5 Things All Businesses Can Learn From Startups


As a company evolves, bigger isn’t always better. Because with such changes can come complexity, organizational silos and sprawling teams.

“There’s no doubt about it,” says Rand Fishkin, founder of marketing giant Moz. “We often got less done with 40-plus engineers than we do now with just one developer at my second startup, SparkToro.”

It’s not because Moz did something wrong, Fishkin clarifies. The challenge is that everything is harder at scale, where the complexity of organizational design and team dynamics can work against you.

The silver lining? A business doesn’t have to go from “lean and mean” to “big and stuck.” Startups do a few things right that companies can learn, adopt and profit from. Let’s take a look at some important startup strategies that can energize your business, no matter its size.

1. Be clear

Many startups embrace a culture of openness — and that’s a good example for businesses of all sizes.

“Give extreme clarity around the organization’s big picture goals and problems,” Fishkin says. From there, you can show how ideas from across the organization, and even from customers, fit into those themes. “If people know what you really care about, and what matters less right now, they can put their ideas and efforts toward the right stuff. When that’s not clear, everything gets harder.”

2. Make failure OK

Startups know every idea won’t be a success, and they’re fine with that. “If you build environments where it’s OK to mess up, to have some things break, to experiment and refine before launch, you can get a lot more done,” Fishkin says.

Bruce Hamilton, maker of the “Toast Kaizen” lean training video, agrees. “Letting employees take the reins, try out ideas, and fail small and often is the single most important factor in a company’s success.”

3. Value small ideas

Despite all the talk about disruption, startup leaders also know that incremental changes are powerful. “There’s value in having people work on existing maintenance and ongoing improvements versus ‘big new things,’” Fishkin says.

“When we go for broke with big ideas,” says Hamilton, “we often convince employees that their little, everyday ideas aren’t wanted.” And that couldn’t be further from the truth, he says, noting that a groundswell of small ideas together was responsible for Toyota’s success over the past half century.

4. Prototype and experiment quickly

Similarly, big business should adopt the startup ethos of progress over perfection. Focus on working toward a minimum viable product. As outlined in Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup, it’s the idea of developing a solution to a customer need that starts the “build-measure-learn” feedback loop as fast as possible.

5. Keep the customer involved

Startups draw power from their closeness to the customer. Gorilla Playsets, a manufacturer of backyard play equipment, hasn’t lost touch with its startup roots. “What makes our team unique is their laser focus on a customer-centric approach to product development,” says Executive Vice President Nick Nagy.

The company shares user insights gained from the customer service and sales teams, along with installers, with the employees designing and redesigning products. These connections offer essential feedback and insight.

One big challenge? Don’t be swayed by the minority. “Fifty people might complain that your product needs XYZ feature,” Fishkin says. “But they’re not actually buyers of your product, or they are, but you acquired them from a price promotion and they aren’t loyal. Contrast that with two people who are loyal, long-term, perfect-fit customers who don’t care about XYZ at all but instead want ABC.”

Bottom Line: A Boost to Productivity    

Businesses of all sizes can learn from these startup lessons. A focus on open communication about goals and challenges can put even a multinational corporation back in fighting trim. Create a culture where failing small and often is encouraged and where the right customer feedback informs quick product development cycles. You’ll soon learn that your new startup mindset is a bottomless source of efficiency and productivity.

“If you build environments where it’s OK to mess up, to have some things break, to experiment and refine before launch, you can get a lot more done.” —Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz

Tom Gerencer

Tom Gerencer is a freelance writer.

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