To Innovate, Think Like A Startup

Innovation Can Come From “Startup Thinking”

One of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had in my life was when I used to work for an innovative department within a large company. A number of years ago, I worked for a large cable company in Canada, basically doing IT work – managing networks, computers, email etc. It was IT admin work, and not very exciting. A new group had just been formed within the company to look at possibly developing a new form of internet connectivity: high speed connection to the internet, using the cable TV plant as the medium. This was all pretty new stuff, and the company that I was working with understood that it was going to be huge (Netscape had just had their IPO and everything “internet” was blowing up). In those days, the only way you could access the internet was via a dial up connection – a very slow process which involved you being fairly technical already – a lot of people at the time used things like AOL in order to access the internet.

The company I was with did something very forward thinking at the time: even though they were an “old line” cable company, they decided to build a fast moving, small, innovative team within the company in order to explore developing this technology. It was unlike anything they had ever done – they didn’t care about signal coming back from the end user home – just signal getting to the home (cable TV signals) so the entire plant would have to be upgraded with new two way transmitters and have the ability to carry network signal in both directions. This company had no idea how to do this, or set up all of the moving parts to bring a high speed internet service to their customers, so they chartered a group to do it.

What they did was very interesting: they hired a VP to run the group, then gave him the money and the leeway to hire who he needed, experiment with various technologies, and build whatever system that his team thought was required. It was literally just like working in a startup, with the horrific dread that you get from being worried about your company going under due to lack of traction and money coming in. We were still driven to build a new, cool product, but we did it for the pure innovation of it – to truly come up with something new and different, without being under the super high pressure of overlord investors.

Its wasn’t as loose as say a research lab – we were given a timeline, but within that timeline, we were free to build as much as we could. Not only did we build the high-speed service – we also designed and built services to run over that service – we were able to generate content, providing our end users with unique local content streaming over high speed servers that we’d set up. This was way before YouTube was even a glint in the founders eyes, we were streaming video to our customers over the high speed connection 8 years before they even launched.

We did some very cool things very early on – and I’d say that the main reason we were able to innovate was that the company had the foresight to set us up just like a startup: start with an idea, get some funding and a team, then go to town. They thought like a startup.

Of course, there were a few downsides: the innovation stayed in the group – the rest of the company never received any of the cultural benefits of what we were doing. Had the group survived the restructuring which came later, possibly transferring some of the people who worked on our team to lead other groups may have allowed some of the innovative idea and processes to spread, so in the end, while the premise was good, the follow through ended. But while we were running, we were innovating.

Enterprises can innovate. They just need the vision to be able to allow themselves to do it. The quickest way to innovation is to drive it via specific initiatives which help even small groups think like startups – without the processes, policies and procedures which can sometimes drag innovation down. Once you have a few groups thinking like startups – leverage that thinking, help it spread throughout the organization. It can be done.