I spoke with a friend today with whom I’ve worked before at two jobs; one was my own startup and one was a large, established company. He’s having some challenges at his current place of employment, specifically with the speed in which things get done (read “not done”). We had some fun talking about the start-up environment and how it differs from the “real world” so I thought I’d share some of the discussion points.
I’ve worked in everything from start-up companies with less than ten employees to a big, public company with over 35,000. One thing for sure, there’s nothing like the speed of a start-up to keep you motivated. Have an idea on Sunday, discuss it Monday morning, do a bit of research on Monday afternoon and start developing and implementing on Tuesday. This way, you get to try things, lots of things. If they work, great! If not, toss it and start over. I’ve always said, “If you’re going to fail, do so quickly, cheaply and often.”
What you don’t want is one of those long, painful, expensive failures. You’ve been there, I’m sure. This is the project that swallows thousands of man-hours and hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Worse yet, during that time, you’re not trying anything else. You’re team is so focused on the horrible project that you all took your collective brains on vacation from creativity. Then one day comes the validation that your teams’ brain-child is a disaster and likely, your boss will want to keep it going to save face until a more suitable time is found to kill it.
One thing I’ve learned is that the size or age of a company doesn’t pre-destine it to over-complication. My current employer, though it’s a company over 150 years old can actually get stuff done pretty quickly. Heck, they bought my company, soup to nuts, within two and a half weeks. Trust me, they can move fast.
In general though, Corporate America is so consumed with lawyers, fear of failure, quarterly reporting, etc. that good old spaghetti throwing (against the wall) is gone. Have an idea? Shhhhh, someone may steal it. Make sure you have NDA’s ready just in case you want to sniff-test the idea with someone outside your asylum, er, I mean company. Go contemplate every single little detail, document it, come up with an ops plan, get budget approval and talk to the dev guys (because they’re going to love to tell you it’s going to take ten months and half a million bucks to build it – though you could get it done in a third of the time for half the cost.) Don’t forget, you’ll likely need a few versions of a deck to get buy-in from a boatload of people who don’t want to do any more work than they have to.
Start-up divisions within big companies are an interesting idea that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. At the end of the day, if your “startup team” needs to go through the same red tape, same development team, same documentation, same legal processes – well then, it’s not really a start-up team, is it? All you’ve done is brand the team as renegades without actually letting them go off and actually be renegades. Been there. Done that. Got the tee-shirt. (Again, I’m not talking about my current employer).
So, what if all companies acted like start-ups? No, I’m not suggesting we all get air-hockey or a Wii. I’m simply suggesting we would be seeing a lot more innovation, a lot more activity and people would clearly be having more fun (which begat more innovation and more activity…) if people would lighten up and speed it up a bit.
Before you jump down my throat, I’ve had a lot of great corporate attorneys and analysts with whom I’ve worked. It’s just that so many people in the corporate world never had to deal with real life. They throw around budget numbers in the millions like it’s no big deal (even though they amount to which they’re referring is ten times their salary.) If you’ve ever been responsible for making payroll, you know what I’m talking about. At the first company I started, I remember thinking “I really need to make payroll on Friday. If I don’t, some of these people are going to hurt this weekend.” That’s pressure.
My point is speed is critical in today’s business environment. I think it’s time we all make little efforts to speed up what we do. I’m all for having meetings, but keep them short, keep them tactical and implement, implement, implement. I’m all for documentation, but keep it in bullet format. I’m all for emails so you can prove you did something, but hey, pick up the phone and we’ll talk.