Five Things Large Corporations Can Learn From Startups

I have been fortunate to work in the marketing departments of large companies and startups of different levels. Through that experience I have learned that company culture is critical to success! Being an employee of a company is like being a resident of a village. The bigger the village is, the larger the municipal budget and the greater power its leaders have; likewise, the bigger the corporation, the bigger its budget and the more power its CEO has. Yet increasing profit and power are not means of generating higher margins, and behind multiple layers of management is the end-user, the customer, trying to figure out if they should buy your product or a competitor’s. Customers want value, and often an experience. Does your product or service offer something your competitor does not?

Consumers don’t use product simply for their utility anymore. The awareness phase of marketing should be soft, gentle, so the customer’s journey toward introduction of it is organic and supportive. Done right, this creates a path toward customer loyalty and advocacy, positive reviews and repeat business. If the user experience chain breaks, it doesn’t matter how big you are, how much money and power you have. Your customer base will slowly degrade. Just look at Uber or United Airlines’ recent customer experiences. One misstep and all the progress you have made goes up in an instant.

This leads us to a trend in digital marketing where large corporations want to be on the hip “startupy” side of things and adopt tools used by smaller businesses – and for a good reason! Startups are micro organizations that go after large groups and, most of the time, deliver better customer services and experiences because of their ability to be agile and responsive.

Hiring an employee with startup experience for a big organization will not help – unless they are both good, positioned high in the corporate structure, and visible enough to change the culture from within.

Here are five things that large corporations can learn from startups:

1) Innovation doesn’t happen in the office. Employees are busy and have many tasks to perform before the close of the quarter. These innovative thinkers typically join companies to implement their ideas, and if not handled properly, a few months down they get sucked into the corporate vacuum of “because this is how we’ve always done it” and ultimately start generating the same work they were hired to do differently. Company leaders need to let great employees be great at what they do, and they need to break their own tendencies to use the same methods to generate different results. The status quo rarely increases revenue.

2) Use the technology stack that makes your team successful. Marketing departments in startups use technology to improve their work, to be nimble, lean, and smart with their prospects and customers. They use tools that make sense for them and their situation. They rarely have the staff power they want, so they find ideas to meet brand objectives and keep the customer in mind on every decision. Tech, in these cases, is used to improve performance, give direction, and assist marketers in their daily work.

3) Customer experience comes first. Large company employees’ instincts to preserve themselves and their work is detrimental to the customer experience. People want to pledge allegiance to please their boss, not the end-user. It happens that some companies, mostly startups that grew large, have employees with a higher sense of purpose and customer service. Other large companies, like Walmart and United Airlines, have challenges engaging their “front line” employees and getting them on board with the very “values” of the brand they are promoting. In the past, when social media and 24/7 news cycles were not what they are today, brands could hope that a negative event might go unnoticed. Now, however, things have changed, and some large brands that have had negative customer experiences, suffered greatly when those experiences go viral.

4) No red tape allowed. Employees want to please their bosses, to have their ideas heard. The layers of control and management in a large corporation to change a seemingly simple process can take several rounds of approval and revisions, even if the idea makes common sense. Bureaucracy kills large companies where the flow of responsibility is complex, and people are not empowered or able to make decisions. In a previous job, I had created a complete marketing playbook to improve the lead flow and the lead management, including the nurturing process, and SLA to improve marketing revenue. I didn’t have the position of digital Guru yet. It took me five months to communicate this plan to the right person who was three levels above me (conflict with meetings, European vacations, time zones, etc). The people between us had their own projects they were trying to push, and when I presented the plan five months later, my management told me that it was not timely, that we would work on it for the next year. (WTF#$%^#@!!)
Innovation should come from anywhere within a company and the process for implementing it should be smooth. Corporations should cultivate this with spaces devoted to innovation. Read The Culture of Innovation by Google.

5) Agile yes, but not always. People in large corporations have Green Belts, Black Belts, PhDs, and other belts that don’t help them adapt to the market’s speed. They keep up with the business at the expense of the market. There are experts in processes who apply the same methods to all the projects, whatever the size. It sometimes leads to more paperwork than actual operational work to release the idea. People cannot “fail better”, they become specialists of processes. I understand that “Big companies, because their problems are bigger, they can’t afford to have sloppy practices,” but all projects are not made equal. Pivoting in an existing project must not be as difficult as restructuring a complete department. The methodology that works well in some cases may not work well in other cases. Read this brilliant article about Agile in large corporations.

We are living in a world where brick and mortar multinationals need to have a strong web presence. Their challenge is to adapt to a 360-degree approach to the market, where everything and everybody matter in the customer experience and stories can cross the globe in a single click. Large companies need to adopt a more flexible style to appear more approachable to customers – like startups do.

RIP To Companies That Failed to Innovate:

  • Kodak
  • Polaroid
  • Blockbuster
  • TBD…
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