The excitement is palpable at the office water cooler, the café, the pub, the weekend football game and in social media. Everyone is talking digital, planning a digital innovation or taking part in a digithon. Everyone is talking about ‘the startup culture’.


Cool campuses, open offices, smart watches, blue jeans, grey T’s and cultivated swag (down to the digital sneaker)! This is what you see in Bangalore, where the startup fever is running high. But this could also be Mumbai, Hyderabad, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Seattle – the list could go on. It makes you wonder, why are digital businesses so intrinsically linked to ‘startup culture’?


When we talk about startups, we’re talking about customers


Every business today is going digital. Every digital business aspires to embrace the ‘startup culture’.  Passion over process, speed over accuracy, co-creation over negotiation – values are shifting with great velocity. And yet, global corporations have survived many economic cycles by running processes with large-scale military precision: employees worked like stoic soldiers and did not expect to be pampered.  Why do even these large and successful corporations want to change their DNA now


Startups are born when the founders spot opportunities in unmet customer needs. They grow in scale to the rhythm of changing customer demands and market trends. Thus a startup culture in every aspect of its manifestation stands for one thing above all: knowing and serving the customer better than anyone else in the market.


Why ‘startup’ has become synonymous with ‘digital’


Digital businesses organized around digitally savvy customers take the game to a whole new level with design at the center of their strategy. The obsession with the customer has reached a new high, with more levels of measurement and interaction than ever, using digital tools like big data and analytics, internet of things, cloud, ubiquitous mobile networks, social media and artificial intelligence. Cognitive and behavioral technologies unravel the mysteries of the human mind and assist in predicting human behavior. It is the intensity of this customer-centric focus in digital business that leads to the very distinctive culture that is natural to startups.


One may well argue that profitability, market dominance or wealth creation are equally (or more) compelling goals than customer centricity.  While these goals are by no means trivial, they must revolve around the customer, or otherwise fly off orbit!


As startups scale, their operating model becomes complex: departments, processes and managers become much-needed props to run the show. However, when the props upstage the customer, an organization collapses under its own weight.


This is why large corporations embracing digital transformation are choosing to ‘return to innocence’: the virtue of a startup for whom nothing is more important than customer experience.


Customer experience, driven by ‘employee experience’


This undiluted focus on customer experience is facilitated by hiring strategists, engineers and designers who are fervently obsessed with customer experience and digitally-enabled innovation. The energy in digital startups is sustained by self-organizing teams that unleash boundless productivity by treating work as play and play as work. These professionals love embracing challenges and they play to win. Failure is not considered permanent, but rather treated as a bruise that can become a battle scar – the mark of a true digital warrior.


How do large corporations attract this kind of talent? Along with being customer focused, every startup has to be obsessed with employee experience too. The same digital tools and design-led approaches that are being used to woo customers can also be used to create the dream work environment.


Digital ventures have specially-designed offices that afford quiet spaces for individual productivity and crowded spaces for creative teambuilding. They offer digitally-enabled collaboration with the flexibility to work from anywhere (including the shower, where the idea fairy is known to frequent!).


What does it take to nurture a startup culture?


It is extremely challenging for large corporations to break away from the way their old habits. Leaders have to make a conscious effort to change individually and sow the seeds of change in their teams.  While this is easier said than done, here is a cheat sheet of ‘startup culture accelerators’.

  1. Hire right: Hire based on candidates’ future potential rather than solely for their past achievements. Look for talent, learnability and drive.
  2. Create a shared context: Make sure that all team members are well aware of your organization’s big picture, customer context and business goals.
  3. Define core values and beliefs: Once done, remain true to them – always!
  4. Encourage ‘obsession with the customer’: Ensure that both structured and unstructured conversations revolve around the customer scenarios.
  5. Reward risk-taking and ownership: This could be in the form of recognition, rewards and creatively crafted compensation packages.
  6. Communicate: Leverage digital channels and personal connections. Create opportunities for formal and informal conversation. ‘Over-communication’ is better than inadequate communication.
  7. Focus on getting things done: Reduce ‘red tape’ policies, processes and permissions to the bare minimum. Empower each employee to take action rather than wait for ‘OK’s or ‘go-ahead’s.
  8. Promote diversity: Diversity is generally understood as being inclusive of both genders and persons with disability. This is a great place to start. It is equally important to foster diversity in opinions, capabilities, experiences, qualifications and working styles.
  9. Encourage humor, playfulness and curiosity: Learning, creativity and team-building are most effective when people can laugh, play and be curious.
  10. Listen to ‘nay-sayers’: Being brutally honest in self-assessment and listening to constructive criticism from team members helps with staying on course or turning the ship as needed.     


As more and more customers adopt a digital lifestyle, more and more ventures large and small are stepping out to grab a piece of the digital pie. In the digital world, success will have nothing to do with size.  It will have everything to do with whether a business has been able to harness a startup culture in it its own individual and authentic way.


Sandhya Arun

Sandhya Arun

Global Head – Integrated Transformation Delivery


Sandhya’s approach to transformation delivery is to enable high-performance teams at scale. These teams are empowered to deliver business value at high velocity, fueling our clients’ transformation agenda. Sandhya believes that a mastery culture underpinned by a growth mindset is required to convert business vision into reality. She invests most of her time with clients and teams with sleeves rolled up solving problems big and small.

What you’ve read here? Tip of the iceberg. Are you ready to be part of the excitement?