Dennis Furia is an Innovation & Growth Strategist at The Garage Group, and was a marketer at Procter & Gamble from 2011 to 2016
Making the switch from a large company to a startup has been a huge adventure for me. In many cases, the training and experience I got at P&G has been a huge help in the world of small business. This is especially true since The Garage Group spends so much time interacting with and guiding large companies. On the flip side, there are many lessons that I’m learning now at a startup that I wish I had known while in my corporate role. I’ve captured some of the larger ones below.
Lesson 1: Stop searching for the perfect data point.
One of the biggest lessons is around decision making. At a large corporation I was fortunate to have access to all the data in the world. I could slice share by sub-brand by retailer by region by week, all in the blink of an eye. The downside was that all that data could become addicting. There were times where I had enough data to come to a conclusion, but would continue diving through databases because I didn’t yet have the perfect statistical soundbite. I wasn’t looking to inform my thinking anymore, I was looking for a prettier bow to wrap it in. My assumption was that, with enough data, I could make my argument 100% airtight. Of course, the reality is that very few business questions have a perfect numerical answer (that’s why there’s a person in the role and not an algorithm), and more often than not, my additional searching would just open up more questions. These tangential questions weren’t bad in and of themselves, but in a world of finite time and energy, they were a distraction from the initial, more important question without adding anything to the conclusion that I’d already reached.
On the startup side, concrete data is much harder to come by. Out of necessity, I’ve learned to shift my attitude towards data from “gain complete confidence” to “gain enough confidence to take action”. Once I reach that point, I’ve always found more success by taking action than by continuing to research every eventuality.
Lesson 2: Get out of the office.
Another benefit of working at a large corporation was the frequency with which we were able to do consumer research. However, looking back, I let “attending consumer research” be too much of a stand-in for “being in-touch with the consumer”. Most of the research I attended was highly directed (seeking to answer a specific business question) rather than exploratory (broadly searching for insights that might not be uncovered yet). Directed research can be extremely useful, but it’s not enough on its own to give you a holistic understanding of your consumer.
In contrast, the exploratory mindset is pervasive in the startup world, where entrepreneurs are obsessed with understanding unmet needs and pain points, sometimes even without a product in mind! It’s the kind of mindset that allows you to anticipate someone’s needs before they’ve articulated them, and the tools for researching this way look entirely different. It looks like doing a store walk and striking up a conversation with a consumer who’s shopping your aisle, or curiously talking with a friend that uses your competitor’s product. In general, you get this insight by getting out of the office (or out from behind the one-way mirror) and interacting with the consumer on their turf and by their terms. It can be a vulnerable–and even scary–experience, but I think the benefits would have far outweighed the risks in my corporate role.
Lesson 3: Have an entrepreneurial mindset, especially toward budget.
In my first corporate role, I had an amount of money that I could spend without any additional authorization. It was a hugely empowering policy, but I don’t think I used it once.
The amount was a tiny fraction of the total budget for the business, which led me to the false assumption that the “small” amount would never move the needle. When challenges came my way I would look immediately towards larger-scale solutions that required approval. Looking back, there would have been a ton of merit in carrying out the thought exercise of “how would I solve this within my authorization?”.
At a smaller company, my mindset has shifted completely. Sure, I’d now kill for access to that budget I took for granted, but even more important was learning to have an entrepreneurial mindset towards whatever resources I have at my disposal. It doesn’t come from a mindset of scarcity, but from the acknowledgement that constraints can breed creativity, and that an iterative test-and-learn approach will yield better results than going all-in up front. This isn’t about pinching pennies (at a large company, speed and quality are often more important than cost), it’s about never letting purchasing power be a substitute for ingenuity and strategic thinking.
Lesson 4: Be a student, not an expert.
The more experienced I became in my corporate role, the harder it was for me to say those three little words: “I don’t know”. Even if the frequency with which I had to say them was going down, it felt bad when situations came up outside of my expertise. I placed a high value on having all the answers off the top of my head, but this meant my first impulse was to explain everything through existing knowledge and frameworks rather than honestly assessing if I was missing something.
One of the largest things the startup world has taught me is that it’s better to think of yourself as a “student of” your field rather than an “expert on” it. Thinking of yourself as an expert assumes a fixed pool of knowledge that you already have a firm command of. This makes new or conflicting information harder to accept because it challenges your status as an expert. Thinking of yourself as a student focuses less on having all the answers, and more on being good at finding them. Regardless of how much you already know, it assumes that the pool of knowledge is constantly expanding. The sooner you can admit “I don’t know”, the sooner you can get to “but I can find out!”
Lesson 5: Focus on legacy over ladder.
At a large corporation, my career path was clearly defined, and I could easily see the next 4 to 5 promotions strung out in front of me. Unfortunately, this created the temptation to measure my worth by how close I was to that next career step. My yearly rating and “readiness to promote” provided more than enough immediate motivation (especially in a competitive environment), but that made it easier for me to leave the deeper, longer term motivations unexamined.
Joining a small company helped me see just how ridiculous that mindset was. In the absence of a clearly defined ladder to climb, I had to think more deeply about WHY I was doing what I was doing, which led me to put much more stake in the legacy I was building — on the business, but more importantly in the lasting impact I wanted to have on the people around me. It can feel odd to think so expansively about your impact in a larger organization, especially if you’re more junior. Working for a small business has helped me realize that thinking about legacy is time well spent in any organization and at any level.
There’s a thousand other lessons I’ve learned on the startup side that would have helped me immensely at a large corporation. I’m lucky to be able to apply them in my current role at The Garage Group, helping large corporations innovate and grow like a startup, and I hope this post will inspire you to apply them as well!