The start-up inside
Over the last few years, I’ve been grappling with a completely different problem from anything I’ve dealt with before:
How do I get an idea off the ground inside a large company?
My background is all startup. And, when I say startup, I mean three, five, or eight people, not 200 — that’s a fully functioning business in my mind. I sold my last one to salesforce.com, which is from where I’m drawing my experiences.
Don’t Worry About Scale
One thing I always hear in big companies is: How are you going to scale that? In fact, it’s an obsession. The reality, however, is that “scale” is often the last problem you have, especially in a large company.
You need to build scale. It doesn’t just happen.
What do I mean by scale? Rather than working with the marketing team to make some materials for you, make them yourself. Rather than trying to find ways to train the professional services teams on something that hasn’t yet been released, release it yourself and work the rest out later. Rather than worrying about training the global sales team, work with a small team and get busy working with customers. That may sound irresponsible, but it’s actually the right thing to do.
I see so many initiatives fail because no one really wants to get down and dirty to make things happen. They want the organization to adapt to their way of thinking — jumping in with both feet. It is incredibly challenging to build enough consensus to “train your company” to listen to you and trust that you have the right idea.
If you want it to work, make it work, and leverage the organization to fill in as it grows. That’s where you get scale. You have an organization at your disposal to grow the idea, with a lot of professional people. Leverage that on-demand.
If it doesn’t grow, they were right. If it does, they’ll make it right.
The trick, and one I’m slowly mastering, is keeping enough people on your side to support you — a team below and beside. “Executive air cover” above is also critical.
Which leads me to…
Every Answer Is The Right Answer, But Customers Are Always Right
Everything is a shade of grey when you have as diverse a customer base as most large companies do. Every market is the next big thing, every idea is the next big idea, everyone is full of ideas for right ways and wrong ways of doing things.
The trouble with big companies is that everyone has a different perspective — and very few people come from the same one. Clearly, different perspectives can be a strength, but too many creates division. Also, you may be wrong given yours. Remember, your company is doing a lot more than you can comprehend holistically.
However, the ideas I’ve seen succeed are always based on strong and well-understood customer references. This is by far your biggest trump card — in meetings, in discussions, in validation. Not stats, not research, not opinions, but customers.
If you can show customer interest, that is the most powerful answer.
But this is no cake walk…
Be Prepared For Battle, But Win With Leadership, Not Bloodshed
I’ve never heard of anyone successfully creating and launching an idea fueled by the power of consensus. Lots of people are going to hate your idea, hate that you’re leading it, and hate that it’s ruining the work they’re doing. No matter what you’re doing, you’re going to be stepping on someone else in the process. Get over it.
However, remember that growing a company is a team sport. You will never be successful if you don’t have people above, below, and beside you that want you to succeed. As a result, make sure you’re not “running around with sharp sticks” and creating an all-around blood bath. Be positive, be respectful, but be clear and focused with your intentions.
Everyone likes clarity and purpose. Make sure you’re providing it.
And that’s where the next observation comes in…
Don’t Flip-Flop; Stay In Position
Iterating and developing an idea with others can often be perceived as “flip-flopping.” That is to say: You’re uncertain in your position on the right answer. In most startups I’ve worked for or run, transparency is key, and iterating and refining is the name of the game.
You need to work to a long game (which could be years), “triangulate” to get a depth of understanding, share ideas with a small group of trusted colleagues, and then start the relentless campaign to win.
Do not change your position.
Whether you know it or not, people will start to come on board, or not, with what you’re saying. If you change the story, you’ll lose trust as people will no longer understand what your position is. Remember, they’re not paying nearly as much attention to this as you, so you need to keep things simple, clear, and constant. Even if you see problems arise in your approach, maintain the lock on your target and just keep going.
But move fast. Once you start pushing, you need decisions to be made quickly to show momentum and endorsement.
No One Cares; It’s A Job
Don’t assume that people are listening to anything you’re saying. Many decisions are made simply because people like and trust you. Others will agree with you simply because they don’t have an opinion; others because they just want you to shut up and go away. What you can be sure of is: Very few, if anyone, really cares.
They’re going to get paid regardless of your success or failure. The one thing that does motivate decisions is their career (and yours too, by the way, or why else would you be doing this? Really, I mean, dig deep now… If you really cared, you’d do it as an actual startup). Make sure you’re respectful of their career.
There’s another side to this. If you, like me, tend to get passionate about things (or put more accurately, stubborn), be careful. If you push too hard, you’ll end up alienating others from you and being seen as someone who “doesn’t play well with others.” I’ve noticed people generally won’t push back, even when they completely disagree with what you’re saying. They don’t push back, because they don’t care, but they’re doing you damage.
One thing you can be certain of, however, is that everyone likes a clear vision and mission. Clarity and purpose are your most valuable alignment tool.
Which makes me think of one more important alignment tool…
Acquire A Focus
I came into this education via an acquisition. Acquisitions are a great way to create a focal point and gravitational force around which your idea can grow. I think people often don’t realize this. They think that acquisitions are purely to fill a skills gap or accelerate a product. The reality is that many acquisitions simply give the company something to focus on.
Buying a company creates a nucleation site for your vision. If you’re a beer drinker like me, that’s the place in your glass where the bubbles grow and create the fizz.