Startup Advice

From disrupted to disrupter: What I learnt moving from corporate to startup

Tim Shepherd /

After spending over twenty years working with large corporates, it was time for me to embark on a new journey with a startup. Gone would be the big budgets, structured teams and time-tested processes, instead replaced with a mission and sheer willpower.

Most of my corporate career was spent at large insurance companies. The challenge was very much about adapting to market conditions and improving the customer journey, as opposed to reinventing the wheel. While there are many similarities in thought process between corporate and startup life, there are also stark differences.

For those considering the switch, there are a few key frameworks that can significantly aid in the corporate to startup evolution.

Getting on the front foot

Rather than adapting to market conditions and consumer trends, the focus at a startup is squarely on anticipating the next trend and leaning into the agility and speed at which the team can adapt.

For example, the increased focus on consumer transparency is one of the most significant market changes in the last decade, with the banking royal commission shining a bright light on the practices that have disadvantaged and misled consumers. Many of the large corporates had major reactive work to do to bring their products and services in line with the demands of the market, in this case, ensuring that their practices were fair and transparent.

As a startup, we have to look at how we can actively push consumer transparency forward beyond the market, to consider how we can provide the most transparent service possible. This involves studying the customer pain points and how we can not only eradicate these but bolster the whole experience from start to finish.

It is not enough to simply maintain the status quo at a startup, we have to look beyond it.

Get smart with personalisation

McKinsey research shows that one-to-one marketing and customer journey personalisation has become ever more important as consumers demand targeted messages in the right place, at the right time, with 80 per cent of consumers citing personalisation as important to them. Corporates often have large amounts of data and teams to manage insights, audience segmentation and messages dissemination.

Most startups, on the other hand, are building their customer base from scratch. The founding team will likely have a network of contacts they have built over the years, but much of the work will usually involve securing mutually beneficial partnerships early on and a fair degree of pavement pounding.

But this should not be seen as a limitation or disadvantage, rather an opportunity to outpace the incumbents. For example, how can the team form partnerships with companies that have access to varied customer databases? How could this partnership be a win-win for both parties?

Rather than feeling constrained by limited resources and data, use it as an advantage to serve the market in a new and unique way. For example, can you create a targeted campaign that is relevant for customers in a specific postcode? Think about ways to reach consumers in an ‘unexpected’ way.

Pivot fast approach

One of the first things I realised in my move to a startup was just how much work is needed in hands-on implementation. Where previously there were teams dedicated to implementing strategy, now there was just a few of us. You quickly learn just how many hats you have to wear when working at a startup. One day you are closing a major strategic partnership, and the next, you are troubleshooting an API integration.

This is a massive advantage as it allows teams to pivot quickly. It is with good reason that companies like ANZ Bank are redefining the way their teams are set up and function, adopting agile methodologies like tribes and scrums – they need speed to adapt more quickly than ever before. Startup teams need to lean into the agility they have and not be afraid to try new things, get a minimum product to market, fail fast, and adapt as needed.

A corporate mindset is often focused on reacting to the market and ensuring products and service area in line with these expectations. But with startups, it’s about constantly thinking outside the box. Adopting this a proactive, disruptive mindset is crucial to long-term success as a startup or small business.

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Tim Shepherd

Tim is the director and corporate strategy advisor at CIMET.

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