12 Aug 2015

Is it time to think like a start-up?

Start-up culture is trending.

Big brands like NAB and Westpac are investing in start-ups to gain an insight into their operation, while others like Telstra, IAG and Optus have set up internal incubators to get staff focused on innovation.

But there’s a third group of large brands that now claim to see themselves as start-ups.

SAP, for example, sees successful product development emerging from internal groups that have a “start-up culture”.

And Citrix CEO Mark Templeton also said this year that “any technology company… has to always be thinking like a start-up and acting like a start-up.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone buys into this kind of thinking.

“To say that big brands should think like start-ups is a flippant comment,” opined Theobald Fox founder George Smart.

There’s some truth to the idea that the trend to “think like a start-up” is really just code for being big but thinking – and acting – as if you were small and nimble.

Smart notes that while they might be “desperate for a touch of start-up stardust… it’s ironic that big brands want to mimic start-up business models, when those very same start-ups would kill for a slice of that big brand’s privileges”.

Consultancy ?What If!, which specialises in working with big companies to instil a “start-up” type of culture, is more pragmatic.

“Innovating at a large corporation isn’t about summoning the spirit of a Silicon Valley garage—it’s about more smartly leveraging the advantages of size,” it says.

?What If! says that unlike start-ups, big brands are likely to have shelves of past ideas that could be ripe for revival now. They might also have opportunities to spot innovations in one part of the business that could be applied in another.

Put simply, thinking like a start-up isn’t just about thinking you have to disrupt. There are opportunities around you, no matter your size.

Chunka Mui, co-author of The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups, concurs.

“Yes, small and agile beats big and slow, but big and agile beats anyone—and that combination is more possible than ever,” Mui opined to Forbes.

“Having studied thousands of innovation efforts—both successes and failures—[my co-author] Paul Carroll and I have found that the distinction between companies that succeed at disruptive innovation and those that don’t boil down to six words: Think Big, Start Small, Learn Fast.”


  1. Take advantage of your size.
  2. Adopt an ‘agile’ mindset. Incremental steps allow you to test but not over-invest.
  3. You have more resources than they do to be successful.