March 24, 2015
The CEO Experience in the Differences Between Corporate and Startup Culture
By Zula CEO: Raz Yalov
Have you ever thought about how a crowd of 50,000 people filling an arena manage to cheer and clap in unison to get their band back on stage? That’s what startup and corporate life is like. Allow me to explain.
In the past 10 years, I journeyed from joining a Founder and founding team of a handful of people in a great company, which ended up with an impressive “sold out arena concert” as the company got acquired after a long run.
That was before becoming the CEO of Zula, which took me back into the mindset of a small band in a local bar.
Mindsets and Culture: Not everyone likes thrills
Yes, there are mindsets that come into play when distinguishing the main differences between corporate and startup culture. In my case, as my former company shifted from startup to corporate, the realization that our mindsets were changing had actually taken some time.
As the company grew, it became more corporate. Only later did I realize that it was becoming increasingly complex to get things done in a spontaneous manner. I no longer had a direct hand in the contribution to success. And suddenly, not only did the team have to care for the reputation of our own company before making bold moves- but also of the public reputation of our clients, because of their association with our company.
One of the most striking differences in the slow transition from startup to corporate was definitely the dynamic within the office itself. As the company grew, the talent we hired came in with a different mindset. This slowly changed the existing (formerly startup) culture. It made me start looking at things more philosophically. The new hires were on a mission to land big secure jobs. They were not looking for something fun, risky and challenging (compared to our founding team who joined during the unclear startup phase.) Without knowledge of the existing culture, the masses of new hires brought the ‘9 to 5 workday’ in with them. This became the norm as the new hires outnumbered the original crowd.
We noticed the changes long after they took place. It was not a conducted effort… it just happened. Like the 50,000 people clapping at concerts- it started as chaos and within a minute, turned into synchronized clapping- all without any guidance or orchestrating. It was an amazing phenomena.
Public Perception: An example from Apple
The gradual changes in culture and means to all ends made me realize that when you’re dealing with companies that are well-established and mature, there is a belief that you can’t just drop old ideas to proceed with newer and more innovative ones. You realize that you have to keep current clients and users in mind.
Generally speaking, customers that already use existing solutions are not willing to relearn, reintegrate, and restart how they use the product. In the corporate business sense, this is good because you have a user base that depends on you. But on the flipside, you are no longer innovative (as a startup would have been.) You end up becoming a company that maintains existing technologies, because innovation is “too risky”. This is the point where innovation dies.
This is not true to all big companies, and I will not be the first to single out Apple who somehow managed to be the exception to this unofficially official practice. Apple releases new innovations to their hearts content. Factors such as timing and current user base is never a concern for them. Apple has even proven to bounce back quickly in the past. It has gotten to the point where consumers no longer even remember the failures of Apple. They may just vaguely remember the fact that Apple had a few scattered flops along the line. How can Apple continue to be so innovative, even though they are a large company? Corporations ought to ask themselves that, and strive to attain such a level of mastery.
A big part of the success of Apple is trying enough new ideas so they will have enough to share in each and every public update. By not “promising” anything to the world, they can decide what to reveal and when. Not all Apple products are designed and conceived in 3 months!
Many wonder what Apple is doing right that most big companies are doing wrong. The answer is that Apple keeps trying to impress their users and do good for their users, not to their bank account. Their bank account is happy as a byproduct, not as a goal! When you unbox a new Apple product, you can feel that love! An actual feeling of love coming out of a clean white box! That is the magic that all companies want to replicate, without letting the fear from users control them.
Getting Things Done – It’s all in your hands
When I left the corporate world to join Zula as the CEO, I knew that I would have to train my mind to transition back into ‘startup mode.’ In startups, every team member is a wearer of many hats. They each work on several things, till each element is working.
Much like the cheering crowd, the early stages of any startup are those of trial and error, and misalignment until that internal rhythm is set and falls into place as everyone in the team learns their role and starts clapping in unison. This is how the magic happens in a startup environment. Everyone has ideas. No one knows what’s right or what’s wrong. They look for the beat as they figure out what is interesting and what works.
The value of working in a startup environment is the ability to do more quickly, and do more without explaining the reason to different chains of command. There aren’t formalities where team members would step back and ask themselves, “what’s my role?” They would just roll up their sleeves, and get straight to making things happen to the best of their abilities.
