Four things large companies can learn from startups

Any startup company is agile by design and necessity. There are certain characteristics of a startup that make an agile approach come naturally, and allows startups to achieve far more in a month than some larger companies do in a quarter. Paying attention to these key principles, one can encourage the startup approach in larger organisations – not just in the design and development teams, but beyond to all areas of the business.

As a disclaimer, let me say upfront: this is not a technical discussion. It’s not about how to implement a specific Agile methodology, but more about finding ways to embody agile principles in your company culture.

Whenever someone asks me to speak or present, my first question is always:

Why me?

I’m currently boot-strapping a startup called which is a bug tracker for software teams.

I’m the UX person and that in itself is exciting because up until a year or so ago, I was just a hypercritical software junkie masquerading as a technology journalist writing about cool web apps.

Now I’m a hyper-critical software junkie who can contribute directly to making cool web apps. It’s pretty awesome.

Before I moved into UX design, I spent 12 years as a technology reporter covering everything from new startups to enterprise software megacorps. It was a great opportunity to observe companies at every stage of their lifecycle, and the people who made these companies sink or swim.

These are the lessons I’ve distilled from my experience as a journalist, a start-up founder and a user experience designer.

Lesson 1: Don’t hire ‘staff’

I have this thing in me that makes me want to do new things and try new things, a desire that is not easily satisfied. This restlessness and hunger absolutely typifies the sort of people you’ll find in startups – but it’s also something you’ll find with anyone inventive, creative, innovative, no matter where they work or what they do. Anyone who likes a problem to solve.

A company is only as good as its people. Startups have a magnetism for people who are visionary and hard-working. Larger companies have to work harder to fend off the ‘coasters’ in their recruitment processes. The paradox is that every single large company was once a startup. One imagines that they too were fired up with the same enthusiasm — so what happened to it along the way?

Don’t hire staff. Hire people who’ll take your brand personally. You want to work with people who feel as much of a sense of ownership and pride as you do.

About two years ago, Andy McLoughlin, co-founder of document management startup Huddle gave a presentation called Hiring a Team of Peers that stuck with me ever since. It has a ton of good advice for recruiting well but the thing that stayed with me is this:

Don’t hire people if you wouldn’t want to spend all day, every day with them.

People can do perfectly adequate, competent jobs without being emotionally invested in their work. And the work may be perfectly satisfactory, but it will lack any sense of soul.

The real magic happens when someone falls in love with what they’re doing and understands their piece in producing the bigger picture.

You don’t want staff. You want people like the stonecutter who built a cathedral and the janitor who put a man on the moon.

Lesson 2: Talk amongst yourselves

Communication is one thing, context is another. I can tell you what I do, but if I can’t tell you why I’m doing it, we have a problem. And that goes for everyone from interns to founders. Everyone should be able to give their own personal elevator pitch – not just explaining what the company does, but what they do in context of .

In a large company, which may be divided along departmental or functional lines, the trick to staying agile is to allow your people to cross the floor to other departments. Send your sys admins to hang with the sales guys. Ask the marketing people to do some QA testing. Get your devs to sit with the finance team for a spell.

It’s about understanding each other’s point of view and what you can do to make their life easier – and ultimately, make it easier for the company to reach its goals.

Lesson 3: Keep it human

Companies are nothing more than a collection of people. And people are multi-dimensional with (hopefully) many more ways of living fully than just turning up to work for 8 or more hours a day.

One way to keep it human is to respect and support people’s personal goals and aspirations as much as you do your own. A good example I’ve come across lately is site-builder Moonfruit, whose CEO Wendy Tan White has tweeted and blogged in support of The Looking Glass Club, a sci-fi novel authored by Moonfruit developer, Gruff Davies.

An older example comes from a digital agency called Sequence in Cardiff which was really supportive of one of their young designers who had a band, giving him time off for gigs and stuff. Eventually the band became Kind Of A Big Deal and the designer, Ian Watkins, made his band Lostprophets his fulltime thing.

In a startup you’re a small team and you spend a lot of time together. In a large company, you’re probably part of a small team that spends a lot of time together. The challenge in larger companies is to keep the the small teams talking to each other face-to-face in a way that does not involve the staff mailing list, IM or technology in
any way.

Can you imagine what it might be like to declare a No Technology Day in your company? Get people talking to each other face-to-face and see what follows.

Lesson 4: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t stress this enough. It’s easy to tell when people are pissed off, and if you put your ego aside for the sake of your shared vision and goal, it’s easy to figure out why they’re pissed off and find a solution that maintains harmony.

Resolve conflicts quickly.

See things from the other person’s perspective.

Understand each other better, know each other better, and you’ll learn how to help each other through the tough times.



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