2 lessons for tech startups in even the largest, most bureaucratic organizations

Why it doesn't pay to be too Silicon Valley-ish.

Lesson #1 for kicking off a tech startup: keep things small, in the form of small teams. Lesson #2 for kicking off a tech startup: don't think too small -- and basically, there are no rules.

Photo: HubSpot

This is a great time to part of a technology startup. Every organization out there -- including government agencies and even educational institutions -- wants to compete on analytics. They need to extend their enterprise systems to mobile users. They want to be part of the cloud. And these organizations are willing to pay consultants and startups for guidance and support in these new areas. Plus, with organizations of all types rapidly evolving into software companies (we're all becoming software producers as much as we are consumers), there are now many opportunities to launch internal corporate startups.

But everyone is making this stuff up as they go along. 

Dan McCormick,  SVP of Technology at Shutterstock, in a recent article at Huffington Post, describes what it takes to marshal your people into a cohesive team. The secret to his company's success, he shared, is by breaking the company up into small teams.  As he put it: "Being fast and nimble is important to us at Shutterstock, and one way we accomplish this is by working in small teams. This approach has yielded tremendous benefits over the years, but it comes with its own challenges: Shutterstock now has over 300 people and dozens of teams."

It sounds ungainly, but it worked for Shutterstock. McCormick's advice: make sure every team has a clear customer, a clear goal, and is allowed to operate autonomously.

It's worth noting that Shutterstock is a New York-based company, versus Silicon Valley. "Silicon Valley" is as much a state of mind as a physical location anymore. In fact, it's also worth noting that tech startups can originate from within the inner recesses of large corporations as much as they can from a lone entrepreneur putting up his or her life savings, or pulling in funds from VCs and other investors. In fact, as many organizations evolve into software companies, there are going to be a lot of these ventures springing up in the years to come.

While breaking things up into small teams is always great advice in a startup environment, an intrapreneur can't think too small. Michael Tushman, CEO of Change Logic and a Harvard professor, posted a piece in HBR Blog Network thar explains why there is no set formula for startup success, and every organization needs to write its own roadmap. Tushman reports he has seen many internal startup attempts stall and fizzle out because of a lack of corporate support and planning. "There are organizational roadblocks along each step to success and those who achieve it must continuously manage the tension of having two or more business models and operating contexts running simultaneously under the same leadership. That’s a reality that Silicon Valley start-ups don’t face and which established company CEOs ignore at their peril."

The key is to develop a plan for managing these two corporate cultures under one roof. And understanding that every startup is different -- forever-changing kaleidoscopes.


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