Startup Advice — Fail Quickly, Fail Cheaply, and Fail Often

Try, fail, try again, success: steps to reach your goalsI’ve written a lot on the topic of startup advice, but it’s still a hot issue in today’s business world especially as it relates to entrepreneurs and startups, so I’m writing about it again. The topic? The speed required by startups versus speed in the world of Corporate America. Read on.

I remember speaking with a friend with whom I had worked before at two different organizations. One was my own startup, which I later successfully sold, and one was a large, well-established company. He had been having some challenges at his place of employment, specifically with the speed at which things were getting done (read that: “not done”).  We had some fun talking about the startup environment and how it differs from Corporate America. It was an interesting conversation, and I thought I’d share some of our discussion points and startup advice.

Startup Advice — Speed is Everything

I’ve now sold two startups, so I’ve worked in everything from small companies with less than ten employees to big, public companies with tens of thousands of employees, so my startup advice comes from the trenches. One thing is for sure, there’s nothing like the speed of a startup to keep you engaged and motivated. It’s like a special kind of drug, and one that entrepreneurs thrive on. Have an idea on Sunday, discuss it Monday morning, do a bit of research and flesh it out on Monday afternoon, start ideating on Tuesday, and start developing on Wednesday. A short time later, you launch. Sure, more complex ideas and builds take longer, but you get the idea. When things get done at this speed, you get to try things, lots of things.  If they work, great!  If something doesn’t work, fix it. If it still doesn’t work, toss it and start over. I’m someone who likes to keep things moving. Stagnancy is excruciating to me which is why I’ve always included at the top of my list of startup advice this adage: “Fail quickly, fail cheaply, and fail often.” Let me explain.

Startups and Corporate America — And How They Are Similar

Whether you’re running a startup or working in Corporate America, the reality is that there are often many similarities. Especially when it comes to having great ideas, implementing them as quickly as possible, and evaluating the results. Failing quickly is critically important. When it comes to failing, what you don’t want is one of those long, painful, expensive failures.

Chances are good that you’re nodding about here, because you’ve found yourself in this position before. You know what I mean. The project that swallows thousands of people hours and hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. Worse yet, during that time, the company isn’t really trying anything else, because everyone at the company is so focused on the project, they let their collective brains take a vacation from creativity. Then one day comes the realization or actually, it’s more like a validation, that the company’s brain-child isn’t going to be the great success everyone had hoped. Worse, there will be some people who will want to keep it going to save face until a more “suitable” time is found to kill it.

Having found myself in this situation in the past, with data in hand, I would politely and appropriately and yes, sometimes even passionately, voice my concerns and offer alternative points of view. Sometimes my points were taken into consideration, sometimes not. In the end, you win some, you lose some. So goes the life of being an executive in a big company.

Accomplishing Digital Transformation in Corporate America Doesn’t Have to Be Difficult

As evidenced by my statement above, when I’ve worked as part of a large organization in the Corporate America world, I’ve never lost sight of the fact that being a good corporate citizen is a critical component of success. This is especially true if you’ve been hired in a role that requires you to disrupt the status quo, move the company in new directions and essentially be a “Change Agent.” Human beings inherently don’t like change, and if that’s your job, understanding how to navigate through the process of digital transformation and culture transformation is essential. The best way to do that is with a people-centric focus, working to build the proper, internal partnerships, working together to define and establish goals, gather support for your projects and initiatives, and get them approved and in motion. Getting them over the finish line? Another important goal, and you’ll have buy-in from leadership and your team supporting you on those initiatives, which will make a big difference.

A Story About Innovation and Disruption: From a 150-Year-Old Company

One thing I’ve learned from my experiences is the size or age of a company doesn’t predestine it to over-complication. I ran digital strategy and business development for Rand McNally, the maps and directions company. Though it was a 150-year-old company, things ran pretty quickly there. As proof, they acquired Tripology (where I was the CEO), soup to nuts, within two and a half weeks. Trust me, this 150-year-old company could move quickly and understood the importance of disrupting the business-as-usual mindset.

As is often the case, this aspect of speed came from the top. Dave Muscatel, Rand McNally’s CEO at the time, understood the need for speed and how speed drives innovation. As a result, he was relentless. He pushed me and the rest of his executive team to keep things moving along at a good clip, and we did. Everyone (okay, almost everyone) was on the same page—business teams, engineers, the operations staff, and even the attorneys. Obstacles and roadblocks were dealt with quickly, together, as a team. I really enjoyed my time at Rand McNally and one of the reasons was the culture of innovation and disruption fostered by the leadership team. It felt like working at a startup, even though it wasn’t. In today’s business world, that’s often not only what you need to thrive and grow, it’s also what you need to be able to attract and retain top talent. Working at such a rapid pace, and experiencing the reality of failing quickly, cheaply, and often was invigorating. It was how I had run the companies I had previously founded and a culture my team and I flourished in. Being able to work in a larger organization, a 150-year-old bastion of Corporate America, that operated in much the same way was a great experience.

