Posts Tagged: Startups


10
Feb 11

On startups and innovation

Throughout my career I’ve worked at numerous organizations, large and small. Last 5 years I’ve spent doing startups, the previous years were spent at large companies. I prefer small organizations, specifically startup environments, for reasons I’ll discuss later. There is something that can be learned, good and bad, from both types of organizations. I’ll start with some positives.

Startups

I’m going to use the word “startup” to not only refer to companies that are just launching or haven’t been around for a while. In my opinion startup is now synonymous with a company that operates like one. They are always in launch mode, always looking for new adventures and opportunities, and always innovating.

Not all small companies are startups. Many small companies have been around long enough to amass some or many startup antipatterns, which is in most cases rather detrimental to its growth. Large organizations can bear some of these antipatterns for years, as they lurke and hide behind large bureaucracies and/or residual revenues. Large organizations also have different priorities.

Startups are the innovation backbone in this country and others. Their beginnings usually involve individuals who have knowledge and experience in a particular area and/or they see a need to fill a gap. Sometimes it’s not a gap, in terms of a complete void, rather it’s a gap in terms of doing something better. These individuals are motivated by their idea and the vision of making a world (as they see it) a better place, glory, recognition, etc… There is also monetary motivation, but the product or service motivation is usually higher (at least in the ones that succeed). Also, there is drive and the drive has to be strong. I mean, in lots of cases, these individuals give up good paying jobs and benefits, put their quality of life and possibly the quality of life of others in jeopardy, without any guarantees, all for this dream. A lot of these folks have worked at other companies and they’ve decided that they can form a successful team and eventually bear the fruits of their labor (again not only in monetary compensation). Wow, that’s inspirational and also… “scary”.

During the initial stages of the startup, there is no time for bullshit. The bureaucracy and overhead that plagues established companies has to go. They have to get shit done, they have to do it good, and they have to do it fast. They don’t want to rush to sacrifice quality, since this is the reason they formed this alliance, to create a “quality” product, better than their competitors. This is also the time when creativity is at its highest. How else can you stay in business when you’re competing with a company that has 10 times as many employees, has been adding features for years, has an established brand, and more money.

Now the more technical side (I’m mostly writing about tech startups here, as this is what I’m more familiar with).

There are many things to do, design, architecture, programming, testing, deployment, etc… Choices need to be made and these choices have different priorities than in large companies. Stuff has to be done fast, so there is no time for the “Enterprise” stuff. Whatever that word at one point signified, it’s now become synonymous with “clueless pointy hairy bosses”. There is not time for commercial product evaluation, negotiations, and life cycles. Open Source Software usually rules in successful startups. It allows them to benefit from quality code with the ability to resolve bugs, add features and augment the software as they wish. They often built software using open source platforms and frameworks and themselves greatly contribute to open source. Many times the tools that they built, that aren’t specific to their business and don’t contain any intellectual property, are released to benefit the community. Now others can use that as a tool to benefit in their endeavor. The cycle continues.

I’m going to refrain from discussing specific examples of what I’d consider sensible choices. Every business and motivation has different priorities and in many cases what I would consider a suboptimal choice, would actually be the best choice for a task/dilemma at hand. One thing’s for sure though, open source software rules and beyond the brilliant people that make things happen, is a big contributor to the success of these companies.

Because people are smart, they have to get things done, and they put their blood and sweat into it, they take their time to create fun and productive environments. I mean, who wants to work a lot and not have fun doing it? Or who wants to give up the security of a full time job to fail?

Large companies

So I actually won’t talk about large companies here. I use the name mostly to refer to practices that are prevalent in larger organizations. I’m mostly going to look at the shift from an efficient, fun startup, to a bureaucratic mind draining organization that has lost its ways.

This happens all the time. The talent looses its interest and usually scatters to other companies or to start their own. The company is left with a product that’s aging and a leadership team that’s focused on maximizing the profit from the product it has. Nothing wrong with maximizing the profit, but not at the cost of stagnation. The talent drain is prevailing and the leadership for the lack of better judgment blames this on the lack of a process. “We’ve lost our ways, we’re not productive any more. We need to put a process in place that will get us going.” they say. I’m not going to judge these folks at this point, I mean their core competency isn’t innovation, it’s stability. The two are polar opposites.

Then havoc wreaks. Process after process is established; Feature after feature thoughtlessly gets added to the product; Documentation and processes take priority to common sense and productivity; Code base grows unmanageable; More time is spent talking about doing, than doing. Sometimes more and more people get hired, with less and less qualifications or for qualifications that aren’t critical to success. Sounds familiar?

This happens all the time. The bottom line is that most innovators don’t spend their lifetime chasing an idea (especially these days). They innovate and then when they don’t see any more room for innovation and fun, they leave. Yes, they have what some would call ADHD when it comes to stability and work ethics. They probably do, but in a good form, they are chasing their dreams and refuse to waste time on something that won’t make them happy.

This is not to say that innovators are better than “stabilizers” (I just made that one up). There is room for both, but stabilizers need to understand how to maintain the level of competitiveness and innovative spirit in the organizations. They should recruit and motivate the brightest, not the workaholics per say, not the conformists, but free spirited minds. These are the folks that make shit happen. These folks of course have to be kept in check by the stabilizers, but not by getting in their way. Actually, the total opposite, by getting out of their way. Give them room to do what they do best.

Conclusion

I don’t think it’s ever too late for a company to change its ways. Get back to a startup environment. Large organizations might have a hard time doing this. They have too many people and they can’t just start over. Small companies are great for this. They can start afresh. They can retain talent, pay them well, make them happy, and most of all, I’ll say it again, get out of their way. If you hired a development team to create a product, let them do it. The more shackles you put on them, the less likely they’ll succeed and the more likely they’ll leave ASAP. Intellectuals are always in demand and it really bothers me to see companies treat such employees as sweat shop workers. We pay you, you do as you’re told. That’s a recipe for disaster.

If your developers are more productive with language x and platform y, unless their choice is completely ridiculous, let them use it. They’ll thank you later, with a better quality product, more productivity and generally a more positive attitude.