August 10, 2017

DOS and DON’TS: 8 Lessons Learned Starting Up At A Big Company

By Heidi Tsao

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This post will likely be the closest I’ll ever come to being an embedded journalist. I say this because I’m reporting from “the front”, as one of a team of people working in lean startup mode within a corporate environment. We’ve been at it for 9 weeks now, and we’re about to embark on a pinnacle moment in our mission. The squad is apprehensive — but also excited.

I work for a 50+-year-old company that has built a successful reputation doing things a certain way. But to come up with new ideas — to innovate — you have to do things in different ways. Shake things up.

So we went for it. My boss — let’s call him The Captain, a longstanding, respected and results-getting partner — started planting the seeds with the powers that be long ago: after all, so radical a change doesn’t take place overnight, especially in a traditional environment. He dropped the all-important buzzwords (startup methodology, Agile, design thinking), convinced the troops to join him (you have to have buy-in), and set up shop in a segregated site far afield from corporate headquarters (location, location, location). Then, as any good group of soldiers would, we got to work.

Here are some things I’ve learned in nine short weeks that will help make your startup experience in a big company less painful and more gainful:

DO Set Expectations

This includes with the project team, as well as senior leaders. Everything about this endeavour will be different from how you’ve been doing things, from where you’re located, work schedule, who will be involved, deliverables, and so on. There will be a lot of unknowns, but what you do know needs to be shared, to give as much sense of stability to people who will already be thrown into a spin cycle of uncertainty.

DO a Bootcamp

Because startup methodology is so different from how most big companies are used to working (usually waterfall methodology), it can be really helpful to immerse the team in an intensive training period. And by intensive, I mean full days, no multitasking, everyone in the same room, learning from experienced practitioners, who will ideally stay involved throughout the project to act as advisors.

DO Get a Room

Or a separate space where you can all work together, make noise, whiteboard, stick stuff on the walls, think outside of the box (i.e. cubicle). Having people work together in the same space can make a group of people feel like a team really quickly. Do make accommodations, however, for certain types of work/workers that will require more private space from time to time.

DO Have a Diverse Team

You want skills and experience of all kinds, not just because you’ll need that specific talent on your project, but also for the different perspectives that each person will bring. At various points in the project, everyone will be wearing different hats and doing things they don’t usually do; probably the most important ability you’ll need everyone member to bring is flexibility. Courage, a positive attitude, empathy, and inquisitiveness are also super helpful.

DON’T Be Afraid to Get Uncomfortable

This is new and this is messy. There will be a lot of fumbling, but that’s OK. As we’ve learned, every new situation is a learning opportunity and the chance to ask why. You know that catchphrase “fail fast”? Another way of thinking of that is “constantly not succeeding”. There won’t be a lot of big wins working this way, just small, incremental steps toward something that could turn out to be pretty great. Maybe. And that’s super uncomfortable, but that’s how you know you’re doing it right.

DO talk to people

See: being uncomfortable. One of the first stages of design thinking is to speak to people about pain points they’re experiencing. I mean face-to-face talking. Like a conversation. With a complete stranger! I hated that part. But I got why we were doing it and I daresay it was good for me. It was a really important step that ultimately led us to refute our original assumption and pivot into the idea we’re working on now, which, incidentally, is one we’re all a lot more into. And speaking of being more into something…

DO make sure what you’re building is relevant to your team members

Not only will they be better able to put themselves in the shoes of the customer, but they’ll simply care more, be more empathetic, be more engaged, and will be less likely to lose interest and burn out.

DON’T come to the project with an idea in mind of what you’re going to build

Or do. Having an idea in mind can be an excellent jumping off point for the experiments (aka tests) you’ll be running to try and disprove your idea. And you probably will disprove it because, in the absence of talking to customers first and empathizing with them to find out what problems they’re trying to solve (i.e. the old way of doing things), you’re just making assumptions. So go ahead and make assumptions, but know that a vital part of the project will be to try and break those assumptions. See: failing fast.

I’ll leave you with some advice that I like to give new parents, especially when I see them in the midst of dealing with an inconsolable wailing baby, screaming toddler in full meltdown, sleepless and frustrated: it gets better. As our advisors told us at the beginning of our project, working in startup mode is a rollercoaster; one week you know what you’re doing and the next, you’re questioning everything. For us, somewhere around week 7 or 8, something clicked and now it really feels like we’re on the right path. This process is not for the faint of heart, but if you’ve got the stamina, will, and guts to go through the unlearning process, there’s a lot of potential glory to be had.


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