4 Things a Startup Learnt From Coca-Cola

We spent a week learning from Coca-Cola executives in Atlanta after winning the PITCH 2014 competition at Web Summit in Dublin. Here, I share what we learnt. The original post was published on the Coca-Cola company blog.

After winning the PITCH competition for early-stage startups at Web Summit in November, we didn’t quite know what to expect from the prize — mentorship from Coca-Cola and a trip to their Atlanta HQ. As we boarded the plane from rainy London, we were curious to discover how one of the world’s biggest global consumer brands could help a tiny startup in a seemingly unrelated industry.

1. The Elephant and the Mosquito

We made our way up the main tower in Coke’s 29-story headquarters, housing 128 years of company history — a far cry from our humble cluster of desks in London. It became blindingly clear that we were a “mosquito” among “elephants.” But what surprised us about Coca-Cola was not only their understanding of some of the challenges caused by their enormity, but also their mission to overcome these to foster innovation and build fruitful relationships with smaller companies (without accidentally crushing them!).

Despite these differences in proportion, a surprisingly elegant medium was revealed: Startups are striving to scale — something Coca-Cola is a world-class model of, whilst large companies like Coca-Cola are trying to be agile — something we startups seem to do with ease. As you can imagine, there was a lot of exchanging of notes.

2. When Agility Meets Scale

On the first day of our visit, Guy Wollaert, Coca Cola’s CTO, explained that “Gold is in the grey” and that real win-win situations can be achieved when companies transcend institutional boundaries and leverage their capabilities in new ways.

The trip gave us an opportunity to explore this concept and have an open conversation with Coke about how small companies can work effectively with multinationals — something that is highly relevant to our business. BaseStone is a tablet and Web-based collaboration tool for architects and engineers, and our customers are primarily large construction companies. We solve a very real problem for the industry, yet the (relatively) slow pace at which some of these large companies move can be a big challenge for a startup.

While speaking with one of Coke’s global innovation directors, we were given real insights into how large corporations assess software like ours in terms of security and risk, and the necessity of these measures. It is precisely these kinds of observations that help startups understand both how and, perhaps more importantly, why their large enterprise customers are slow-moving. So we were pleasantly surprised when Coke’s leaders and employees were interested in our perspective as a startup and how we achieve and maintain agility. These kinds of engaging, two-way conversations continued throughout the week and, as a result, have cultivated a deeper awareness of our common ambitions and potential for future work.

3. Laying Foundations

A photo of early Coca-Cola employees from the Coca-Cola Archives.

As a startup in the construction industry, you’d think we were already well acquainted with the structural importance of solid foundations. However, spending a week at Coca-Cola reminded us of the importance of building a company on a foundation of strong principles.

We were lucky enough to explore the history of The Coca-Cola Company, including a tour of their archives and a visit to Robert Woodruff’s office. Woodruff was Coke’s most influential president between 1923 and 1954, and his immaculately preserved office is a testament to his enduring impact and legacy.

We heard about how Coke had played its part in the economic and social developments of Atlanta. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Woodruff was prepared to move the company out of the state if Altanta’s business leaders refused to welcome Martin Luther King, Jr. after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. This kind of spirited conviction resonated with us, given our position as a startup striving to lead change in a traditional industry that is often reluctant to adapt.

On our visit to the Archives, we saw a remarkable photo of The Coca-Cola Company in 1898, with only a handful of employees. It reminded us to think big, act small and not to lose sight of the reasons we started doing what we do.

4. Coke’s Reach

Coke embraced our questions and curiosity. Far from shielding their “secret formula,” they opened up their book of contacts and insights at any opportunity to help us advance. We were astonished by the extent their global reach and influence.

We learned about the construction and engineering work Coke leads all over the world, pushing their boundaries far beyond just the production of soft drinks. They constantly need to ensure that their bottling and manufacturing plants are the most efficient in the world, and also have charitable arms which help to build better futures for people in developing countries. All of which has sustainable and efficient engineering and construction at its core.

With Coca-Cola as a clear heavyweight in construction and BaseStone’s innovative approach to the changing industry, we both sensed a potential for collaboration between elephant and mosquito.

Here’s a video about our trip.


Originally published at www.coca-colacompany.com.

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