Startup Superpowers, And How Big Companies Can Get Them Too


For nine years, I worked for one of the largest tech companies in the world, which will go unnamed at this particular time. I had so many ideas and was hopeful that my input and entrepreneurial spirit would be cultivated. Instead, I was consistently shut down and ended up feeling virtually powerless, like a cog in a machine.

I learned a fair number of business skills, and a little bit about “politicking,” but mostly I learned that I just wanted to get out! So I left, moved to San Francisco, and have been working on my own startup for the past two years as well as mentoring and advising other startups.

In those two years, I’ve learned more than I did in the entire nine years I was at “the company.” I don’t make nearly as much money as I used to, but I love what I am doing because I feel empowered. I run a kids’ educational game business, and I also run all of the Startup Weekend events in the Bay Area. Through these two experiences, I’ve realized there are a lot of things that big corporations can learn from startups. Startups indeed have superpowers, and big corporations can harness and cultivate these superpowers if they so choose.

Lean Methodology: The Power of Small Experiments

The lean startup methodology, popularized by Eric Ries, is about doing small experiments and getting them in front of customers right away, gathering feedback, and iterating over and over again. In essence, you are making small bets. In big corporations, everything needs to get budget approval, and because of planning cycles, you can’t keep going back for more. Most people just create outrageous budgets, try to get them and use the big-bang approach. In many instances, the initial hypotheses are incorrect, and the project tanks and customers hate it. The project gets scrapped, people get fired, and the idea goes down in history as a colossal failure. These types of projects are the reason why so many people working for big companies are so risk averse.

Startups don’t have budget cycles, so they can try little experiments and change quickly. That’s why, for a big company, investing in smaller companies may be a better option than funding projects internally. Citrix gets this. Even though Citrix is a massive corporation, it has its own startup accelerator focused mostly on enterprise startups. It invests $250,000 in each company, and helps them get additional investment in later rounds. By building these relationships at the early stages, these startups could potentially be acquired by Citrix. Other big corporations like Microsoft (through its BizSpark program) and Google (through its Developer Community) have also been successful with this approach. The most important thing here is the learning that happens by watching these startups grow. The talent is fresh, and the ideas don’t have to conform to any corporate structure.

BONUS: A quick resource for those who want action. My friends Patrick Vlaskovitz and Brant Cooper have pre-released “The Lean Entrepreneur,” which is a follow up to “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development. It’s an easy read and is a field guide for executing this methodology.

The Power of Hacking

Everyone loves a challenge, especially software developers. In many instances in a big corporation, the developers are assigned tasks and they do it to get their paycheck, but often don’t feel challenged. By holding hackathons, teams of engineers can come together to hack something. The challenge can be issued from the top, or the developers can just create their own challenge. The idea is to stimulate the technical talent in a condensed period of time to see what happens.

A fully functional product may not get built within this time frame, but a prototype can emerge that can be taken out to real customers for testing. The best example of a big corporation with this superpower is Facebook (which stil acts like a startup in many ways, even though it’s public now). From its inception, Facebook would host hackathons and use these as talent-sourcing opportunities to hire the best engineers. Now, it has become a bit of a ritual, and the winner of the hackathon gets bragging rights as the best hacker.

The Power of Bringing Multiple Disciplines Together

A startup relies on bringing people from multiple disciplines together, and on having people who can work across disciplines. An engineer may need to code at night and become a salesperson by day. A marketer may need to become an accountant. In big corporations, many of these disciplines are placed into silos, and in many cases, the marketing department won’t talk to the product people, and vice versa. The engineers are building products in a vacuum, while the marketing and sales divisions have the real customer data. In startups, these people are working together so the process becomes more collaborative..

One great example of a company with this superpower is Microsoft. Microsoft hosts the MEGA Startup Weekend event every year. These are the largest Startup Weekend events globally, boasting over 300 attendees who are then divided among three different disciplines. In 2011, the focus areas were health, education, and gaming. This year, the focus areas were gaming, mobile, and robotics. When these disciplines come together, a lot of recombination can happen.

These events are open to the public, but Microsoft also encourages their employees to participate in the events. It gives the company a pulse for tech trends and all the new things coming out, and also gives their employees an outlet to try something new or share their experiences with less experienced engineers.

How Can Big Corporations Gain These Superpowers?

The easiest way is find out who is running the Startup Weekend events in your city, become a sponsor, host an event, and get your best employees to participate. These people should not be mentors but rather attendees and participants for the entire duration. They will learn a ton and will have an itch to do another event.

Finally, invest in startups! They need your help too, and there is a lot of learning that can happen between startups and big corporations.

Ahmed Siddiqui is the founder of GoGoMongo! and leads Startup Weekend events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow @siddiquiahmed

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One response to “Startup Superpowers, And How Big Companies Can Get Them Too”

  1. ” I had so many ideas and was hopeful that my input and entrepreneurial spirit would be cultivated.”

    “I learned a fair number of business skills, and a little bit about “politicking,” but mostly I learned that I just wanted to get out! ….. I was consistently shut down and ended up feeling virtually powerless, like a cog in a machine.”
    That’s exactly what most people react to and those that have the guts do exactly what you have done.

    And Richard Branson is by far the best example of “getting startups” as his company invests in ideas AND he runs his company much like a continual startup. Check out his approach.
    Glad to see you’re taking action on your thinking. I, too, have learned a LOT more being on my own than working for any big corporation. That’s why a majority of people do not feel fully engaged at work, bad big companies, employees are not listened to and too many levels of “ownership” that stifles creativity and productivity. Good luck, we’ll see you on the Startup Streets.