Learn from the little guy – what start-ups can teach big business

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The world and his wife seem to be in the business of offering advice to start-ups and new businesses.

And I’d be the first to agree that there is a huge amount to be had from listening to others, finding the right mentor and gaining some lessons learned.

But what we hear far less about is just what big corporations can learn from their smaller counterparts.

When you start a business it’s your baby. You’re utterly devoted to it, think about it 24/7 and are 100% dedicated to making it the best it can be.

And even more importantly, you’re in charge – no shareholders to answer to, no five hour board meetings to justify every decision.

This very place of freedom and independence is often where the best and most innovative ideas will come from.

Where a small business will take a chance and try something new, a corporation will often opt for the safer, backside covering, tried and tested route.

They will commission expensive and lengthy focus groups, market research and analysis that will generate mountains of data before committing to anything that could be a bit risky.

But this is incredibly stifling to innovation. If it was that easy to be safe and successful, not to try something new, then everyone would be doing it.

Sometimes you have to accept that process can hinder progress, go against the flow, make yourself vulnerable and take that leap.

Corporates and start-ups clearly have very different demands and pressures but Carter Cast and David Schonthal of the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management put forward some very persuasive evidence about just what big business can learn from start-ups when it comes to putting innovation into action.

Kellogg advises corporations to take a very different approach to innovation that really puts them back in the mindset of a start-up. Cast and Schonthal call this “venture thinking,” a new outlook that pretty much any company can learn from and adopt.

Stay close to your customers

Cast and Schonthal argue that endless research can distance a firm from the public it wants to serve. Rather than observing them first hand, corporates will often employ teams to analyse behavior.

A start-up can’t afford to do that so will get down and dirty with its customers.

And, as social media has proved, people value that relationship with brands as much as the businesses do.

We like to feel special, to communicate and know that we’re valued by the people we’re giving our money to.

As Cast and Schonthal say: “Connecting and empathizing with customers is the best way to uncover problems and develop solutions that will lead to new sources of value.”

Try something new

Start-ups are keen to embrace new opportunities and even to change the way they do business in order to make things work.

They are adaptable, embrace evolution and new horizons.

Did you know that Avon started life as a bookseller? The company went on to keep their sales model but used it to offer different products that they found their customers wanted. Bingo!

Larger businesses can spend so much time perfecting one successful idea that they ignore the potential of others.

Start-ups know they probably won’t get things right from day one but they will get out there, learn from mistakes and market reaction and improve.

Bring your idea to life

Bringing your product or service to life has never been more important.

The world has changed and today we prefer the hand held, intimate meanderings of Zoella and Alfie to a slick and expensive advert.

Things don’t need to be perfect to show them to a potential audience.

Get your ideas out there, ask people what they think and use that information to shape your product.

A video, infographic or drawing explaining what you do is a brilliant way to start customers talking about and shaping it.

In a very basic example, a new restaurant was opening close to where I live and, before they had even opened, they started to share their ideas.

They tweeted pictures of the dishes, the décor, the uniforms and people loved the chance to have their say and to be involved in that brand’s journey.

Start-ups have to think and react quickly. They don’t have the time or the budget to over analyse every move they make.

This mindset of stripping things back, not presenting perfection and embracing mistakes will go against the grain for many CEOs.

But they need to think back to the days when the company was young, lean and mean and be inspired by that way of working again.