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Should big businesses adopt a start-up culture?

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The other day, during casual pub-talk, I overheard a friend echoing this sentiment by saying he wanted to make his brand think more like a start-up. Is it just me, or has the world of big business gone mad? 

Granted, those of us at the start-up end of the spectrum may be lean and have the agility that Butler et al so admire. A nimble environment nurtures the experimentation that can lead to innovation… and it’s this innovation that can generate the growth that Butler is referring to. However, the flip side is that start-ups can’t help but envy big brands… and their big resources. So, it’s rather ironic that big global corporations are striving to mimic start-ups’ business models.

Putting aside the baffling ‘why’, let’s focus on the ‘how’. Is it really possible for a big global corporate like Coca-Cola to act like a start-up? The answer has to be ‘no’. For big businesses are answerable to shareholders. They have unrivaled cash flow and a workforce that wouldn’t touch zero-hours contracts with a barge-pole. If a company is worth billions, it can never again recreate the highly-pressurised conditions of insecurity and low finance that foster a start-up’s risk-taking attitude. 

Butler name-checked Instagram as an example of a business model that led to exponential growth. In fact, most big companies envying start-ups are looking at the sexy digital tech companies of Silicon Valley. Here, you’ll find an enviable density of brain power. And this brain power is rather promiscuous in that it will jump around all over the place unless the new breed of ultra-successful start-ups begin aping big business by rewarding star players with big pay packages and cosy secure contracts. We have come full circle. 

There are some exceptions, however, with Red Bull being a case in point. Red Bull is large company that can think – and innovate – like a start-up. Why? Because it’s a private company. Having no shareholders means the brand can afford to take more risks and break the standard corporate mould. This bold approach is evident in Red Bull’s marketing. What other brand would be allowed to ‘splurge’ vast sums of money on a space jump and Formula 1? Imagine the reaction if these ideas – and budgets – were presented to Coca-Cola’s board? And yet, Red Bull is reaping the rewards and is now given God-like status amongst the marketing elite.

Red Bull’s founder, Dietrich Mateschitz, is a man who encapsulates the spirit of the extreme sports that his brand is now so inherently tied to. His adrenaline junkie approach to business means he’s able to combine the risk-taking attitude of a start-up with the scale and finances of big business. But it’s a holy-grail combination that few businesses are in a position to mirror.

Although the pressures that come from running a start-up foster risk-taking mentalities and super-responsive agility, the pros are outweighed by the cons. What developed business worth its salt would want to regress to the days of restricted resources, finances and scale?

By trying to ape start-ups and their inherent restrictions, the big boys are oblivious to their privileges and not staying true to who they are. My plea to Coca-Cola is this: Don’t try to act like a start-up. Act like the corporate you are. Appreciate – and capitalise on – what you’ve got. Let us start-ups make the mistakes, because we’re in a position to fix them. You, however, need to do your big things… just carry on doing them brilliantly. 

George Smart is founder of integrated creative agency, Theobald Fox.

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