Where Corporate America Gets Innovation and Disruption Wrong

For every story like the Rand-McNally one, there are twenty other stories about Corporate America flailing when it comes to innovation and disruption. Why? In general, Corporate America is so consumed with lawyers, fear of failure, quarterly reporting, etc. that good old spaghetti throwing against the wall is often all but gone. That’s not the case everywhere of course, but it is evident in a lot of places for sure.

Have an idea? Shhhhh. Let’s make a plan to unveil it at the proper time. Make sure you have NDAs ready just in case you want to sniff-test the idea with someone outside your company. Go contemplate every single little detail, document it, come up with an ops plan, get budget approval, and line up the focus groups – lots of them. Then, talk to the dev team, though they’re likely going to tell you it’s going to take ten months and a million bucks to build it – even though you could easily get it done in half 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 other people who likely won’t appreciate what you want to get done. Okay, let me take a breath here.

In fairness, at big companies, the projects that align with the overall corporate strategy and those which will create the most revenue usually receive the support needed to get done. And just because it’s a big company doesn’t mean resources are unlimited. You’ll have to deal with allocation—of everything; staff, funding, marketing, and a myriad of other resources along the way. I’m not suggesting these things and the process aren’t important—they’re absolutely critical. I’m merely saying that speed is important as well. To be truly successful in Corporate America, you have to be able to sell the concept that speed (and innovation) matters. You have to push, not steamroll. You have to collaborate, not dictate. You have to persuade, not demand.

Startup Divisions Within Big Companies: Do They Work?

Startup divisions within big companies are an interesting concept. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. On paper, a separate startup team within a big company often looks like a pretty decent plan, especially by senior executives who want to shake things up. But here’s the rub; at the end of the day, if your “startup team” needs to go through the same red tape, the same product development team, create the same documentation, and follow the same legal process timelines as anything else within the organization, well then, it’s not really a startup team, is it? All you’ve done is branded the team as ‘renegades and disruptors’ without empowering them to actually go off and be renegades and disrupt. Been there. Done that. Got the tee-shirt. And those people? If you don’t let them do the things that they love most, which is innovating and thinking and creating and doing, they’re likely to go somewhere else where they can.

What If All Companies Acted Like Startups

So, what if all companies acted like startups? No, I’m not suggesting they all rush out and get air-hockey and foosball tables—those are symbols of startup culture that are largely irrelevant. What I am suggesting is simple: I think we would see a lot more innovation, exponentially more disruption and change, a lot more activity, not to mention an improved corporate culture, if leaders in the Corporate America world could lighten up and speed up.

Before you call me crazy, know that in my corporate roles I’ve had a lot of great corporate attorneys, analysts, and development teams with whom I’ve worked. They moved quickly and helped me get products built and launched and were instrumental in helping me and the team get deals done and sold. Creating great, internal partnerships helped tremendously in this respect.

Unfortunately, many people in the Corporate America world have never seen or experienced the concept of “startup speed” and they’ve certainly never had to deal with the real-life pains of small business. They casually throw around budget numbers in the millions, even though the amount to which they’re referring is twenty or thirty times their salary. If you’ve ever been responsible for making payroll, you know the pain I’m talking about. At my first startup, which was bootstrapped, by the way, 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.

Let’s Marie Kondo This Thing

Bottom line, in today’s business world, speed matters. Whether you’re a startup or operating in Corporate America, speed is critical in today’s business environment. I think it’s time we all make efforts to Marie Kondo our efforts. Let’s get to the stuff that makes our companies profitable, great places to work and brings us joy! Let’s quit getting bogged down in the minutia and 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 and quick and easy. I’m all for emails, but can we all agree to stop cc’ing the entire world in every blasted message? Oh and hey, how about we pick up the phone and/or jump on a video chat and let’s resolve to actually talk more. These things? They’re part of the DNA of speed, and not one of them is difficult to do.

What about you? Have you seen speed in action? Was it in a startup or a big, corporate company? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Make sure you follow me here for more. You can also find me on twitter at @johntpeters. If we’re not connected on LinkedIn, let’s fix that right now—John T. Peters on LinkedIn. I’m always up for meeting new people and having great conversations.

 

 

 

 

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