Startups have lots of natural advantages - agility, the ability to pivot, the relative anonymity of early-stage growth, and a culture of innovation. However, at the mention of corporates, there is often a negative perception fuelled by prominent cases of dubious practices; startups would do well to learn from some of the high profile disasters that have damaged well-known businesses, and their reputations, in recent years.
Many founders come from glittering corporate careers but are driven by a desire to leave that world behind, become their own bosses and fulfil a market need that they see as being unmet. That said, most will be able to look back on their time within large organisations and identify positive practices and strategies that they could adopt to boost the growth of their own fledgling businesses.
Hiring & Firing
Getting the right team of talented and passionate individuals is central to success. Corporates will have dedicated HR departments but you, as a founder or member of the founding team will, at least initially, have to take on the task of hiring - and firing.
When you are time poor, as most founders are, it can be tempting to cut corners on recruitment and take on individuals who tick some, though not all of the boxes. DON’T! Take the corporate approach and make sure you give yourself the time and resources to get the right people. Exceptional talent produces exceptional results, so make your recruitment count. Attract the right talent with competitive wages, equity or benefits and, if needs be, engage an expert advisor or consultant to help you find the individuals who will become part of your winning team.
Get everyone on board with your long term goals
As the founder, you should be setting out a strong long-term vision and mission - and be taking your entire team with you. By building the right team through smart hiring, you’ll already be halfway there but you must embody the values, attitudes and endeavour that you expect from others while also selling your goals - and how you’re going to reach them. Some of the biggest corporate successes (and startups that have grown to unicorns) have come from a combination of great ideas, clear and achievable strategic goals, and a passionate leader who inspires a positive and productive company culture. The likes of Steve Jobs, Jack Ma and Richard Branson all exemplify this approach.
Be open to change - but think it through
Disruption is often seen as a positive in the startup world but it can also be unsettling for your team and can interrupt the smooth running of your business. Make sure everyone in your team understands your motivations for change and that they are supported throughout the process. Big companies will often gradually introduce new strategies, software or ways of working to allow employees to get to grips with these adjustments, and this is something startups should look to echo, rather than rushing in head first.
Large organisations invest heavily in workplace mentoring, with the reported benefits returning the investment many times over. Startups typically do not have large enough teams, let alone the time, for internal employee-to-employee mentoring but they do have access to a pool of highly engaged professionals within the wider startup ecosystem. Many experienced founders and board advisors offer advice and guidance to founders, SLTs and their teams, drawing on their own experience and expertise to help early-stage startups navigate their growth journey and build the skills and knowledge of those within the business. Not only will mentors improve you as a founder, they can also help to develop your team, increasing employee satisfaction and retention.
It can be easy to get tunnel vision, especially in early-stage startups, as you focus on your MVP, sourcing funding, and refining your models and plans. Avoid this at all costs. The noise that’s coming from outside can be the most valuable north star for the growth of your business, and customers especially (be they potential or existing) can be the central to this. Customer insight is key, especially when you are in the early stage and developing your product or service. Listen to what they want, adapt and deliver, and you will have dedicated brand advocates for the years to come.
Similarly, once you have investors on board, they can be hugely beneficial to success. Most investors have many years under their belt within the startup ecosystem and many will have been founders themselves at some point. Your investors will often want to be involved beyond the solely financial and will be forthcoming with advice, opinions and guidance which could prove incredibly valuable.
Finally, the rise of customer boards and activist investment show the way customers and investors are shaping the strategy, ethics and direction of businesses. It might be easy to dismiss these as concerns for listed, high profile companies but even at early-stage, you should be mindful that your policies, strategy and business practices will be approved of both by potential investors and customers. And remember, you may be one of the lucky few founders who builds a unicorn, at which point your ESG credentials, your business practices and your past activities will be put under extreme scrutiny and could impact the continued success of your venture.