Corporates vs Startups

“boy and girl answering questions on white paper” by Rachel on Unsplash
“Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.”— Guy Kawasaki

I wrote about the lessons I believe corporates could learn from startups here. Having now worked in both types of environments, the ways of doing business are very different.

So let’s take a look from the other perspective. What can startups learn from corporates?

Process

The most obvious aspect of business success lacking in startups is process.

When you come up with an idea, the next step is bringing it to life in some form. That might mean writing explanations or white papers. Or it could mean creating a prototype and hopefully testing it. There will be some pitching of the idea for investment. Then all focus moves to building the thing. What tends to get missed is defining the way to do it.

With so much innovation enabled by tech, development teams are often the first employees of startups. As newcomers join, there is a need to onboard and establish how people will work together. Corps have a number of policies on how they want people to work but startups need to create these from scratch. It’s a key part of establishing the culture in which employees will thrive.

How many meetings do you have and who runs them? Where and when does work happen? Who keeps track of holidays and expenses? How do you give and receive feedback? The focus on momentum and just doing stuff is fun, but insufficient processes can soon trip you up.

What startups can learn: Put processes in place as early as possible. You can change and revise them, but you need something to work with. Keep an eye on your new starter experience. What do people need to know to get up and running? How easy or difficult is it for them to find?

Tools

It sometimes feels like we are drowning in problem-solving tools from Jira to Invision, Slack to Dropbox, Marvel to Aha. You probably use some or all of these. Each works differently; sometimes they talk to each other and sometimes they don’t. Everyone has their own favourite for each task. And new ones keep emerging. You need to allocate time to learning how to use them and check the updates from them multiple times a day.

Large companies tend to have acceptance criteria for tools to become part of their regular kit and teams to manage licenses. The difficulty of getting a new tool approved used to be one of my frustrations. Now I am starting to see the logic. Too many tools or tools used incorrectly can actually hinder productivity.

If you allow each team member to choose a different tool, everyone will become overwhelmed. When can you survive on the free trial version and when should you invest in the premium plan? Which one should employees check most often? Who is responsible for training?

What startups can learn: Evaluate your tools ruthlessly. Ditch those you don’t need and train your teams on those you do. Who chooses which tools? Make it part of your process. Pick one communication tool that everyone should check.

Balance

We often hear about the dedication of startup founders and the long hours they are working. Elon Musk talked about working 120 hour weeks and sleeping at his factory. A recent article on the culture at Revolut, discussed the difficulty of hiring people who could thrive in the ever-changing, fast-paced company. The author suggests that for many it is only possible in the short-term: ‘People will eventually burn out.’

The blurring between work and home life is fuelled by tech. Remote working allows us more flexibility, but it also means that we are never far from our laptops. We communicate with colleagues on our personal phones. Urgent messages arrive on Friday nights and over the weekend. On holidays we still pick up the notifications. It becomes very difficult to carve out any non-work head space, unless you really prioritise it.

In my experience this wasn’t any less of an issue when working at a corporate, in fact it can be even worse. But the impact of stress on mental health is being recognised and awareness is growing. It’s important that startup cultures doesn’t glamourise over-work at the expense of smart work. They too need to prioritise looking after their people.

What startups can learn: Promote a culture of work and balance. Monitor the stress levels of employees. Note turnover levels and why people leave. Each hire contributes to the culture so hire carefully.

I’d love to hear more stories about how to work in startups.

What works for you?