How to build a start-up culture in a big company

A new book tackles the issue of how to encourage innovation in a fast-moving world.



Sahar Hashemi co-founded Coffee Republic with her brother Bobby in 1995 and has since become an expert on business innovation.  After she wrote her first best-selling book, Anyone Can Do It, her main audience was aspiring entrepreneurs. But two years later she notes that “a dramatic shift” took place. She began getting invitations to speak at big companies about her story. There were jokes about her being a catalyst for mass resignations, but these were soon replaced by questions about change and coping with change.

“Suddenly,” she writes in her new book, Start-up Forever, “companies that took a certain comfort in their size, scale and market position were being threatened. Faster change was pushing companies out of their long-time comfort zones into the same choppy waters – full of uncertainty, shifting customer expectations and scarce resources – that entrepreneurs have always operated in.”

However, she adds, big business lacked the agility of start-ups, they were weighed down by size, scale, processes and systems set to ways of doing business that were changing too fast for them to keep up. She found herself trying to demystify entrepreneurship for employees rather than aspiring entrepreneurs.

Her book is the culmination of around 400 talks she has given to companies on precisely this subject. It outlines the need for business to reinvent itself and to become more innovative.  Hashemi starts by saying that innovation is about instilling a different mindset rather than setting up a silo devoted to innovation. She sums up what she is trying to do thus: “What could possibly be better than combining the agility of a start-up with the scale of a BB [big business]? What could possibly beat being the biggest small company in the world?”

How to be more agile

The book is divided into 10 sections, starting with the advice ‘become the customer’. Too many big businesses move away from contact and empathy with the customer and get bogged down in processes and data.  Surveys will only tell you so much, says Hashemi, because customers rarely know what they want and cannot therefore guide businesses to the future. Instead, to innovate it is important to think like a customer and look for the kind of problems they may face that you can help to solve for them.

Allied to knowing your customer is getting out into the ‘real world’ – something that is often seen as time-wasting, but observing what goes on is crucial to innovation and creativity, says Hashemi. She also talks about the need to combat what she calls ‘comfort admin’, the sense of being always busy, with meetings, conference calls, reviews, appraisals and strategy days. She suggests culling ruthlessly any admin which is not absolutely necessary and dividing work into smaller teams to create a sense of dynamism and reduce bureaucracy.

Other advice includes unlearning and questioning received practice, changing the language used to limit innovation such as phrases like ‘this is industry practice’, hiring for will rather than skill and mixing up teams to bring in new ideas and ways of looking at things.

There’s no need to chase one big idea, counsels Hashemi. Innovation comes from encouraging a creative flow through many small everyday ideas and from being endlessly curious. She adds that having a lot of money can restrict innovation and says many of the best ideas come through lack of resources.  Other chapters deal with the need to experiment and to be prepared to risk failure and learn from it.

Being human

Finally, Hashemi talks about the need to treat people as individuals and to have fun. That means trusting them to get on with their jobs and not creating a false dividing line between home and work life. “Micromanaging people like machines produces exactly that, automatons…Automatons can’t experiment and be passionate. Leaving your personal life out of your professional life creates a joyless existence, and the new generation of workers aren’t wired for working that way. They will run for the hills in a culture that doesn’t allow them to be 100% themselves,” she writes. Businesses need to focus on employees as human beings and to motivate them by showing them what the purpose of their work is, what difference it makes.

Hashemi ends by saying: “You could think of the sunset of old ways of doing business as a scary and uncomfortable disruption, or you can see this change as an opportunity to transform work into a place employees actually want to come to every day, a place that brings out their best and uses their talents to the maximum. You could use this moment to make your organisation not just far more successful, but far more human.”

In an age of automation, many have spoken about the need to emphasise what makes us human. In addition to encouraging people to be more creative and innovative, that must surely also include providing them with what has been termed ‘human-sized’ jobs – jobs that do not mean they have to squeeze their lives around the corners of their work. This book shows that by focusing on the human, businesses can keep ahead of the competition.

*Start-up forever by Sahar Hashemi is published by Matador, price £10.99.

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