How corporates and start ups can get the best of both worlds

As someone who works with FMCG companies of all sizes, I am struck by how different the predominant cultures are in start-ups vs. bigger corporates.  Let me generalise.  People in start-ups are often less patient, more ambitious, more self-assertive, quicker to “pivot” and more prone to error.  Corporates are often slower, risk averse, less exciting and excitable and more savvy about the industry. 

Big or small, companies often talk about wanting to have the best of both worlds.  Corporates worry about how to create a “founder mentality” in their people.  Start-ups worry about how to professionalise.  Neither wants to lose their existing strengths. 

So how can you evolve a company to combine the strengths of start-up and a corporate? 

First, seek to understand the other camp.  It is surprising how dismissive people can be.  Start-ups talking about large companies as dinosaurs, as if their success is an accident of history.  Corporates talking about start-ups as if they are dilettantes.  It would be wiser to work harder at understanding and decoding what the others are doing and why.  Corporates be careful – what you thought was a niche play with a far-out proposition, might be the next BrewDog.  Start-ups be careful – that staid looking company playing safe with the “vanilla” flavours, fiddling with the pack sizes, may be delivering the commercial results you’d kill for.

Second, recruit from the other camp.  The most obvious way to learn about another world is to employ someone who has flourished there.  But be careful.  Recruits will need support and time.  It is common for people from corporates to arrive in start-ups expecting to find more systems, processes and even ways of thinking.  Expecting people on hand to supply them with data or content or advice.  It isn’t there and panic can set in.  Conversely, the structures, language and ways of working in corporates can be baffling and de-energising to someone from the world of start-ups.  It is sad to see people who have been brave enough to try a new world, often disappoint their new colleagues.  So if you recruit, do it for the long term.  Be patient and offer support.

Finally, network and talk.  There is a lot of good networking between people from start-ups (e.g. Young Foodies).  Often those in corporates also have strong personal networks – with other people in other corporates.  But I see less talking between people from corporates and start-ups.  There must be opportunities to reach out across the divide.  And there must be curiosity to see how the other half live? 

There will always be differences in character and culture between start-ups and corporates.  But there is plenty each can learn from the other.

Jeremy Garlick is a Partner of Insight Traction, consulting with FMCG and Retail companies.  He was formerly Head of Insight at Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Premier Foods.

© 2020 by Insight Traction