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Culture and Established "Startups"

April 10/Jon Mead/Culture, Strategy

As you enter the office, you round the corner to see a bright orange wall, littered with baskets. Candy and small toy water-guns cascade from floor to ceiling, with a premier water-gun filling machine efficiently located just to the right of the wall. Beyond the wall, delicately placed between the muted blue thumbtack walled maze, you notice foosball, ping-pong, and air-hockey tables. Nothing is being used, but the office guide is explaining how the ABC Corp team cares that their employees are happy.

Building a new way to solve an old problem using advancement in technology and ideologies is the basis of disruption.

Happiness is evident, obviously so, in the free snacks that are placed in every conference room and the communal feeding area. Happiness is evident in all the motivational posters placed throughout the muted blue maze. Happiness is evident in the team areas where, when not tethered to a computer with a headphone line, employees can toss a foam football back and forth. The day is a Friday and, at mid-afternoon, half of the office is empty due to tenured employees working on a flex-sched, on the “summer Fridays”. Cubes emanate the official organization colors and are proudly plastered with internal notes of recognition. There are small clippings of entrepreneurialism attached to the cube you stop at, where the employee espouses his love for the company and luck at the opportunity to grow his brand through the Orange and Blue.

He runs his own company, he explains, within these three muted blue walls under the organization's name. He is a start-up; furthermore, he understands what it takes to be an entrepreneur, he explains with a slight gesturing to the surroundings. A start-up feel, he explains, helps him to remain laser-focused but allows room for fun. It’s like Silicon Valley, though not in California and not in the software industry. It’s a start-up with funding, ready to disrupt whatever vertical the Orange and Blue then decides to turn to.

This is the Fortune 100 “startup” we all know. This is the epitomic start-up mentality and the image that we have had built into our mind and come to expect from a hip, nimble company. Quietly ignoring or not noticing the ink-black Brioni suits walking past once a quarter, or the charts showing the acquisition tables and ROI on severance packages rather than prolonged employment with minimum input. This is the place where “Services” and “Subscription models” have proliferated the client-base and churn is pushed to the point of impossibility. Impossible not due to the product value, but the intricate confusion built into the integrations. The virus model, land-and-spread, the mentality is not in the canon of a true start-up community.

A start-up is different - very different - from the glorified hip, fast-moving, sexy, highly selective, and highly lucrative image that has been cultivated for general consumption.

Building a new way to solve an old problem using advancement in technology and ideologies is the basis of disruption. The start-up is antithetical to the nature of established, large corporations perpetuating the notion of conventional wisdom. The use of the term, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”, builds in its very essence a dependence on the status quo. While ironic, conventional wisdom is a term that has made its way into general use and is oft times used when building a business strategy. The general acceptance of the meaning of “conventional wisdom”, According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter.” The original use of the term, however, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 publication The Affluent Society, was in direct opposition to the generally accepted definition of conventional wisdom. To John Kenneth Galbraith, conventional wisdom is a set of outdated accepted truths. Rather than building a client-base using outdated strategic goals or generally accepted practices, the entrepreneur looks at an “age-old” process/practice and re-evaluates from a different perspective. If in this way, there is a better overall experience or outcome, then the new true start-up can, and should, be built around the model. Even if something is not ostensibly broken, this does not mean that there is not a better method that could further all those using the model or practice.

The true start-up – whether funded, bootstrapped, bleeding-edge technologists, ideological reformations, or any of the companies built on an idea somewhere in between – does not have a feel, office space or otherwise, other than grinding. There is no room for trivialities or tools to quell an idle mind. The aesthetics of an office, even a bright orange wall with baskets of candy, does not equate to a “start-up” feel. There is no notion of a set number of hours defined per week. When, as an organization, you have made your client or clients as happy as possible within the limits of your business, then you next make the product perfect enough to do your specific task better than anyone else, then you have time to look at the organization and operation itself, only to be followed by making sure that your client or clients are as satisfied as can be. A start-up is not synonymous with “small business”, not with “hip company”, and certainly not with orange walls. A start-up is different - very different - from the glorified hip, fast-moving, sexy, highly selective, and highly lucrative image that has been cultivated for general consumption. We need to stop immortalizing startup culture as something that it is not and allowing organizations to define themselves organically, orange walls or otherwise.