Today’s business environment is fascinated by rags-to-riches startup stories. While the media is quick to cover the rise of companies like Facebook and Groupon, less attention is paid to what happens as organizations move from the startup phase to more established enterprises. In a company’s early days, roles tend to be more fluid, and executives are more open to experimentation with new products, marketing tactics, or other ideas. But as the startup matures, the leadership team often adopts a more cautious mentality. Of course, a well thought out approach is important once you have a larger staff and are responsible for employees’ livelihoods. However, there are numerous advantages to maintaining pieces of the startup mentality—regardless of how long you’ve been in business.
Learn From Others
Ten years ago I cofounded a software company with two friends straight out of college. When we started out, we all wore all different hats, doing everything from development, support, and sales to marketing, operations, and ordering lunch. Because of our inexperience we had no choice but to constantly ask questions, seek help from outside sources, and collaborate with each other on projects. As we grew, we made a concerted effort to keep that inquisitive and collaborative mentality.
Though we’re now considered experts in our niche market, we know there is always something we can learn from our customers, employees, competitors and peers in other industries. Constantly exposing ourselves to new ideas and digging into different factions of our company allows us to maintain a fresh perspective and generate ideas that keep us ahead of the competition.
Another key quality seen in startups is transparency. I equate it to childhood—we’re much more likely to be honest about our feelings, be they positive or negative, as children. As we get older, we hold back on certain things and are less than truthful if we deem the situation calls for it. Similarly, as companies become more established, executives have a tendency to be less open about the state of the business, company financials and other information. But why? While there are certainly some things that must be kept within the C-suite—pending acquisitions, planned redundancies, etc.—updating employees on the state of the business not only gives them a better sense of long-term direction, it helps them understand the reasoning behind business decisions. When employees are included in the ups and downs of the company, they’re more likely to feel like part of a business “family,” fostering the loyalty and passion that drive companies to succeed.
In addition to being transparent, to maintain a startup culture you should encourage open dialogue within the organization. The benefit of this approach for employees is fairly evident—knowing they have a voice and feeling more connected to company leaders will make them more invested in their job. However, I think the real value lies in what an open door policy brings to the C-suite. Too often, executives become siloed in their roles and lose touch with the reality of what’s happening, both within the business and among its customers and prospects. Talking with a product engineer, for example, may bring entirely new insights that a boardroom full of MBAs might never uncover. Or a junior marketing rep may offer ideas on how the brand can use new social media channels to attract prospects. In short, the more a company can tap its collective brain—be it from the newest hire all the way up to the CEO—the better positioned it is for further growth and innovation.
Finally, the startup culture is inherently less risk averse than that of a larger organization. While the term “risk” is often synonymous with “danger,” any coach worth his salt will tell you that you can’t win if you don’t play. The key for companies as they move beyond the startup phase is finding the middle ground between the responsibilities that come with this new stage and the risks necessary for the company to continue innovating. Particularly in the technology industry, the status quo changes rapidly and organizations need to adopt a certain degree of flexibility in order to compete. As a startup, all you have to think about is how to make one thing, one product, successful. This tends to hold risk averse behavior at bay since you don’t have a good alternative if your core product fails. As a mature organization, you’ve got to hold two things in constant tension: on the one hand, you want to maintain the focus on your core market that has allowed you to get this far. On the other hand, you have to be thinking of your next move. Too much of the former, and you get left behind; too much of the latter and you risk losing everything you’ve worked for.
While there is a shift, as a company matures, into leveraging the base (product, customers, etc.), it’s worth remembering what built the base in the first place. It’s all too easy to assume that everything has changed when, in reality, all that’s changed is where the decimal place lands on your yearly revenue. You still have to have a compelling vision and culture to attract great employees who will build, market, and sell a great product that customers want to keep buying. Just because you aren’t living hand to mouth anymore doesn’t mean that the structure of success has changed. In the end—as in the beginning—you have to sell products that your customers like as much as you do. Doing this requires constant learning, the best ideas of your whole team, and employees who are bought in to your vision. Whether you are a few or a few thousand.
Nathan McNeill is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Bomgar. He graduated from Belhaven College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
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