Successful startups seem to follow similar paths to greatness, and unfortunately, all too often that path leads them back down the hill much faster than they went up. Big company powerhouses, like IBM and Xerox, took fifty years to make the cycle, but new companies today, in the age of the Internet, often make the cycle in five to ten years, or even less. Consider MySpace and Webvan.
Thus it behooves every entrepreneur to start watching these things more carefully from the very start. By definition, most startups begin as a result of some innovation in product, process, or service. The problem is that innovations in most business areas are coming so fast these days that yours can be overrun while still being scaled across geographies and other products.
In other words, the challenge today is to build a culture of continuous innovation, as well as continuous scaling, and continuous consolidation, all concurrently. That’s a tall order, especially when your business culture has to fit into the myriad of international and local cultures that are part of every market these days.
In the classic book, “Fish Can’t See Water,” Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis explore these cultural issues, both national and international, that can make or break your company strategy. Incidentally, I love that book title, which seems to be applicable to most aspects of business (and even people), as well as business culture.
To set the stage for all the cultural issues and timing, the authors start with a summary that I like of the five lifecycle phases every company is likely to experience over the long-term or short-term, regardless of culture:
- Innovation. This business phase is where every entrepreneur starts. It’s a volatile period for every company, where most struggle with getting commercial and technological traction, usually based on a single product or service. A particularly critical moment is when the founders hand over the leadership to a more managerial regime.
- Geographic expansion. This phase is characterized by rapid expansion either regionally or globally for growth (scaling-up). This is where the culture of the startup has to adapt to the cultures of the markets served. A common practice is to hire local employees who know the geographic culture, even though this may well dilute the company culture.
- Product-line expansion. For additional growth, most companies expand the product portfolio to cater to more customers and sell more to existing customers. The challenge during this phase is to stay innovative and agile. This usually marks the end of organic growth, as partnerships and alliances aid growth, but again dilute the focus on culture.
- Efficiency and scale. As the business matures, there is a natural drive towards more efficiency often through sheer scale and a desire for a stronger market share. Companies with an innovative and creative bias, which thrived during the innovation phase, usually struggle in this period. The emphasis is on global processes and tight execution.
- Consolidation. This is the end game for an industry, and many companies, characterized by mergers and acquisitions to a few dominant players. Value creation for major shareholders is frequently hampered by integration issues and culture clashes. The crises definitely hit here, if not earlier, and even the survivors can be dragged down.
In fact, crises can and do hit in any phase, due to poor execution, complacency from success, less competitive strategy, change of leadership, and many other reasons. It’s important to note that a company under crisis often will revert to its core national culture, which only further exacerbates the problem.
Thus it’s important to set your company culture early to be a global company, without a specific national bias, since the speed of change is so great. You need the global outlook, even though digitalization and Web 2.0 means you don’t have to have a physical presence in other countries to participate in the global market.
As companies grow in today’s high-speed Internet environment, with constant pivots and new products, they won’t even see the lifecycle phases flashing by, and in fact, may be experiencing all of them concurrently. There is no time to be changing your culture to match the lifecycle. How hard are you working to avoid the “fish can’t see water” syndrome?