Thinking Like a Startup, Even if You’re Not One

Published Jun, 4 2014
Business & Branding
This session was presented live at a past SoundBoard event.
Business Track
11:00 am - 11:50 am

StartupPeople tend to admire entrepreneurs, especially in America. We think fondly of these ambitious, risk-taking men and women who are driven by passion to create something new or do something better. We idealize them in our culture as garage startup types or Silicon Valley pioneers.

Yet our collective soft spot for entrepreneurs only serves to distance the everyday benefits of entrepreneurial thinking from our daily lives. What we largely fail to realize is that entrepreneurship is applicable regardless of what you do, where, or how large your company. So don’t consign entrepreneurship to garages and ramen noodle diets: thinking like a startup has the potential to unlock enormous potential for your company.

Why We Can All Learn From Entrepreneurs

There are many opinions on what constitutes entrepreneurship, but one of the best definitions comes from the Harvard Business Review: Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.

Entrepreneurs must typically pursue their vision without abundant resources. On the flip side, there’s little to no bureaucracy or micro-managing. This can result in creative breakthroughs and success, as limited resources cannot be wasted. Or maybe not. It’s risky, but if entrepreneurs are going to fail, it is their duty to fail as fast as they can. Keeping a project alive by throwing good time and money after bad doesn’t help anyone.

The sorts of skills and creative thinking that it takes to build a business can create enormous advantages for existing companies. You may be doing well, but for how long? And couldn’t we always be doing better? How do you leapfrog the competition? Enter new markets? Here are a few entrepreneurial concepts that could deliver outsize results for your company.

Manage Your Resources Wisely

Regardless of the size of your budgets, it’s useful to consider what your company would finance if it essentially had none. What projects would get green-lit, and why? What sort of processes and strategies would be put into place to help ensure success, and how would that success be measured? Without the luxury of throwing money around and hoping something sticks (and not really knowing why when it does), you might be surprised by what you uncover, and in the process arrive at a lot of great ideas for reform.

Creatively Motivate Your Employees

Most startups don’t have much money, so they rely on the high-risk, high-reward model of entrepreneurship to lure and motivate top talent. These new team members are willing to take a stake in the company in exchange for essentially unlimited, low-to-no-paid work, and hope their talents at the ground level can increase the odds of overall success.

So what do you do if you’re an existing business seeking to attract and motivate top talent, but don’t have the big bucks or realistic equity options? Think entrepreneurially! Some might call it thinking outside-the-box, but isn’t that pretty much the same thing? Most folks, particularly entrepreneurs, aren’t even entirely motivated by money. Learn what does motivate them, and be flexible. More vacation days? Authority? Flex time? Company culture? There’s more to attracting and motivating top talent than just how much money you put on the table.

Go 3-Dimensional

Corporations tend to think and act in a linear, incremental direction. The notion of revisiting an idea, or exploring a side project, can be considered moving backwards or stalling, respectively. That’s unfortunate.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are all over the place. The direction of the startup is often distinguished by the distinct lack of one. The appropriate cliché is that your customers tell you what kind of company you are. A year or two into a startup and the original idea might have fizzled, but listening, pivoting, and nimble maneuvering can still bring about major success. By avoiding forward-at-all-costs thinking, untold opportunities may await.

Tolerate Failure

This is a biggie, and dovetails nicely with the above section about exploring new directions. Many businesses love the idea of the “entrepreneurial mindset” in the workplace, but neglect to create the political room necessary for the key ingredient: risk. If your company is not prepared to take some risks — even small ones — then entrepreneurial thinking in the workplace is going to be difficult if not impossible to implement. Subsequently, innovation will likely slow over time, and some more innovative company might have an opportunity to overtake you.

So what’s actually more risky? Playing it safe at the risk of stifling innovation, or fostering a culture where teams are allowed to fail? Assuming your employees and teams have reasonable plans and execution strategies, they should be encouraged to try out new ideas and be commended for their efforts even if their project doesn’t work out.