Thinking Small: Lessons Big Businesses Can Learn from Startups

Success is actually one of the hardest obstacles to growth faced by business leaders. After years of growing your company and enjoying the fruits of your labor, you’ve built a business that’s the envy of the competition. You’re profitable, and you’ve given employees rewarding work. Often, however, you have no place else to go.

“Thinking like a startup requires sweeping changes in attitude that cut across many different aspects of how your company works.”

If your company’s success has started to plateau, or you suspect you’re starting to rest on your laurels, my advice is simple: Think small. Re-learn the lessons of your early entrepreneurial days, and you’ll avoid falling into a rut of complacency.

That’s just what I did when I returned to Lifesize, a video conferencing company I founded, after being the CEO of the SaaS startup Bloomfire. Reinventing the business was critical to Lifesize’s continued growth. That meant thinking less like a big company and more like a startup.

Thinking like a startup requires sweeping changes in attitude that cut across many different aspects of how your company works. Business practices, organizational structure, business language, speed and flexibility all have to be re-evaluated. It’s a cultural change for everyone that touches the business.

It can be unsettling. After all, you’ve seen your business grow based on a proven way of working—in many cases, for decades. But if you want to see that success continue, you have to question the very foundations of that success.

“If you want to see success continue, you have to question the very foundations of your success.”

Here are the five most important lessons I learned when applying the “think small” attitude to my business:

Forget jargon—think like customers. Lifesize offers a software solution for video conferencing over the cloud. A recent upgrade to our application included a button labeled “Release Notes.” Our developers explained it was to point out what was new in the upgrade. We’ve now changed it to read, plainly, “What’s New.”

We have to speak to users, not to developers. Our software architects have to adapt to a new way of thinking about their work. They have to reach out to new users in plain language. Anything else is a losing proposition.

Some customer requests stifle progress. In his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Harvard professor Clayton Christensen writes that successful companies may overemphasize customers’ current needs, instead of adopting new ways to meet customers’ future needs. Those companies, he says, eventually fall behind.

“Companies that overemphasize customers’ current needs instead of adopting new ways to meet customers’ future needs eventually fall behind.”

Accommodating a lot of custom implementations hampers innovation. It doesn’t work in today’s modern technology markets. Such technology changes can makes these hurdles in your path to innovation irrelevant. Don’t fall into that trap.

Imagine you’re starting over. In fact, you ARE starting over. You have to look at where your business needs to go for continued success. Your current leadership and their skill sets may not be appropriate to this new direction. You may need to bring new “DNA” into the company, for everything from customer care to product development.

If you do it correctly, the new people you bring into the organization will attract similar talent—all of whom will have a common understanding of where the organization needs to go.

The right decisions are usually obvious. It’s not fun to lay people off, or to eliminate product lines to rightsize your company. But business decisions are not supposed to be pleasant. They should be obvious, however, and that makes them necessary. And if the decisions are necessary, they become easier to make.

“The right decisions are usually obvious.”

Keep in mind, though, that business results have some lag time from these internal changes. Convincing customers of the value of working like an entrepreneur again can take a bit more time. And you’ll need real participation and buy-in from channel partners.

Have faith. When you’re right, you know it. You can transform your company faster than you think. Lifesize went from a legacy technology provider that was viewed in some circles as an “also ran” to a completely new organization with the very best connected devices—all in less than a year.

These five simple ideas can make a tangible difference. Of course, you may be swimming against the tide when you start out on this track. Some people thought I was crazy, trying to fit entrepreneurial behavior into a large, established corporate organization.

But I had a vision of where we needed to go, backed by the experience of bringing my company to success in the first place. I also understood what was going on among fledgling companies now making names for themselves. And in the process, we turned Lifesize into a real market force, more quickly than we imagined.

You can make big changes quickly, too—if you have the courage to start thinking small again.

Craig Malloy: Craig Malloy is CEO of LifesizeLifesize, a videoconferening company.
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