What we can learn from startup culture

Published on
August 18, 2014
Chris Taylor
"Ideas are only valuable when applied."
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of startups — the passion, belief and herculean efforts that individuals put forward regularly when they’re working in an early stage company. It’s not the exception, it’s the norm. It’s appreciated. But normal.

So far, I haven’t found any studies on the “engagement levels” of startup team members (I’m still looking, if you happen to have any), but I have to imagine they’re high. Like, high-high. (Scientific, I know.)

But seriously, all you need to do is visit a startup office. (And by office I could mean garage.) Everyone (not just the founders) are committed — whole-hog — or they’re not there long. Lean, mean and focused on putting a dent in the universe. Passionate. Engaged.

So what’s the engagement rate for startup employees? Nothing confirmed yet, but let’s say it’s 60%, to be realistic. (I have to imagine it’s closer to 80 or 90%, but I have been accused of glass-half-full beliefs in the past.)

“Worldwide, 13% of Employees Are Engaged at Work”

Gallup Work, Oct 2013 survey results

Hell, even if we assumed that only 40% of startup employees are engaged, that’s still over twice the global average. How do we reconcile this? What’s at play in a startup culture that’s missing from so much of the rest of the work world? I have a few guesses… and very few of them have to do with ping pong or foosball tables.

Off the cuff, here are a few:

1, 2 & 3: Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose. (A la Mr. Pink.)

  • Startups don’t have 7 layers of bureaucracy. It’s expected that team members will make proactive decisions in the best interest of the company.
  • They’re learning, every day. Startup team members are constantly facing challenges they’ve never seen before, many times outside of their formal “job description” (if they even had one of those in the first place).
  • And they’re working there because they believe that they’re working towards something meaningful. They may have even taken a paycut to do so.

4. Direct lines of communication to the “boss”. Everyone is heard, everyone matters. And they feel it.

5. Constant Feedback. When cash is tight and milestones are fast and furious, everyone knows what’s working and what’s not in virtually real time. None of this “my work goes into a vacuum” stuff.

6. A sense of community. A friend of mine (who wrote a book and works for a large institution) was telling me the other day that as he was sitting around the table at a meeting, he realized that maybe 2 of the 10 people who were there actually knew the name of his book. This would never happen at a startup. Whether it’s socializing over takeout, taking a break during long hours or (yes, possibly) taking a time out for a game of foosball, something about the startup culture brings people closer together. There’s a sense of “we’re in this together”.

Some companies can hang on to that startup spirit and leverage the weight of a big company. (Check out this awesome piece from the CEO of DHL Express.) That’s the sweet spot, of course. Are there advantages to being at a startup? Sure. But there are also advantages to being a big dog. The goal, is to combine the two. (He said, oh so casually.) Of course easier said than done, but I believe there are a few small steps that can go a long way. Over the next few weeks, I’ll go into them.

Curious to hear your thoughts in the meantime.

What do you think?

Can Big Business adopt certain startup philosophies/structures?

Should they?

Image credit to Surge