“So your company is staffed by failures?”: a conversation with a Big Company

You know a conversation is going to be rough when it is with someone in charge of cultural change at a Big Company.  Not because Big Company can’t change; I actually think this particular Big Company has done a good job of getting better.  But getting better and being good are a long way from each other, and Big Company Person (BCP) generally wants to tell you all about how great their culture is, not talk about how it could improve.

Imagine, if you will, BCP and me and another Startup Guy (SG).  BCP, of course, feels that we should be honored by Big Company’s presence at the event and wants to tell us how awesome they are.  SG and I both talk about what Big Company could do for startups, to which BCP replies that startups don’t really interest Big Company, because they will get them anyway “if they are successful”.

Fair enough.  I don’t agree, as I think the cream will rely on relationships they made when they were at their seed stage (which is why you see the top few VCs making most the money: everyone wants to work with them from the earliest stages), but it is certainly debatable.  And I’m trying to be nice, having suggested that Big Company is doing good things about their own culture and that after four years of meetings there, I finally saw some people in jeans earlier this week.  I follow up this anecdote with “so you don’t think Big Company can do stuff for startups, what can startups do for Big Company?”

BCP says, naturally, “culture” – that Big Company wants to have more spirited, entrepreneurial people working internally to accomplish big things.  SG points out how companies usually say that but then have cultures of bureaucracy that make it difficult.  BCP says “we’ve got that figured out.  After all, people at Big Company aren’t dumb.  They know how to do it.”

But wait.  If Big Company is full of smart people who already have that figured out, why do they want to get startups to teach them how to be innovative.  Something doesn’t add up.  Maybe, I suggest, startups could also be a feeder for talent. Which led to the following exchange:

BCP: “Oh, we have plenty of talent.  We get plenty of resumes.”
Me: “Getting a lot of resumes doesn’t mean you get a lot of good resumes, though.”
BCP: “We’re pretty good at wooing the people we want.”
Me: “But that’s Google’s advantage: they don’t have to woo me, I already WANT to work there.”
BCP: “But after your second startup fails, you get pretty hungry.”
Me: “So your company is staffed by failures?”

Luckily, because it was loud, BCP didn’t hear that (although SG laughed).  And not everyone whose startup fails twice is a bad employee.  But the odds of top innovators having some previous success is higher than not and I’m not sure anyone wants to be the Big Company that people go to in order to lick their wounds and recharge for their next try.

So to recap: Big Company wants to be talk to startups, but only so they can help Big Company and not because Big Company can help them.  They want to emulate startups and be entrepreneurial but are already really good at it and don’t want help.  And they have a huge talent pipeline, full of really smart people even though most proven entrepreneurs would never consider working there if they could get a job anywhere else.

So…why were they sponsoring this startup social hour again?  If you aren’t interested in helping us, and you don’t want our help, then I would officially like to thank you, oh Big-Company-that-shall-not-be-named, for the free food and booze.  Next time, also please include non-alcoholic drinks.

I actually take that back.  Next time, have no food and no booze and no Diet Coke and just come with an attitude that affords us some respect.  We may be young and unpolished, but if you watch us and listen occasionally, we might just have something that you can use to make both your Big Company and your world a bit better.  We understand bottom lines, know how to make profit, and if we aren’t the kind of people you’d be dying to woo, why are you talking to us anyway?