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It is not hard to beat up on big companies when it comes to innovation — and I’ve got plenty of proof, after two decades as one of those people delivering change from the inside of tough, conservative, regulated businesses.

Big companies are bureaucratic.

They are slow and complex.

They get bogged down in how-things-have-always-been- done-around-here.

But think about it, every big company was once a startup. They all overcame a confounding challenge for most startups – how to achieve and operate at scale.

Big companies have skilled, experienced talent with valuable institutional knowledge.  These people know a lot about competitors. They have wide and deep relationships.

Plus, there is something to be said for predictability.

Startup teams may find counterintuitive that there is much to be learned from big companies. There is more to be gleaned than just what not to do.

A mentor taught me to look to sources not related to my business or sector for great ideas. I learned from a CEO to “steal shamelessly” – to look everyplace for insights, ideas and answers.

So often there are lessons hiding in plain sight.  We miss them when we get caught up in ingrained belief systems. We filter out answers with our biases.

As I researched The Change Maker’s Playbook and broadened my advisory portfolio to include startups, I was struck by:

  1. How similar the leadership challenges often are, even between companies that would otherwise seem to have little in common.
  2. How these challenges seem to be more readily met by leaders with the intellectual openness to look to non-obvious sources, including pre-digital sources.

Chances are other leaders have already solved or stumbled through issues analogous to yours, or ones that present such stark contrasts they provoke fresh ideas.

I get it, some big companies truly are dinosaurs. But there are those that can help startups move faster and avoid missteps.  That’s why I recommend any founder tap into big company perspective in at least these four areas:

  1. Embrace that modern marketing is the fuel for growth. Too many founders have told me, “We’re not ready for marketing.” Marketing is not advertising, and it is not a communications function. So before you say you are not ready for marketing, spend some time learning what a real chief marketing officer does.  Strong CMOs are empowered to move the business. They concern themselves with understanding who the customer is and what their needs are — and how to satisfy those needs through all of the business model levers.  They work collaboratively with colleagues to position and convey the brand. Startups sell themselves short when they see marketing as simply big-budget advertising, or social media volume.
  2. Value decision making as your core product. Learn what a member of the executive suite does, from leaders who are successfully transforming their companies and their categories. Few startups get to the point where they have to think about scaling. Those who are lucky enough to rise to this challenge should embrace that they are now becoming executives. The company’s future will be shaped by their choices of whom to hire, how to set people up to succeed, how to allocate resources, and how to manage risk without killing the constant need to take the risks that go along with delivering innovation results.
  3. See process as what enables scale. Startups could benefit from a little more process. Some revel in the messiness of the early stage. But scaling is another matter. Processes that enable volume, quality, cost management – they do not need to be bureaucratic. One of my former CEOs taught his organization that good processes empower people and conserve resources. They stifle innovation when driven by internal legacies, when a culture is low on trust or driven by fear.
  4. Build profitable businesses that serve a purpose. I make angel investments. Of course, I love benefiting from an increasing valuation and an exit. But we are surrounded by too many startups that are either solving trivial problems, creating “me-too” answers, or sowing the seeds of adverse consequences for stakeholders not on the cap table.  Take accountability for building something of enduring value, meets a market need and has potential to be delivered sustainably.  These are the requisites to enduring scale.

There is lots of opportunity for startups to borrow from other’s playbooks — even those of big companies.

I feel lucky to have remarkable experiences working with both big companies and startups. I am certain that startup teams who tap into big company perspective for learning, insight and inspiration will stand a better chance of getting to breakthroughs on the tough challenges that can derail or diminish their innovations.

May your summer bring time to relax, reflect, recharge, and pursue the non-obvious.

Photo credit: Edna Winti, Urban Abstract

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