Friday, January 31, 2014

Ten Lessons of Start-ups for Established Businesses

The Berlin School of Creative Leadership is traveling this month to the Bay Area in Northern California for the second week of the U.S. residency of its Executive MBA program.  Among the key topics orienting the week are innovation, agile leadership, and effective, entrepreneurial and ethical teamwork.  Overall, for already experienced leaders of creative communications firms, the week offers an opportunity for immersion in an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups.  It consequently prompts a crucial question for many creative leaders, What are the lessons of start-ups and early-stage entrepreneurial businesses for more established firms?

An undeniable romance surrounds start-ups and entrepreneurship.  The prospect of building something entirely new, of developing an original idea and implementing it successfully in the market, is alluring.  Even viewed more prosaically, such an extended process of risk-taking in order to create new value and build a successful business, is exciting. Established firms are, by contrast, fraught with a host of messy, pre-existing practicalities. They already contain some version of all the elements, from products or services and strategy to talent, organizational structures and cultures, and leadership that many entrepreneurs dream of instituting anew.

Of course, the distinction is hardly so sharp. In Silicon Valley in 2014, amidst the continuing percolation of entrepreneurial energy and effort, part of what’s most fascinating to consider is how relatively recent start-ups have grown rapidly into large, established firms.  In only 10 or 15 years, in some cases, companies have become among the largest, best-known companies on the planet.  For example, Google, which the Berlin School will be visiting, was incorporated in 1997 and now has more than 46,000 employees.  Increasingly for these still relatively young firms grown, the challenge is how to sustain that early energy and avoid the loss of entrepreneurial spirit.

Older firms, too, have sought to embrace the principles and tools of start-ups as means to becoming more innovative. In a recent LinkedIn post, Beth Comstock, CMO of GE, discusses her experience at one of the world’s largest corporations. She opens by saying that she and her colleagues consider their efforts “to act small even if we’re big…as the biggest implementation of Lean Startup principles on earth.” Comstock then offers four key learnings from the company’s recent past:
·      Simplicity is the key
·      We have to work fast
·      We don’t have all the answers, but you might
·      Uncertainty is okay
The objective, shewrites, is to find constructive ways to be “constantly tinkering with our business models to get leaner and more agile and to get closer to our customers.”

Comstock’s reference is to the LeanStartup methodology developed by Eric Ries and among the most influential operating today.  Lean is, for Ries, a management process tailored for accelerated new product development and, especially, delivery to customers. “Startups exist not to make stuff, make money, or serve customers,” he has said.  “They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated scientifically, by running experiments that allow us to test each element of our vision.” Ries goes on to specify that,  “The unit of progress for Lean Startups is validated learning – a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty.”  Such priorities, as well as the following key principles of Lean, should resonate with leaders of established businesses seeking to prioritize learning, innovation and leadership at all levels of their firms:  
1.     Entrepreneurs are everywhere
2.     Entrepreneurship is management
3.     Validated Learning
4.     Innovation Accounting
5.     Build-Measure-Learn

Ries’ priorities indeed arguably dovetail with some of the major elements of other recent and current approaches to change and strategic management in existing firms.  For instance, his imperative to model, measure and specially learn faster in Lean parallels the urgency of John Kotter’s renowned change model ( (There’s a fascinating study waiting to be written more generally comparing Ries’ Lean methodology to Kotter’s 8-step change model.)  Likewise, the faster pace and greater uncertainty of business and markets, and as a result the demand for the greater speed of effective strategic leadership, underpins Rita Gunther McGrath’s paradigm-shifting argument for “transient advantage” in The End of Competitive Advantage

Exactly that kind of parallel, combined with successful examples of existing companies like GE, allows us to identify principles and practices that are central to building start-ups and also potentially valuable to established firms seeking to build new businesses and gain new advantage. 

1. Speed
The essential argument of McGrath’s The End of Competitive Advantage, as just noted, is that a new, faster-paced marketplace places different demands upon individual businesses for success.  Her idea of “transient advantage” directly recognizes how the most competitive leadership and strategic response to these new conditions is speed (  One of McGrath’s favorite examples is Milliken & Co., which transformed itself, through continuous strategic reassessment and reprioritization, from a company that “had been largely focused on textiles and chemicals through the 1960s, and advanced materials and flameproof products through the 1990s, had become a leader in specialty materials and high-IP specialty chemicals by the 2000s.”

2. Adaptability
R/GA, the legendary creative agency (which the Berlin School EMBA group will be visiting in New York the week before hitting the Bay Area), has re-invented itself every nine years since its founding in the mid-1970s.  This has meant ranging, always successfully, from computer-assisted filmmaking (1977-1985) to an integrated digital studio (2005-2012).  The regular willingness to reassess its place in the marketing universe demonstrates an extraordinary adaptability to rapidly changing environmental conditions and internal capabilities alike (    

3. Customer-centrism
Amazon’s commitment to service is renowned, from founder Jeff Bezos’s keeping an “empty chair” at board meetings as a reminder of the customer being in charge to the required annual call-center training required of all employees to maintain their humility and empathy ( Such priorities of start-ups as gathering and working with customer feedback (increasingly data, as well) and getting products in customers’ hands faster and more easily should also be objectives for both existing and potential new businesses of established firms.

