Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why Companies are not Startups

By Steve Blank

In the last few years weve recognized that a startup is not a smaller version of a large company. Were now learning that companies are not larger versions of startups.

Theres been lots written about how companies need to be more innovative, but very little on what stops them from doing so.

Companies looking to be innovative face a conundrum: Every policy and procedure that makes a them efficient execution machines stifles innovation.

This first post will describe some of the structural problems companies have; follow-on posts will offer some solutions.


Facing continuous disruption from globalization, China, the Internet, the diminished power of brands, changing workforce, etc., existing enterprises are establishing corporate innovation groups. These groups are adapting or adopting the practices of startups and accelerators disruption and innovation rather than direct competition, customer development versus more product features, agility and speed versus lowest cost.

But paradoxically, in spite of all their seemingly endless resources, innovationinside of an existing company is much harderthan inside a startup. For most companies it feels like innovation can only happen by exception and heroic efforts, not by design. The question is why?

The Enterprise: Business Model Execution

We know that a startup is a temporary organization designed tosearchfor a repeatable and scalablebusiness model. The corollary for an enterprise is:

A company is a permanent organization designed toexecutea repeatable and scalable business model.

Once you understand that existing companies are designed toexecutethen you can see why they have a hard time with continuous and disruptive innovation.

Every large company, whether it can articulate it or not, is executing a provenbusiness model(s). A business model guides an organization to create and deliver products/service and make money from it. It describes the product/service, who is it for, what channel sells/deliver it, how demand is created, how does the company make money, etc.

Somewhere in the dim past of the company, it too was a startupsearchingfor a business model.But now, as the business model is repeatable and scalable, most employees take the business model as a given, and instead focus on theexecutionof the model what is it they are supposed to do every day when they come to work.They measure their success on metrics that reflect success in execution, and they reward execution.

Its worth looking at the tools companies have to support successful execution and explain why these same execution policies and processes have become impediments and are antitheticalto continuous innovation.

20th-Century Management Tools For Execution

In the 20thcentury business schools and consulting firms developed an amazing management stack to assist companies toexecute. These tools brought clarity to corporate strategy, product line extension strategies, and made product management a repeatable process.

bcg matrix

For example, the Boston Consulting Group 2 x 2 growth-share matrix was an easy to understand strategy tool a market selection matrix for companies looking for growth opportunities.

Strategy Maps from Robert Kaplan

Strategy Mapsare a visualization tool to translate strategy into specific actions and objectives, and to measure the progress of how the strategy gets implemented.


Product management tools like Stage-Gateemerged to systematically manage Waterfall product development. The product management process assumes that product/market fit is known, and the products can get specd and then implemented in a linear fashion.

Strategy becomes visible in a company when you draw the structure to execute the strategy. The most visible symbol of execution is the organization chart. It represents where employees fit in an execution hierarchy; showing command and control hierarchies whos responsible, what they are responsible for, and who they manage below them, and report to above them.

GM 1925 org chart

All these tools strategy, product management and organizational structures, have an underlying assumption that the business model which features customers want, who the customer is, what channel sells/delivers the product or service, how demand is created, how does the company make money, etc is known,and that all the company needed is a systematic process for execution.

Driven By Key Performance Indicators(KPIs) And Processes

Once the business model is known, the company organizes around that goal and measures efforts to reach the goal, and seeks the most efficient ways to reach the goal.This systematic process of execution needs to be repeatable and scalable throughout a large organization by employees with a range of skills and competencies. Staff functions in finance, human resources, legal departments and business unitsdeveloped Key Performance Indicators, processes, procedures and goalsto measure, control and execute.

Paradoxically, these very KPIs and processes, which make companies efficient, are the root cause of corporations inability to be agile, responsive innovators.

This is a big idea.

FinanceThe goals for public companies are driven primarily by financial Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). They include: return on net assets (RONA), return on capital deployed, internal rate of return (IRR),net/gross margins, earnings per share, marginal cost/revenue, debt/equity,EBIDA,price earning ratio, operating income, net revenue per employee, working capital, debt to equity ratio, acid test,accounts receivable/payable turnover, asset utilization, loan loss reserves, minimum acceptable rate of return, etc.

(A consequence of using these corporate finance metrics like RONA and IRR is that its a lot easier to get these numbers to look greatby 1) outsourcing everything, 2) getting assets off the balance sheet and 3) only investing in things that pay off fast. These metrics stack the deck against a company that wants to invest in long-term innovation.)

These financial performance indicatorsthen drive the operating functions (sales, manufacturing, etc) or business units that have their own execution KPIs (market share, quote to close ratio, sales per rep, customer acquisition/activation costs, average selling price, committed monthly recurring revenue, customer lifetime value, churn/retention, sales per square foot, inventory turns, etc.)

Corp policies and KPIs

HR ProcessHistorically Human Resources was responsible for recruiting, retaining and removing employees to execute known business functions with known job specs.One of the least obvious but most important HR Process, and ultimately the most contentious, issue in corporate innovation is the difference inincentives. The incentive system for a company focused on execution is driven by the goal of meeting and exceeding the (quarterly/yearly) plan. Sales teams are commission-based, executive compensation is based on EPS, revenue and margin, business units on revenue and margin contribution, etc.

What Does This Mean?

Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more.

The conundrum is that every policy and procedure that makes a company and efficient execution machine stifles innovation.

Innovation is chaotic, messy and uncertain. It needs radically different tools for measurement and control. It needs thetools and processes

pioneered in Lean Startups.

HBR Lean Startup article

While companies intellectually understand innovation, they dont really know how to build innovation into their culture, or how to measure its progress.

What To Do?

It may be that the current attempts to build corporate innovation are starting at the wrong end of the problem. While its fashionable to build corporate incubators theres little evidence that they deliver more than Innovation Theater. Because internal culture applies execution measures/performance indicators to the output of these incubators and allocates resources to them same way as to executing parts of company.

Corporations that want to build continuous innovation realize thatinnovation happens not by exception but as integral to all parts of the corporation.

To do so they will realize that a company needsinnovationKPIs, policies, processes and incentives. (OurInvestment Readiness Levelis just one of those metrics.)These enable innovation to occur as an integral and parallel process to execution. By design not by exception.

Well have more to say about this in future posts.

Lessons Learned

  • Innovation inside of an existing company ismuchharder than a startup
  • KPIs and processes are the root cause of corporations inability to be agile and responsive innovators

    Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more

    Intellectually companies understand innovation, they dont have the tools to put it into practice

    Companies need different policies, procedures and incentives designed for innovation

    Currently the data we use for execution models the past

    Innovation metrics need to be predictive for the future

    These tools and practices are coming