August 2020
What Big Business Can Learn from the Startup Mentality in The Pandemic
<a href="https://sundbergferar.com/author/jeevaksundbergferar-com/" target="_self">Jeevak Badve</a>
Jeevak Badve

Principal, and Director of Strategic Growth

We work with companies of all shapes and sizes at Sundberg-Ferar. We work in product design and innovation with large enterprises and OEMS, and we do the same with startups and entrepreneurs. The multi-faceted perspective of working with diverse clients in these times gives us some interesting vantage points to how both types of businesses respond in crisis. It’s allowed us to distill some key insights about what we believe Big Business can learn specifically from the Startup Mentality in this pandemic. Thus, here are 6 practical points that your Big Business can learn and leverage from the startup mindset for growth in these times.

Before that – a lesson in Product Innovation from 1969

Let’s go back 50 years in time to 1969 when man landed on moon. Some amazing things happened in that time. There was an exuberance and optimism and an attitude of “yes we can do it” that spread across the US and the world because of these successes, and this triggered a surge of startups. People were saying to themselves “I can experiment with this”, or “let me try that”, or “I’m going to explore this new area”. Even though this new era exploration started with rocket scientists in NASA labs, it still worked its way down to the grassroots of the people and businesses in America.

The point is this: Innovation can arise from different trigger points. In 1969, it was the extremely positive and exciting trigger point of man landing on the moon. Right now, what we’re going through is also a trigger point. Even though in this case it’s surrounded by fear, uncertainty and ambiguity, it is still triggering innovation. Funnily enough, these conditions are actually part of our comfort zone as design studio. One of our strengths is actually working in the midst of ambiguity and navigating uncertainty for our clients to find opportunities for innovation. Significant events like this, both good and bad will always trigger amazing innovations.

How do we know?

How do we know that a startup and innovation explosion is being triggered by COVID-19? Design studios are always the “canary in the coal mine”. If the economy is approaching a dry period, independent studios will be the first to feel that struggle. If the economy is starting to recover or go into a very innovative period, independent studios are the first to see that in the number of RFPs coming in. In 1969, the good event of the lunar landing started the innovation explosion we talked about. In these challenging times, we’re also seeing a plethora of RFPs coming in from every strata and spectrum of client, especially the startup community. This gives us pretty good reason to hope for a renewed economy going forward. We are seeing these signs right now that will hopefully change the dismal outlook of Q2 into an optimistic Q3.

Innovate like a startup

It’s now month 5 of this pandemic in America, and as a nation, we’ve literally been going through the 5 stages of grief during this time : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. At first, people thought this would fade away, or that a vaccine would be ready soon, or were just in plain denial. But today, acceptance levels are pretty high. Most of the nation has accepted the new normal, and now for everyone, it’s about finding a way for the show to go on. Business must go on. We have to find new ways to do move forward. We all have to pivot. That’s now the cry that we’re hearing across the market, and that’s where the startup mentality can help.

Startups vs. Big Businesses – a metaphor

Before we get into connecting the startup mentality with how Big Businesses can use it, let’s look at how we see the differences between the startup community and big enterprises. One of the easiest ways to look at it is understanding the garden mentality vs. the farmland mentality. In the context of a big business, your product is like rows and rows of corn. You have your idea, you develop it and make it lean for production, you plan and sequence everything and from then onward, you just continuously produce the same product in mass. That’s how big enterprises work. It’s always economies at scale. That’s the farmland.

Startups have a different mentality. For them, their still in a garden. They’re still trying to graft one plant node from here to there, combine ideas, and experiment. They’re still tinkering, making, failing, rising again. They can do this because failing is great in a garden, but not in the farmland. We always say “failure is good”, but it really depends on the context. When startups are in that garden world, their connecting elements and mashing things together. This is the mentality that’s pretty interesting to learn from. So let’s look at 6 elements that we can translate from the garden to the farm.

6 things to translate from the Startup Mentality to Big Business
1. Relinquishing Constraints to Innovate Effectively

Any big company is “big” and prosperous in part because of how it’s been structured, or the way the brand has been built. It is good to plan your next product to align with your brand continuity and maintain the VBL (visual brand language). However sometimes those brand legacies or company structures can limit how you look at new product possibilities.

