Look At Your Mature Business Through A Startup’s Eyes

How one manufacturing firm breathed new life into a mature infrastructure, boosting creativity and innovation in the process.

As a third-generation business, our company has age, experience and legacy going for it. But we’ve realized over our decades of operation that keeping things fresh is important—both for business and our employees. We need ways of thinking that keep us nimble, and though we’re far away from being a startup, we can learn a lot from the startup world.

During a recent brainstorming session, we came up with the idea of looking at our company through the lens of a startup: If we were to start this business today as a new company and received funding for the first time, how would we spend the money? How would we look at our company differently if we were a startup? How would our conversations change during our check-ins with direct reports? What kinds of risks would we take, and how would we manage them?

This approach helped us take a step back and look at things afresh. We involved the whole team in the exercise, and we decided to dedicate regular times to answering the questions that came about from this newly adopted brand of thinking. During the difficult months of the pandemic when we were all separated by screens, it was an invaluable way to connect and remotivate ourselves, not to mention a great method of generating new ideas for our business.

Why We Started Thinking Like a New Business

Why is thinking like a startup important for more established businesses? For leaders, the stress of business can get old, and even the best of them can become complacent and stuck in the banality of their routines. About one-third of businesses survive 10 years or more, and the people and ideas in them can become stale over that time. Therefore, they open themselves up to disruption. Consider that in 1958, the companies on the S&P 500 index stayed on the list for an average of 61 years. By 2011, the average was down to 18 years. And between 2017 and 2027, the projected churn of these companies will be more like 75%. Although tenured businesses don’t need to reinvent the wheel, they need to tend to it lest the business grind to a halt.

With a startup mindset, big businesses can approach these problems with a new kind of vigor. Tapping into your inner startup feeds the need to exercise your childlike wonder and creativity by playing and working out puzzles from scratch. When you are in this process of quick learning and responding, you are more creative and better able to come up with ideas that solve problems—which is key to innovation.

How Can Established Companies Start Seeing With Startup Eyes?

Want your company to think and act like a startup even when you’re not a new business? Here are some tips, taken directly from my own company’s experience, for leaders trying to make an old business run like new:

1. Commit to an experiment. Beginning a new mode of working can feel like a leap into the dark with more questions than answers: What if it goes wrong? What if you risk funds and time on a venture that only sets you back? Thinking about the startup mindset as an experiment can help you commit to it without gambling everything on its success.

Try setting aside a period for your experiment. Within that period, pledge to consider fresh, forward-thinking ideas and to revisit “failed” ideas that could succeed under new conditions. Set an expectation that everyone should enter these experiments with an open mind that’s ready to learn from the results.

2. Be generous with your team. One of the major boons of startup thinking is that it can empower every level of your team. From leaders to new hires, a mindset of fresh ideas sourced from throughout the company involves people much more effectively than hierarchical, conventional thinking does.

Make employees feel bold by showing them that idea generation is part of your company culture. For example, invite them to add ideas to the mix by hosting a lunchtime learning series in which team members can pitch and brainstorm. At our company, we ask newly hired managers to imagine different scenarios that might come up in their roles. Then, we have them think through a startup lens to create new ideas or solutions that will allow them and their teams to better work through the scenarios.

3. Remember the snowball effect. The best way to get everyone involved is to get a few advocates to enthusiastically buy into the process so that it will snowball. When you start any new venture in your company, people might take a minute to open up to it. That’s expected. Employees are used to their routines, and they might be hesitant to voice their ideas at first. But remember that every “experiment” will make your workplace feel more like a lab—like a place of learning and evolution.

Once they realize that they can join the conversation without embarrassment, people will enjoy the startup approach. They’ll learn more in their working day, experience more variety, and become more collaborative and creative with their colleagues.

This all-inclusive attitude of openness and encouragement can transform your company culture. With new conversations and ideas from the previously untapped resource of your employees come new solutions to old problems. Some of these solutions can elevate your company to a level of success you might not have reached without a startup mindset. How could you reinvigorate your company—and your industry—with these fresh eyes?