Can Big Companies Act Like Startups?

It’s not yet clear how disruptive a company can be without, well, disrupting anyone.

March 17, 2017

3 Min Read

By TechBirch

Once upon a time, Facebook’s motto was “Move fast and break things.” Many other tech companies seem to have adopted that ethos as well—ranging from startups to bigger tech firms like Uber, Google, and Amazon. The Trump campaign even used the philosophy to put their candidate in the White House, writes The New York Times


In the Internet of Things realm, industry stalwarts seem to be adopting a slightly different strategy, aiming to move fast and build things—ideally without damaging much of anything. If IoT is the physical manifestation of the internet, it follows that the costs of, say, pushing bad code are much greater in the so-called real world than on the web. There’s a big different between a software bug crashing your computer versus software crashing an airplane or a medical device. 


Yet the appeal of the lean startup methodology is undeniable. Startups continue to drive much innovation throughout the world. It’s no wonder then that a big company like GE bills itself as a 124-year old startup. (The company will be a century and a quarter old this year). To this end, the company established a GE Digital, an internal software division dedicated to building an Android-like operating system for industrial equipment. Chief executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, implied that the survival of the company depends on this transition. He simply stated, “It’s this or bust.”


Many other enterprise companies with IoT projects, such as Siemens, Cisco, and SAP, have similar startup-inspired initiatives. 


Note: The topic of business IoT is a key item on the agenda at Internet of Things World in Santa Clara this May. Check out the agenda for the world’s biggest IoT event.


It is not clear, however, how well conservative corporate culture based on quarterly performance can mesh with the lean startup ideology, which is designed to ruffle feathers and embrace risk and failure. After all, most innovative ideas are deliberately risky and threatening—at least to someone. Another key tenant of the lean startup methodology—the pivot—seems like it would be inherently tricky for a big company to master. Twitter, for instance, was a podcasting company before it became a micro-blogging platform. It was able to transition its business early on when it was small. But now that it's an established company, self-reinvention is much more challenging.  


Ultimately, it may be inherently difficult for a big company to have the risk tolerance needed to fuel many groundbreaking technologies. On the one hand, the concept of breaking things in the name of innovation is itself facing resistance. Uber, for instance, innovated a groundbreaking approach to transportation using a take-no-prisoners approach. Now, however, the company is facing criticism for everything from its cut-throat culture to Greyball program it used to elude law enforcement. Google is also suing the company, accusing it of pilfering trade secrets from its self-driving car. 


In the end though, it does seem like there is room for some compromise between the stereotypes linked to big and small companies. Large companies don't necessarily have to suck at innovation. And startups don't necessarily have to cause self-induced chaos—especially in the IoT realm. Maybe “move fast and build things” isn't so bad of a slogan after all. But to make that slogan a reality will require some serious experimentation and reasonable level or risk tolerance.


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