4. New business opportunities
Since its founding in 1997, Netflix has continually reinvented itself by exploring new business opportunities in the rapidly changing media and entertainment sector.  Such exploration has been driven both by competitive necessity and new technological and market possibilities.  Seeking to “revolutionize the way people watch TV shows and movies,” the company has repeatedly revised its business model to offer multiple services, often combining distinct offerings like streaming with DVD home delivery, and recently, with original programming in an effort to be “the world’s leading Internet television network”

5. New structures
Of the many changes needing to be made within existing businesses to become more entrepreneurial, organizational re-structuring and resource sharing are among the easiest to attempt and also the most difficult to get right.  These crucial changes need to be tied, as P&G’s Connect + Develop program has been, to core tenets of the organization’s culture and identity.  In building an open innovation platform and structuring a Global Business Development team around its complex global operations, P&G met its initial goal, in only four years, of having half its innovations fueled by external partnerships (

6. New metrics and testing – particularly of existing talent
Most firms recognize the imperative to create aggressive and appropriate metrics for testing new product or service offerings – and, as the Lean Startup methodology would have it, embrace “validated learning.”  More challenging is the inclusion of existing talent in the process, particularly in ways that allow their skills to be re-directed to new projects.  In the December issue of Harvard Business Review, Professor David Garvin details “How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management” by making the company’s management assessment and talent development more systematic while retaining its humanity and eary-stage spirit of innovation ( 

7. Uncertainty is okay
“Navigating uncertainty is what defines entrepreneurship,” writes Beth Comstock.  At GE, she goes on, in the aforementioned LinkedIn post, “we’ve made it a point to protect some ideas from the pressures of developed operations. We have a class of internal start ups that need to be nurtured, like GE's Durathon battery, a green backup power source for cell phone towers in Africa that started life as a hybrid locomotive battery.”  Enabling those start ups with space, time and resources to develop, without any certainty of positive results, is crucial today.

8. Balancing new and existing, inventing and improving
In management terms, “ambidexterity” is the ability of firms to exploit existing, often mature markets and to explore new, often emerging ones simultaneously.  At the heart of established firms’ efforts to spur innovation, the challenge is how to allocate resources to strike an appropriate balance between these two often conflicting strategic directions.  Harvard’s Michael Tushman has incisively analyzed the more than decade-long successful efforts at IBM to grow new businesses like Pervasive Computing, which allows mobile workers greater access to data and supports M(mobile)-commerce (

9. Top leadership buy-in
In March 2013, one of the world’s successful media companies, Axel Springer, sent its top executives (flying economy-class and then sharing rooms in a two-star hotel) to Silicon Valley to learn the language of digital entrepreneurship.  The results included their setting up their own garage for innovation (!) and, more substantively, returning to Germany where they became roles models and drivers of change within their company (

10. Simplicity pays
Annually for the last four years, the strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale has ranked global brands for simplicity ( The European-based discount supermarket brand, ALDI, ranked as the #1 global brand in 2013. Despite being far-flung with more than 9,000 stores worldwide and a brand that “focuses on the essentials, no matter what city,” ALDI’s good-value-for-the-money reputation has adapted to thrive before, during and since the economic crisis.  Beyond serving customers, however, Siegel+Gale’s research shows how innovation within a firm like ALDI is served by the greater clarity of shared purpose and goals accompanying brand simplicity.

All these lessons should inform the decisions and behaviors of two central actors in any established firm wanting to be more entrepreneurial and act more like a start-up.  The first actor is existing talent.  While unavoidable that organizational transformations often require the hard, if hopefully mutual, realization that formerly valuable talent no longer fit in new priorities and plans, the participation of current workers in any entrepreneurial venture is vital for its success.  Some talent will obviously be more directly involved in such efforts than others, but all need to recognize the shared purpose. 

The other actors, of course, are leaders.  Some of the lessons here, like adaptability or uncertainty or senior leadership buy-in, explicitly reference the demands (and opportunities) of leadership.  Yet several key principles and practices of start-ups, like Ries’ “entrepreneurship is everywhere” and “entrepreneurship is management” accord well with the more generally valuable precept that leaders, in existing firms, especially, are defined by what they do rather than by where they sit or the titles they hold.  In the end, at the heart of established firms should be leaders seeking, like their counterparts in start-ups, to grow business faster, serve customers better, transform existing markets and make inroads into new ones, and creatively sustain the elusive spirit of ongoing innovation.

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