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Not fish out of water: Corporate execs gain edge in startups

Posted by Chad O'Connor  June 25, 2013 11:00 AM

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In today’s workforce, startups tend to be composed of young, eager employees led by 20-somethings or serial entrepreneurs. Compared to corporations, startups seem vastly different: fast-paced and nimble versus rigid and slow moving with lots of red tape to navigate. But these perceptions don’t necessarily reflect reality; executives with years of experience in leadership positions within global companies can actually prosper and excel in a startup – and, in fact, bring some unique advantages to the table.

Speaking from my own experience, I had spent much of my career in executive positions overseeing innovation factories within large corporations prior to founding my startup, ShopAdvisor. These small acquisitions and forward-leaning projects made up a rotating portfolio of ten or so “internal startups,” each with its own timeline and scope. To succeed, I needed to demonstrate how complementary the new product was to the existing product portfolio, as well as how it showcased ongoing innovation to existing customers and prospects. Of equal importance was knowing when to ramp down a project that didn’t have the chance for long-term success. A good executive in this atmosphere could advance his career by having a decent innovation batting average – including a homerun or two.

Of course, in the startup world, you have only one at bat, so the stakes are higher. In that light, many of the skills I honed during years of corporate innovation can be applied to the startup world:

Appreciation for scale
Part of the world of corporate internal startups that has helped me run my own is an appreciation for scale. At IBM and Nokia, a project or acquisition that had no prospect for generating tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue was not worth the investment of time and money. Only those projects that had the potential to become a significant business unit in its own right survived. The key is understanding what contributes to scale, which is not only important in the corporate world, but also in understanding what attracts investment for startups.

Pattern recognition
While overseeing dozens of internal startups, I noticed certain patterns emerge that were indicative of winning (and losing) ventures. For instance, simple is always better than better. While there is a simple way to do things and a better way to do things, the simple way always wins.

My areas of expertise predisposed me to be able to identify some patterns, but colleagues with different experience could recognize others that I could not, providing big value in determining whether we were poised to succeed. In the high-stakes startup world, it is just as important to surround yourself with others whose experience arms them with pattern recognition in areas different than your own. Among ShopAdvisor’s investors and board members are seasoned professionals from the worlds of recycling, tires, liquor and print media. That covers a lot of areas and patterns. For instance, a recycling executive has expertise in acquiring customers, while a liquor expert understands distribution. They both can recognize and provide perspective on patterns we should be looking for and can apply to our work in the publishing industry.

Importance of Timing
I’ve had the pleasure to witness some innovations that were so forward thinking they forced you to blur your eyes to actually see the vision. Some have made it big, while others were simply too far ahead of their time. They may have been technologically sound, but lacked a ready market, channel or ecosystem. Others just needed time to let the rest of the world catch up. Knowing the difference between which ones are almost there and which are way out there can be the difference between a big hit and a strikeout. In the corporate world, it’s easier to have patience to wait for the right timing compared to startups, but it’s a critical success factor for any small company looking to hit it out of the park.

Putting it All Together
In my early days at Lotus/IBM, email was not yet a standard tool for business people. Today, you can’t even plan a birthday party without it. In the years in between, the email inbox became more than just an application; it was the mechanism by which all sorts of other applications moved things around including documents, workflows and notifications. Email was an innovation that had scale written all over it, and which forged a pattern that anyone from that time will recognize again if they have eyes to look for it.

These three lessons learned from years within a large corporate environment have served me well, providing me with an edge in my newer life at the helm of a fast-paced startup that, in my opinion, lends itself to scale and is timed right based on market conditions. But like any startup, my team and I are hustling to make sure investors, potential partners and customers, and consumers agree

Ultimately, I know that customers will never love my technology as much as I do, and that’s okay. Once they find a way to use my product and are wiling to invest in it, I know from experience not to try to sell them on all of the better ways they can use it. Rather, it’s time to keep my mouth shut and hit the bar.

Scott Cooper is co-founder and CEO of ShopAdvisor.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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