In the startup world, by contrast, you look at just your product itself and its surrounding ecosystem rather than having to fit into business pillars or values that are already in place.

In the big brand world, it’s predominantly about efficiency and scale. That’s how big businesses make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, when you observe a startup, they’re able to pick a specific ecosystem to work in, find pain points in that ecosystem and solve for them. It’s focused within a much smaller scope. Here in the product evolves to grow into a brand, and NOT the other way around! They’re often not looking at insular global factors and trends that a big business would – at least not at first. As a startup, entrepreneur, or intrapreneur, you’re typically also immersed in your chosen ecosystem yourself. You’re experiencing first-hand the same pain points that you’re trying to solve in that ecosystem, and that’s how the product idea is first generated.

In the big brand perspective, the company structure, brand values, culture, financial reasons and protocols (good or bad) already exist and predetermine a framework through which you view new product development and organic innovation. Kind of a myopic vision, right? Whereas with a startup, product development already starts in the aspirational, emotional ideal experiential world because the founders themselves are often passionately solving a problem for themselves. With Yeti for example, it all started because the founders wanted to be able to stand on their coolers in their boats in order to look further, and therefore fish better. With this passionate beginning, they weren’t looking at long-term business factors like how they were going to keep a factory busy. They were just looking at the problem in front of them. The relinquishing of those constraints (by which big businesses so often find themselves paralyzed) is a pretty amazing lesson we can take from the startup mentality, and learn or relearn to do in a big business.

2. Yours is not the only problem they have.

No good problem can be designed in isolation. Say you’re a housewares maker or a furniture maker. It’s not just your furniture or houseware products that your users are interacting with in their everyday lives. But if you’re in a big company, somehow it’s easy to adopt a functional fixation on just your appliance category, your product and how your product is going to solve all the user’s problems – even if there might be other problems in other ecosystems or categories that are drastically affecting what you’re trying to solve for, and your product’s market success. In big business, you need to zoom out and consider the big picture and how our product fits in that big picture. Why? Because something we should NOT learn from startups is the idea that the market will be kind to your product. Some startups we work with often have a mentality that somehow the market will have a soft spot for their product, but it doesn’t work like that. The market is a big organism that has no obligation to be kind to your product. If you don’t fundamentally have a good product that solves a problem for your users and works well in the entire ecosystem surrounding it, it won’t succeed in the market.

3. Presenting design or product concepts

In bigger enterprises, a lot of times there’s even a set format in which you have to present any ideas. There’s more pressure to present your ideas with high fidelity imagery or prototypes even if it’s the very first time you’ve brought it up, because you’re in a chain of command and are most likely showing your ideas to a boss or supervisor. There’s no problem with an idea being presented in high fidelity, but it might still be low on concept. What I mean by that is even if you’re presenting the very first blush of your idea, you might put in the effort to make it look good for your boss so that it doesn’t get discounted right away, but the actual concept isn’t developed yet!

In the startup world it’s the opposite, which is better. Startup ideas often have great conceptual ideas, so the concept value is high, but just because of lack of money and resources, the idea happens to be presented in low fidelity. That’s okay! Some companies even have rules when vetting new concepts or startups that if there aren’t immediately at least 20 questions from around the table about your concept when you present, then it’s not good enough.

You have to make sure your idea is high concept, and low fidelity at first, rather than putting in time and effort to develop your idea just to present it for the first time. Especially right now, you’re wasting precious time and money if you’re going about it this way. The earlier you can collaborate with your own internal strategy team and just tell them the concept you have, or put it into a quick sketch – it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece – the better. Get comfortable with showing your work early even if it’s just a rough physical mockup – a “3D sketch” as we call it in the design world – to communicate your concept. As a company you shouldn’t be biased based on the fidelity of a concept presented. There’s a time and a place for high-fidelity, but right now is the time for getting new concepts on the table fast.

3.5. The Golden #100

Even in a big company, you need champions for your idea early on in order for it to survive. Startups have to have at least 100 people lined up to back their product before they even get it on IndieGoGo, whether that’s neighbors or family and friends. It’s the same for big enterprises. If you’re trying to champion a new idea in your dept or division, you have to have internal backers to support your idea. This idea of presenting ideas at low-fidelity and high-concept works really well get this kind of buy-in early.