One of the keys to success is how to keep the clapping going while getting it stronger once the unison is achieved, so it becomes an exciting and energetic cheer. It’s really all in your hands (pun intended). Just clap it like you mean it! Always try to impress your users, not your banker!
Personalities – Being crazy optimistic
The hard reality is that not all people can fit the life of a startup company. Some people are just not wired to work like that in small environments. People need take initiative to build themselves up to be successful in a startup environment. They need to be self-motivated and not be afraid of failure. It must come natural for them to keep trying and keep failing till they find what is right. Many corporate personas are not fit for this environment, and need everything to be cookie cutter perfection, with no room for failure.
Startups have their ups and downs. Unfortunately the downs always feel longer and deeper than the ups, and they’re never easy to deal with. The ups feel like blips, and in the back of our minds (even in the happiest of times) are thoughts of where we are behind, customers who may be upset and things we thought we should have finished by now. But we still persevere, because the reality is that if you are not an optimistic person, you have no chance at making it in the startup world.
Most people will always tell you why it won’t work. It may feel like any person you talk to is a critic. They feel very comfortable judging and providing their opinion, because it’s always easier to consume things than to produce things. After all, everyone knows how to read books. Everyone even knows how to read good books. But knowing how to read a good book doesn’t make you capable of actually writing a NY Times best-seller. People tend to forget this. A big part of being an entrepreneur and a startup person is to appreciate the criticism but remember that it usually comes from people who have always been on the other side. So just remember to always stay positive and optimistic and remember that they all mean well- even if it sound like they don’t.
Creative Minds – Free’em up, free’em up
Working in a startup also means working directly with more creative minds. As enlightening of an experience as it may be, it does come with its fair share of difficulties. It’s hard to tell someone creative that they have missed the mark, because they put a lot of effort into their creation, and have become emotionally attached to them. A lot of artistry and time is invested into what is ultimately a small product at the end.
The way the creative mind works is that you start with something you have a small general idea about. You then pick through ideas, and brainstorm till you have an “a-ha!” moment. Depending on your creative level, you then work on bringing your ideas into reality. When you are good at something, you iterate and iterate and iterate. In doing so, you fall in love with your work, and it becomes a part of you. The work is no longer a project you were working on. It is like a part of your soul. If someone criticizes, and you are not open-minded- it would be hard to accept. The ability for creatives to accept constructive feedback is critical for success in startups. They should work on their projects with the knowledge that everything is temporary, and can be thrown away at any point in time.
This is another great asset that big companies can’t afford anymore. In a big company, everything is expected to be perfectly planned and timed, and there is no room for errors. This is quite funny, because the bigger the company, the more people you have to just keep it running. I remember coming to a SCRUM standup meeting once where we had 8 people on the call, 6 were managers and only 2 were actual “doers”. I still remember the awkward silence in the room when I pointed that fact out.
Innovations – The art of replacing instead of adding
Corporations tend to be about previous accomplishments, as they start talking about those again and again, instead of just coming up with new ideas. This brings about a lack of excitement.
In the startup scene, we are not here to sell the innovations that we made, but to keep innovating. We constantly question ourselves, “Is there a better way of doing what we already did?” The corporate world is about adding and not replacing. Many products tend to add new features, but never improve existing ones. They don’t get rid of what failed, they just add to it. That results in many features built in unsuccessful products. Why? So they can charge more because of the added features.
Being brave enough to admit mistakes and the ability to throw old things out for new ideas is critical. It’s also important is to keep track of usage of features in the product, so you can really tell which features are being used by the users, and which are just not being used. If you truly believe the latter should be used, try to learn why users are voting with their feet, and fix it.
Happiness – Not being the frog in the boiling water
All in all, I have lived comfortably while in the corporate world, but that was because every moment was quite predictable. Yes, that does work for some people. Then when they look back, they may realize that they haven’t done anything unique. For many this is not a bad thing, and I’m not judging anyone for loving this life.
In my case, I felt like a frog in boiling water. It took me some time to realize I was becoming an ingredient in French soup, but as soon as the water became too cozy for comfort, I decided to jump out- and that is how I found Zula!
I find more content, satisfaction, and purpose where I am now. In startup life, every day is an adventure in figuring out how to make a great product even better, and how to expand upon a better version that isn’t even out yet. Every part of my mind is being tapped into, as are all my experiences I have acquired over the years.
Nothing is repetitive. Nothing is predictable. Everything is exciting. This is the mindset and culture I will see to maintain in Zula, to keep the magic alive as the company grows.