4 Lessons Big Businesses Can Learn from Startups

August 28, 2017

While every big business starts out as a small company at one point or another, it’s rare to find a big business whose leadership team still contains its original founders from its startup days. Even more rare is to find members of larger companies’ leadership teams with a lot of experience working in a successful startup culture.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, this presents a great possible area for improvement for bigger companies who want to maintain an edge when it comes to company culture and hiring.  Because the truth is that the bigger a company is, the more hierarchy there likely is in its leadership, and also, the more “old-school” the culture may be. By understanding some of the principles that make the most successful startups soar, big businesses can counteract these factors in a positive way.

Here are four lessons are perhaps the most important things big business can learn from startups.

#1 – Every employee has a name and a story…

…that dramatically impacts their contributions at work. Knowing the whole person who punches the clock every day gives leadership the best opportunity to motivate them, maximize their performance, and ultimately create a positive culture for them to do their best work. Encourage leaders to get to know their staff; after all, if they represent the company, they are the company.

#2 – Even the CEO should roll up his or her sleeves sometimes

The CEO might also be the janitor, the receptionist, and the accountant in a startup, but as the company grows, his or her role narrows to encompass company strategy and innovation. But even as these individual responsibilities get assigned to different members of a growing team, it’s critical that leaders roll up their sleeves when circumstances call for it. Encourage leaders to demonstrate a “we’re in it it together” leadership style by getting their hands dirty to bail employees out of a problem, cover for somebody who’s out sick or experienced a tragedy, or meet a tight deadline. It builds respect and rapport and establishes a culture of mutual respect.

#3 – Wearing multiple hats is a rite of passage

The average startup employee is used to wearing multiple hats; perhaps they’re the HR Manager doubling as the benefits specialist, safety officer, payroll clerk, and EAP. But for big companies, the bigger the company grows, the more specialized and narrow each position becomes until each employee has a single job to do. While having narrower job responsibilities for each employee does optimize overall business efficiency, it doesn’t foster the same amount of engagement and opportunities for challenge, growth, and innovation as a less rigid “multiple-hats” structure.  Don’t let the fact that your company has more established roles for each employee prevent the possibility for there to be variety in their day-to-day work.

#4 – Passion takes you further than budget

Startup leaders have to be creative when recruiting a strong team because even though they’re trying to attract A-players, they’re doing so with startup salary offerings and (typically) few or no benefits. So how do they accomplish this? By targeting candidates who are so passionate about their industry and so hungry to contribute to something greater, that they prioritize these passion-based motivators over monetary compensation and benefits. It’s true that big businesses usually have the advantage of being able to offer a higher salary and more benefits than their startup counterparts, but they can take a page from the startup book by pursuing employees who chase their passion first and increases in salary or benefits second.

Key takeaways:

  1. Knowing the whole person who shows up for work helps you motivate and maximize each employee.
  2. Rolling up your sleeves during times of crisis or tight deadlines builds rapport and respect, regardless of your level in the company.
  3. Cross-functional opportunities should continue to be available as the company grows.
  4. Aside from qualification, the single most important factor to seek in employees is passion.



Linda Le Phan
Senior Content Marketing Manager at kununu.

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