As the start-up community knows, the only way out of chaos and uncertainty is to innovate. Within this community there is always a way to make things better, and the worse a situation gets, the harder they work to find a creative solution.
Start-up culture comes with an attendant set of values, where doing something that matters is important, and where making a positive contribution can be more fulfilling than money or status (although, of course, the three can come together).
It is a culture where you 'succeed' by working as a team: sharing ideas, being open and listening to criticism. The power of these new firms is obvious: they disrupt industries that have stood for 100 years in just a few by offering many people around the world a better way. How did we get by without Google? Twitter may not have triggered the Arab Spring... but it sure helped spread the word.
I believe that big businesses and institutions should take notice and apply that powerful and positive force for change more widely. Here's what I believe are the most important parts of the start-up culture:
1. The start-up community is both fiercely competitive and fiercely cooperative. Start-ups have an awe inspiring hunger, a determination to be the best in the world and yet understand that there is strength in working collaboratively in the wider ecosystem. Whilst being competitive they often partner with others in the marketplace to provide a better solution for customers.
2. They operate in a transparent and accountable environment that can 'only' mean constantly improving the way you serve your customers. Successful start-ups don't have the luxury of treating whole swathes of their customers as if they don't matter. Imagine if all of our institutions had to operate under the same conditions... would gas and electricity companies get away with being able to treat us with such contempt?!
3. The start-up shared culture known as 'pay it forward,' an unspoken community way of doing things, based on the principle that: "I was helped when I started out and now it's my turn to help others."
4. When a good idea comes along, start-up companies jump on new ways to use the idea and make better products and services. Many of the largest tech start-up firms have generated their own industry of mini start-ups who use the service to provide other new products to people. Compare this with a mainstream culture that is reluctant and often downright suspicious of new ideas even if they are proven to be of value.
5. Start-ups are far better than traditional organizations at unlocking and nurturing raw talent. During my working life I've come across countless stories of individuals who were rejected by traditional organizations and then went on to create or be part of successful entrepreneurial businesses. Start-ups have a fundamental view that work not only can but should be enjoyable and fulfilling, creating rewarding, flexible places to work that embrace people from all backgrounds so long as they have a talent, a passion and are willing to work hard. Look at Google, which offers free laundry, free food, childcare... clearly it can afford to, but which came first, the success or the culture?
I wonder what life would be like if institutions took on some of these ways of working and values? I think it would be better. I think that start-up culture can change the world.
I know -- it all sounds a bit utopian. People say to me that it's easy to do a three man start-up but you just try being entrepreneurial at the NHS! And of course, entrepreneurs can be down right bad for your health. Wasn't Bernie Madoff kind of an entrepreneur? The guys at Enron certainly thought they were. I'm also clear not everyone wants to work as hard as an entrepreneur -- you just know that Google has a laundry because its staff spend all their time at work. That's not for everyone.
But I'm not suggesting that we all go off and start businesses -- just that we learn from the best of the culture that creates these amazing successes. Big firms and institutions can learn to treat their staff and colleagues as assets not issues. They can learn to be transparent and accountable to their customers and citizens. They can learn to embrace and experiment with new innovations, to learn from their competitors and co-operate in their community.
It is time for change.
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