4. Product Design & Innovation in the words of Salvador Dali and George Pattons

At the fuzzy front-end of innovation and new product development even designers and strategists don’t always know what they’re going to come up with. This makes it easy to get anxious or overly eager for the end of the innovation process with the notion that only then will you have something to “show” to be able to answer people’s questions. You shouldn’t even wait till that time! Even before you know for sure what the product will look like and before any final planning, you should just try to make lo-fidelity representations of your concept so that it can evolve organically with input and buy-in from all the stakeholders. Because of the world they’re in and its undercapitalization, startups are forced to get scrappy. That scrappiness is great for these times as long as it’s high on concept. This is also a way that our design studio, or any external design studio helps big businesses because we also bring that agility and responsiveness to the game.

5. Don’t fabricate a persona for your product!

Yes, it’s easy to say “this product will be good for a single lady living on the 33rd floor of an apartment with 3 cats in downtown Chicago”. But you pull these personas out of thin air and expect your product to be successful. You have to do rigorous research in the real world and find your tribe of users. That’s where startups often start because that’s where their idea comes from in the first place. They’re generating a product for a real tribe of users that they themselves are a part of. In a big business, you have to make sure you actually go into the world and extract the real needs, wants, desires, and dreams of people to create your product. This is where focus groups, quantitative studies and qualitative research play a big part. We understand that right now, qualitative studies are harder because of safety concerns and restrictions in travel. That doesn’t change the absolute necessity of getting this user information and insight. In these times, an alternative to focus groups is reaching out to your own internal design studio or an external design studio like us to take advantage of their collective wisdom as well as the cross-pollination of ideas and human-behavior that they’re involved in and exposed to everyday. These studios have had those exchanges of sentiments and opinions from actual users, and they’ve been immersed in the changing sensibilities of the current market. This is far better than fabricating your own persona.

6. Take Care of your Orphans

One thing we often have to navigate with startups is how to tell them their baby is ugly – or that their idea needs work. The problem with many startups is that they fall in love with their product. We always advise them to instead fall in love with the experience they’re trying to create, it’s benefits, and attributes, so that the actual product can continue to evolve into the best vessel for that ideal user experience. One thing we can take from this however is their passionate championing of their ideas.

On the big business side, ideas often don’t have a single champion to be their strong and passionate “parent”. Great ideas become “orphaned” all too easily. They’re tossed to and fro and sink down in the ocean of big enterprise. Great ideas need a place to belong and to grow, and that can be YOU! Whether you’re a manager, director, division leader, designers, makers, strategists or financial person, you have to literally “own” your great idea. Your CEO hired you to bring great ideas to the table and make a difference. Big companies often talk about being on the lookout for “hero” ideas, but those ideas don’t always have to be superman or an avenger of some kind. Often, it’s just a good idea with someone like you to own it; to own that pain point and the solution so that it can see the light of day. The world is full of suffering. The market is waiting to make way for good solutions from people like you. If you are in a big enterprise, you even have the advantage of having an army behind you.

One Last Thing

As humans, we always ask, “when should we go for this”? Now is the time! This is the place!

Even budget constraints are less of a barrier right now too. If you look at your company’s investments in marketing vs. in design, because of COVID, marketing budgets haven’t been fully utilized in many cases. Now is the time to find a way to beg, borrow, and steal that budget from the super rich marketing budgets to put into your product innovation efforts!

Don’t be afraid to seek out help in these times. It might be from internal designers and strategists at your company or it might be an external studio like us, but don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help. I’ll leave you with this African Proverb. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

If you want to talk more about how you can take advantage of Industrial Design Thinking for your business, or you have a million-dollar idea you want to talk to us about, drop us a line! We’d love to hear from you!
Email us at hello@sundbergferar.com or call us at 248.360.3800

Author

Jeevak Badve

Principal, and Director of Strategic Growth

Jeevak, Principal and Director of Strategic Growth, brings energy, passion & curiosity to his role at Sundberg-Ferar. With his unique blend of education and experience in industrial design, engineering and business, he is a rallying voice for the alignment and optimal inclusion of the end user’s un-met needs, and unspoken wants in the core value proposition of a company’s products & service portfolio to generate sought-after shareholder value.

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