The corporate start-up fantasy

Corporate managers appropriating start-up culture is a fascinating feature of today's corporate culture. Everyone loves talking about the start-up ethos but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

One fascinating phenomenon of the modern era is how corporate managers have appropriated the start-up culture.

At the announcement of the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation’s Apps For Broadband prizes, Foxtel’s CIO Robyn Elliot described her experience of working in a start-up.

“Foxtel was once in the category of start-up itself,” said Elliot at the start of her speech.

Comparing Foxtel to a scrabbling start-up in the modern sense is bizarre given the company was always a well-funded joint venture between News Limited and Telstra. In fact, some may argue that the company is a better example of modern Australian crony corporatism rather than a risky undertaking by daring entrepreneurs.

This conceit about start-ups isn’t unusual among corporate executives, in the early days of Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) it was quite common to hear NBN Co managers talk about their start-up ethos – this from a company backed by around $30 billion of government funding.

At one stage I interviewed for a job at NBN Co and I struggled not to start giggling when the “start-up ethos of the organisation” was earnestly emphasised to me.

Not surprisingly the job went to an ex-telco staffer, as did most of the roles in the team. No doubt their corporate experience was far more suited to the company’s ‘start-up ethos’ than that of actually having worked in four start-ups. Giggling during the interview probably didn’t help either.

Given most corporate staffers would curl into the foetal position and weep after two weeks of working in a real start-up, either the Silicon Valley type or the more usual cash strapped small business, why do executives indulge in the conceit that their business is ‘just like a start-up’?

The answer could lie in “The Consequences to the Banks of the Collapse in Money Values” written by John Maynard Keynes in 1931.

A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way so that no one can really blame him. It is necessarily part of the business of a banker to maintain appearances, and to confess a conventional respectability, which is more than human. Life-long practices of this kind make them the most romantic and the least realistic of men.

And so it is for the modern corporate executive who has spent their working lives fighting for the corner office having met their KPIs and spending years cultivating their network of like-minded managers.

After two decades spent writing stern memos on the use of paper clips and climbing the corporate ladder, it must be tempting for a middle aged executive to look at those funky youngsters getting billion dollar payouts after a couple of years grabbing three hours sleep a night among the pizza boxes under the desk and get pangs of what might have been…..

In some many ways the executive start-up fantasy is touching and largely harmless, even if it does attract sniggers and giggles from the unwashed who’ve actually been there.

The real risk is when a senior executive tries to shoehorn a Silicon Valley start-up culture into an organisation. While most large companies could do with some of the hunger and flexibility found in smaller businesses, there’s many ways that could go terribly wrong – particularly when driven by a starry eyed romantic manager.

For most executives though, the dreams of being in a start-up will remain a fantasy – and that’s probably best for everybody.

Paul Wallbank is a business technology writer, broadcaster and blogger and author of eBusiness: Seven Steps to Online Success.

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