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6 things established companies can learn from start-ups

Start-ups and entrepreneurship are booming. Especially digitization offers so many new possibilities for lucrative and extraordinary business ideas. With a lot of time and brain fat but little investment, innovative digital products can be launched on the market in a short time. And the success stories around a million euros for funding in start-ups and successful exits also continue.

6 things established companies can learn from startups.

This awakens the longing of many to found their own start-up company. A start-up is defined as the development of a new product and service in an uncertain environment, i.e. quite clearly as the implementation of an innovation.  

And so many companies are also flirting with start-ups, on the one hand as an investment option for increasing value, but above all in the context of digitalization. The young companies have the necessary know-how and access to new technologies to develop the right business models in the digital world to expand their existing business fields. However, the innovative ability and speed shown by small start-ups has a very special charm for large, heavy companies.


Compared to the young, agile companies, some of these organizations are sluggish, weak in innovation, encrusted and dusty, just before the organizational burn-out. What can these traditional and established large companies learn from the fascination of start-ups? 

Optimism about the new

Especially in Central Europe we always first see the dangers and risks and everything that will not work. You start an idea with analysis until it's almost dead. Start-ups, on the other hand, bring a high degree of openness and a strong optimism towards new ideas and innovations. You always see the positive and the opportunities behind it. This attitude should also be recommended to established companies and groups. Instead of being afraid of change, the new should always be welcome. In keeping with the motto "Nothing is impossible", opportunities should always be thought of.

Trial & Error as a learning process

Companies are used to carrying out extensive analyses at the beginning of an innovation and improvement project in order to gather as much information as possible before starting with energy. Based on these analyses, which are usually assumptions, a project is set up. Unfortunately, this foundation can be wrong, which is why start-ups deal with uncertainties and uncertainties differently when they come up with new ideas.

Instead of analyzing and discussing for a long time, you start immediately and simply try it out. Approaches and methods such as those of Design Thinking or Lean Startup are used. Relatively quickly tangible, imperfect prototypes are developed to check assumptions and uncertainties and to learn as quickly as possible due to trial and error. On the basis of this learning knowledge and thus also facts, the new product is developed step by step in loops.

Error culture "You can't make shavings without planing!"

This trial and error procedure described above also requires an error culture. But that does not mean that mistakes are welcome and celebrated. That's a false myth.

Error culture means to allow failure. "You can't make shavings without planing," says an old adage. And where you try new things and take risks, mistakes can happen. If these mistakes are perceived as a learning opportunity for further development, we speak of positive mistakes.

Established companies, however, are afraid of failure. The bosses fear for the image of the company or for bonuses. But these fears prevent innovation. Therefore, trying something new should also be rewarded and not punished.

Fast teams instead of hierarchical structures

Why are start-ups so much faster? Logically, because they are smaller and more agile, they can coordinate more quickly, make decisions more quickly and implement new ideas. The grown-ups can't copy that, can they?

Companies can build agile and self-organized teams that can act just as effectively and quickly as start-ups. These teams are given a clear mission and authority within the task. This means that they do not have to go through all instances to get a decision. Because that is what paralyzes organizations. Furthermore, the team is deep enough to make well-founded decisions. If this is not the case, they can consult their project owner. These agile teams, for example based on Scrum, make companies faster, more productive and more effective and at the same time the employees become much more motivated and committed.

Proximity to customers

The larger the company, the less the employees who have direct customer contact become. With the distance to the customer, orientation towards the customer and his needs is also lost. Many even claim that they are more concerned with themselves than with their customers. One often hears the irony "The customer disturbs". But it's not that funny, because many companies no longer understand their customers because they are not close to the market.

This is of course much easier for start-ups due to their size and it is also obvious that all employees have customer contact. But in reality, size doesn't matter. Even large companies can ensure that employees maintain contact with customers, it's only a matter of time. A time, however, that is well invested, because the best way to understand customers and their needs is to talk to them directly.

Entrepreneurship instead of silodenks

Entrepreneurs in companies is the credo. Act like it's your own company. Start-ups are characterized by an entrepreneurial spirit, all working towards a common goal.

However, with the size of a company a different way of thinking grows, namely companies within companies. Organizational units behave like individual companies competing with other units. Silodenken dominates. The focus is not on a common goal, but rather on the department's goals. This leads to conflicts of interest, interface problems and a lack of contributions to the common vision.

Silodenken is a real innovation inhibitor. It is imperative that businesses tackle this, for example by promoting cooperation, exchange and networking and focusing on a common goal.

Conclusion: "Start-up culture as inspiration for companies

Start-ups are a fascination in themselves. They put their full performance on the road and see an immediate effect behind every action. This arouses longing, because large companies suffer from their complexity, size and also age. But this should not lead to resignation, because even established, large companies that have been very successful in the past can counteract this with various measures. But not simply by traveling to Silicon Valley, taking off their ties and putting up a table mogul.

Long-term and sustainable interventions to promote the spirit and culture of innovation are important. Managers must take measures to increase agility, openness for innovation and entrepreneurship, for example. Thus the success of innovation and, not negligible, the fun at work come naturally.


Daniel Zapfl

With his comprehensive experience in holistic innovation management, Daniel brings valuable insights and best practices from various industries to your innovation project. He boldly and disruptively challenges conventional ways of thinking. As a TRIZ-certified sparring partner, Daniel will support you with creative solution-finding in a reliable and structured manner. More critical than the most discerning customer, he always has an eye on the big picture.

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