Lessons for both sides of the fence when combining worlds: employees, employers, Fortune 500s, and startups
The past 3 months have been weird. I left my position as Chief Communications Officer at a 50 person dev shop where we spent a large majority of our time working on a startup project (a language learning application) and shut down my side project, Gmashr, when Google released Google+. I left these projects to work with a 10,000+ person Fortune 500 with a traditional business model as the chief architect of digital strategy 1 and help drive this mammoth’s business streams through the net.
There are many differences in these two worlds as well as many similarities. I want to highlight some of the differences that you will find as more of these large companies are jumping into the new age of the net in force, bring in external talent to do so, and others change companies [whether startup to corporation or corporation to startup]. Some of these differences are beneficial to one side of the fence and some of them are just different styles that work for the respective parties with no “right or wrong methodology.”
Being the open net advocate I am, I have long been a huge supporter of open-source projects. The net and the world benefit from this open information methodology. I believe in non-negotiated transparency and that the right to information is an inalienable one. In its most idealistic sense, the open-source movement puts users and the future of the net in front of personal gains. This is probably one of the largest differences between a large corporation and the close-nit world of the net. One of the longest standing terms in Fortune 500s is IP; or intellectual property. IP to the net, of course, means something completely different. “IP” is probably one of the biggest concerns facing Fortune 500s. This is actually understandable, albeit incredibly frustrating for a transparent net guy.
Corporate espionage is very real and many of these large companies have technologies that not only face theft from competitors, but from foreign governments and are highly regulated by the government where the corporation lies. Whereas in the tech startup world, it has become frowned upon to hide what you are launching and people favour discussing ideas openly. Also, if someone steals your idea then its very likely you didn’t develop fast enough or someone developed it better. It’s a cold, hard truth and this tech world is not for people who aren’t the most brilliant weirdos in their area.
Corporations have a difficult time being transparent, not because they are hiding something, but because every action has a large and wide-berthed effect. One wrong move and their stock price dips causing millions of dollars in loss. This loss doesn’t just affect the company, but also affects thousands of employees who have a decent portion of retirement invested in company stock because of a buy-in program where the company usually matches a certain percent. There are many other implications as well. You won’t only see this type of protection in old large corporations. Google is a great example of a fairly new company that is also extremely protective of their intellectual property when developing a new project.
This all being said and for lack of a better phrase: It fucking sucks. “IP protection” is on the tips of everyone’s tongues. IT departments have locked down your [almost surely] Windows laptop to the point where you have to request special permission to install any program, including printer drivers, Firefox, or anything. At my past startup, I built my own computer, Hackintoshed it, and customised it to the point of bare recognition. I’m just a digital strategist. You should see what the hackers built.
Previously, I bitched openly about anything and everything that didn’t meet my standard of approval. I wrote on the walls of my office. We would have hackathon days at the CTO’s house in San Telmo. Hackers at the “office” had wired in a digital music server which blasted everything from tango to salsa to hip-hop at all hours of the day. It was incredibly irregular, but as I always say: Brilliant people are never well-behaved. Any single one of these actions would most definitely be frowned upon in a corporate environment.
To be fair, you have to respect a large corporation who hires an extremely irregular person to come in and challenge the giant. I’ve been extremely impressed by their efforts to accept my abnormalities and eccentric ways. I’m sure that just as often as I am ready to pull out my hair orbiting this mammoth, they are also ready to pull out their hair dealing with my rough edges. They’ve been incredible about providing me champions of the project and surrounding me with others who are pushing the bar in their own way. I’ve been extremely lucky, and for this I’m extremely grateful.
There is a careful line to walk when you are coming into a giant corporation. Likely, they hired you because of your expertise, ability to think differently, and because they want to challenge themselves in new way. You don’t want to lose these attributes, but if these shine through too brightly then you will find people don’t accept your ideas and expertise as viable alternatives. You’ll become that nutball with ideas that will never “float.” 2 The trick is to orbit the corporation, sucking in the amazing training and resources they provide, while not getting sucked in yourself. Networking, building relationships and learning how to demonstrate value of your ideas in a way that resonates with different business functions is probably one of the biggest keys to success. Just because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, doesn’t mean that they will be able to see it as well.
On the other side of the coin, be ready to be challenged in ways you never thought possible. You will learn how to build stronger arguments and more academic reasoning for your projects then you ever thought possible. You will meet coworkers that have a different insight into the company and can help you drive value more than if you try to go it alone. Be open to learn and not too resistant to hearing ideas while maintaining your individualism is key. Transparency takes time to get comfortable with. Large organisations will get comfortable with it over time.
The takeaways: [TL;DR]
1. Startups are, by nature, more open and free to do as they damn well please. The employees are often amongst the weirdest, but geniuses in their area of work.
2. Fortune 500s should be expected to be much more careful about their intellectual property, but it is not entirely without good reason. The consequences can have implications unimaginable to a startup.
3. If Fortune 500s are going to hire an outside resource to lead them into the net methodology of doing business, be prepared and accepting of the eccentricities that come with some of these people. It will take some adaptation from both parties.
4. If you are a startup guy going to work for a corporation, be prepared to learn how to orbit the mess while soaking in as much information as possible and learning from your coworkers. Transparency takes time. Don’t expect the change to happen overnight.
Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and are not conclusive. These thoughts in no way represent opinions or beliefs of any corporation, organisation, cause or other person. These thoughts are opinions only and may very well be different on any given day.