The Counterintuitive CEO

What Startups Teach

November 26, 2014

At Forrester's CIO/CMO Summit in Napa Valley this week I moderated a panel of executives from three digital companies. The panelists were: Liz Crawford, the CTO at Birchbox; Allan Jones, the CMO of ZipRecruiter, and Blair Ethington, the VP of Marketing and Brands at Crowdstar. The audience was primarily large company CIOs and CMOs.  My panel was a chance for them to see the other side of the tracks — how digitally-native companies are organizing, behaving, recruiting, developing, and thinking. Here are the lessons.

What experiences are the favorites of the panelists?:  Gilt, Foursquare, and Shopbop.

If they got a call from a large corporation trying to recruit them, what would get them to take the job?:  Not money. It's about purpose, passion, and challenges.

What do they have that large companies don't have?:  Autonomy, flexibility, an appetite for risk, no punishment for failure.

What do their executive teams have that lets them move so quickly?:  Chemistry, goal alignment, high-bandwidth communications, singularity of focus.

What speed do they move at?: When it comes to projects, it's about weeks, maybe months, not quarters, and definitely not years. Their sites are updated daily, sometimes hourly. Their apps are updated monthly.

What phones will they support?: iPhone, Yes; Fire Phone, No; Android, Yes; Windows Phone, No.

What about tablets?:  iPad, Yes; Surface, No; Android Tablet, Yes.

Other platforms?:  Apple Watch, Soft Maybe; Apple Pay, Maybe; Google Glass, No. 

What is their most valuable asset?:  Customer data. They protect it at all costs — it is the capital of digital.

How should CIOs and CMOs incorporate this worldview? There are no lessons here for the IT agenda — appropriately, that world continues to revolve around control, cost efficiency, and security. But the teachings of startups can be directly applied to how large companies drive their business technology (BT) agendas — the technologies, systems, and processes to win, serve, and retain customers. That agenda will consume the same fuel that is driving digital disrupters:  Speed. Purpose, Autonomy. Productive Failure. Customer Obsession. 

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