, a similar challenge appeared after years of growing and flourishing business. When leadership noticed momentum was changing in the market and their employees had lost the default behaviour of pivoting fast based on new market conditions, they came to us to challenge employees and middle management in behaviour, mindset, and culture. In this case, we built on several agile toolsets to reinstall this customer focus. With workshops and coaching, we successfully reignited a learning mindset in the organisation, leading to the quick launch of new product developments, marketing initiatives and sales efficiency.

3. Autonomy to make impact

Start-ups are small and loosely organised. As a result, start-up employees benefit from having their function not strictly defined and typically enjoy working transversal with other colleagues, often on domains that are not necessarily within their responsibilities. This gives a sense of autonomy, driving intrinsic motivation to make a real impact.

Corporate companies, on the other hand, deal with an exponentially higher level of complexity, with more extensive product portfolios, market shares that need to be considered, and simply an increased number of customers and employees. This results in the need for more structure, hierarchy, and formalised processes within these companies. Such structures enable corporate leadership to control and manage their activities but limit the ability for a single individual to understand his or her impact. Employees lose part of their entrepreneurial mindset, and instead of doing what’s necessary for the company, they start doing what’s necessary for the process.

As an external partner, we will typically bring employees back into this entrepreneurial setting by creating safe environments where process & structure are of less importance, unlocking creativity and ultimately identifying new opportunities for our client organisation.

As an example, a global FMCG leader in the snacks industry approached us with the question on how to boost product innovation within the company. To revamp creativity within the organisation, the leadership realised they had to approach the innovation process differently than the way they were used to handling it. That’s where we came in with our tech-enhanced collective intelligence approach, in which we empower employees to break free from the existing structures they work in to raise new ideas and develop promising business cases. More specifically, employees engage as ‘anonymous players’ in an online journey that encourages them to share preliminary ideas and to team up with other participants to take ideas to the next level. Ideas and business cases ranged from the development of new tastes, over the development of new packaging, all the way to completely new snack experience concepts. For our client, the anonymous engagement was – and still is, as the approach is being leveraged throughout the company – a lever for empowering employees to think and behave in ways irrespective of the processes and structures they usually operate in. For example, there is no need for them to feel restricted to raising ideas within their functional role or expertise, as no one knows who’s behind the idea anyway. Similarly, to elaborate on a business case, colleagues team up based on the skills they have indicated to be good at in the online environment. When engaging employees from different divisions and different geographical regions, this approach enables them to form new teams and collaborate with colleagues they have never collaborated with or even heard of before.

For these three start-up characteristics – and many more – it is important to balance benefits of both worlds and find out what fits the organisation best. Blindly copying startup structures and processes to a corporate in the attempt to bring innovation makes no sense and would only result in chaos in the long run, if it would ever succeed. As always, the truth is in the middle.

With Venture Spirit we have built expertise in applying these start-up principles in corporates on fitting challenges. Many tastes and flavours exist on how to do this optimally, depending on the context, the challenge, and the organisation. We are happy to talk with you on how you could bring the start-up mind (back) into your organisation.

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