It required learning about Einstein, dinosaurs, and the common house fly.
To understand how a startup works you must first understand time. Time is the single most important asset for a startup. Opportunities, people and even money will come and go. But time is always fleeting. Mismanaged it becomes your worst enemy. Wielded correctly it can be your strongest weapon.
For me, I had to see the speed of startups with my own eyes before I believed it. This is the first mental barrier you need to overcome if you are starting up your new intra- or entrepreneurial project coming from a corporate habitat. To truly grasp just how fast a startup can move.
This is the second article in a series of what I’ve learned from working with, studying and starting startups for the last 5 years. And how it just might inspire you in your startup or everyday corporate life. The first installment is here.
Time is relative
When Einstein wrote the ‘Special Theory of Relativity’, he determined that time is relative. Roughly speaking this means that the speed of time is relative to your frame of reference. To exemplify this, without getting too heavy into theoretical physics, we might look at how time works in the animal kingdom.
All animals perceive time differently. Time perception is a result of body mass, metabolism, and speed of the nervous system. To put it more plainly it boils down to
- The animal size
- how fast it burns energy
- and its ability to perceive and respond to changes.
This might give the first hint as to why corporations and startups perceive time so dramatically different — they are all different in size, burn rate and agility.
In the startup world we like to compare the corporations we seek to disrupt with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were big, graceful creatures with a slow metabolism whom perceived the world in 5-year intervals (Yes. Dinosaurs perceived time in five-year intervals. Don’t google it).
In contrast a startup is like the housefly. A fly has a short attention span, a high burn rate, and sometimes it spends a couple of days banging its head against a window.
How do we combine the best of two worlds?
Now, in corporate innovation the objective is to combine the best of both worlds. We want the speed of startups and the power of big organizations. But to do so we need to understand each world’s frame of reference. The two company types have their own unique habitat, internal logics, and presumptions. Time however is the most crucial place to start to really understand the differences. For me, I had to see the speed of startups with my own eyes before I believed it. This is the first mental barrier you need to overcome if you are living in a corporate habitat. To truly grasp the speed of the house fly.
Corporations come in different forms of organizational maturity, as illustrated below. I’ve spent a large portion of my career in organizations with a maturity around level 1–2. Here time isn’t managed, measured and distributed in any meaningful way. You assume that the mere presence of having people around is good enough. The actual message the organization is sending is that time is worthless. Not worth managing as the wonderful God given gift it is. There tend to be a high level of stress and sick leave in these organizations. And too many people at too many meetings. I digress. Anyway, the point is. Even though there are a lot of people hurrying they in fact end up running in circles. The result? Things happen slowly. Every B2B startup will recognize the pain of waiting for decision making processes in established companies to be concluded.
Now you may live in a more streamlined habitat. Your organization has evolved along the maturity latter. This typically means that you have a lot of processes in place. In other words: Structure. And dare I say it? Middle managers. Despite the smooth sailings of a top-trimmed organization, the decision-making process is still fairly complex. A lot of effort has gone into management and mitigating risk. Moreover, a lot of people’s jobs are depending on things not f#¤king up. So, “we better make sure to ask Bob in accounting. Oh! And don’t forget to check in with Susan in marketing! (…) Wait, her boss is on holiday? We have to reschedule, then.”
In the time it takes the corporation to gather all the necessary people to decide, the startup has already iterated, pivoted, died, rebranded, and gotten another round of investment.
You, my corporate innovator friend, will not believe how fast a startup can move before you experience it with your own eyes. As Bilbo Baggins says: “It’s a dangerous business stepping out of your front porch.” When you experience the (potential) speed of a startup, it is like an addiction. And it might just ruin you for life in terms om re-adjusting back into “the normal” monumental movements of corporate dinosaurs.
So, how do I work with the speed of a startup?
When I first started coaching startups and applying lean methodology it blew my mind as to how fast you can achieve workable results. I had a startup go from idea to sale in just 2 weeks. Another creating viral marketing videos after just two months in business. Both startups did it without having a product in market. How is this possible? And how do you prepare yourself for the transition from the land of dinosaurs to the speed of starting up?
This is what I’d like to cover in the next installment. We’ll take a deep dive into how companies are born, and you will get insights into how the unique living conditions of being a startup has sparked a new and extremely time-conscious approach to strategic planning. Useful for intra- and entrepreneurs alike.
Think of it as a “birds and the bees” tale for business.