4 Things Enterprise and Startup Companies Can Learn from Each Other

You might be all in with the startup mentality, thinking every company should be as lean, nimble and scrappy as the young companies that wildly pursue a dream. Or you might land on the other end of the spectrum, valuing the predictability of the more calculated moves towards growth and innovation of large brands.

But what if you didn’t have to choose one over the other? For many organizations, success resides between the two. Industry Goliaths can stand to borrow a chapter or two from the lean, scrappy startup book, and startups can benefit from the lessons learned by behemoths who’ve walked the path before them.

Having seen both sides of the equation, here are the lessons I believe the smaller fries can teach the big guys and vice versa. 

Enterprise Companies: Always Question

Most young companies have mastered the art of questioning processes and systems, continually looking for ways to tighten efficiencies or introduce innovation. Because they’re doing everything for the first time, they tend not to hold themselves back with a “This is the way we’ve always done it” mentality.

It’s important to examine whether something can be done more effectively or if opportunities are going unnoticed. This is where it’s easy to operate with blinders on, particularly when employees and customers seem happy, processes and systems are working as they should, and profit margins are healthy. Incidentally, this is also when many large, stalwart brands have been sidelined by disruptive startups who found a better, more efficient way to solve customers’ problems and fulfill their needs.

Talk to customers, employees, partners and vendors on a regular basis; always evaluate the business you’re in and what customer problem you’re solving. If Blockbuster had realized it was in the home entertainment business rather than in video rentals, it might still be around today.


Startups: Get (and Stay) Anchored

There is a fine line between constant pivoting to stay relevant and making course corrections to ensure you’re aligning with your North Star. This is where startups can benefit from thinking like the industry giants.

Many startups are adamant about their core values and what drives them to succeed. But their founders can easily fall into the trap of pivoting whenever they sense a new opportunity or are itching to try out a new idea. Although pivoting sometimes works, doing it too often without enough thought can be detrimental.

Achieving scale requires a clear focus and developing the processes and systems to support your team in upholding that focus. This is where many enterprise businesses thrive. They set clear goals, don’t waste time over-pivoting, and define their North Star, or core purpose, working relentlessly to reach it. Brands that experience major growth and longevity understand the importance of staying true to that core purpose. While they may occasionally pivot and spin off new offerings, they make sure their bread-and-butter business remains intact as the company’s central focus.

Creating a system of checks and balances helps identify when an action serves or detracts from your core purpose. Before implementing that new technology, overhauling an operational process, or shifting gears into a new market, be sure to test it against your core purpose. Does it move you closer to fulfilling your purpose or divert your focus?

Enterprise Companies: Emphasize Culture

With massive growth, it can be easy to let culture slip. If you have multiple locations or separate departments, each can take on its own culture, departing from your initial intention. Keep in mind, too, that having no culture is a culture in itself. If you aren’t intentionally communicating and nurturing your culture, employees will create one for you.

Startups tend to have smaller teams that operate out of more intimate spaces, making it easier to foster a tight-knit culture. The energy is often tangible and contagious. While larger teams take extra effort, culture is absolutely key for retaining employees and customers, achieving goals and fulfilling your purpose.

While there is no singular tried-and-true tactic in this area, you can start by hiring for culture first, and base assessments and decisions on a set of core values that are most important to your brand. This will ensure that each team member buys into your vision and shares guiding principles with the rest of the company.

Team building should be ongoing at both the company and departmental levels, with departments encouraged to have their own get-togethers and traditions. Weaving recognition into the fabric of your culture ensures that your people feel valued on an individual basis. It’s important to create a platform for colleagues to recognize one another in meaningful ways and for leadership to recognize their teams. As fun as perks are (free lunches, foosball tables, nap rooms, etc.), a commitment to core values and an environment that champions collaboration, accountability and celebrating wins is what will ultimately bind your company together.


Startups: Look the Part

Startups often get in the game to solve a big, audacious problem and make the world a better place. But with all the good they strive to do, branding can get relegated to the back burner. 

In many cases, branding and messaging are treated as nice-to-haves, and aspects like your brand story, and voice and tone are shelved until, at best, all the product specs are hammered out, or, at worst, you start turning a profit and can afford to hire someone to develop them. Thinking like the big brands provides an identity and something for customers to connect to––and could actually become your key differentiator.

For example, Slack and MailChimp aren’t inherently innovative––messaging apps and email platforms already existed––but they won over customers through the experience they delivered. And they did it through their branding and messaging––the microcopy woven through various touchpoints. It’s the quippy messages that appear while you wait for Slack to load and Slackbot’s friendly reminders. It’s the “Huzzah” and high five when you’ve scheduled an email campaign in MailChimp. While you may initially overlook these micro moments, they work together to create the experience you have when you engage with these companies. It’s also what makes them memorable.

As you build your product, think about the voice and tone of your brand. How can you work it into what you’re building, since that is what will capture the hearts of customers and make your brand “sticky.”

There’s much to learn from both sides of the spectrum, but you’ll notice a common thread: It starts with clarity of your core purpose and intimately knowing the stakeholders you serve––customers, employees, partners, etc. Whether you’re seasoned in business or just launching into the market, starting from that place will help avoid common pitfalls that crush businesses large and small.

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Jeffrey Pruitt

Jeffrey Pruitt

Jeffrey Pruitt is the founder, CEO and partner at Tallwave, where he leads the strategic direction and innovation. He is also the founder and GM of Tallwave Capital, an early stage venture fund that invests in innovative technology companies. Jeff serves as an executive leader for The Idea Enterprise at Arizona State University, and regularly writes about innovation and digital transformation for Inc. He was named a Most Admired Leader by the Phoenix Business Journal and Business Leader of the Year by the Arizona Technology Council. He also led Tallwave to earn a Best Places to Work award.  

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