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Dignity is Deadly, Part Two


In an earlier post, I talked about Paul Graham's talk at Amazon, on what the corporate world can learn from start-ups. The point that stuck with me the most is this:

When you evolve out of start-up mode and start worrying about being professional and dignified, you only lose capabilities. You don't add anything... you only take away. Dignity is deadly.

So I made a list of what I've found in start-ups versus what I've lived in the corporate world. I painted this in the extreme on both sides, of course.

Or did I?


I'm not saying start-ups couldn't learn a thing or two from Big Business, but keep in mind the name of this blog. We're not doing Best Business Practices For Maximixing Profit. This is about creating passionate users. The good news is the big(ish) companies that "get it" are working hard to incorporate the best of both cultures. There's no REAL reason why a big, established company cannot keep the start-up spirit alive, while still running a business and yes, maximizing shareholder value. And as each day goes by, the chances that your users/customers/clients are from the gamer generation goes up. That's the best news of all... because the post-boomers don't give a damn about your "professionalism". They want to know how you can help them kick ass, and why you don't have a blog.

[apologies for the huge graphic there, but I wanted to make it easy for people to grab it]

Links from the table:
Gaping Void
Presentation Zen

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2006 | Permalink


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» Startup vs. corporate from Positive Sharing
Kathy Sierra nails it yet again with a laugh-out-loud funny list of differences between the startup and the corporate mindset. I added a few examples of my own in the comments: Startup Corporate When we screw up Admit it, apologize, fix it, compen... [Read More]

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» Belo paralelo from É isso.org
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From one of my favorite blogs Creating Passionate Users, I am re-blogging the following article that effectively captures the young-at-heart vs. stale-at-heart company. I hope that regardless of our size that we [medbilladvisor] stay on t... [Read More]

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» Creating Passionate Users: Dignity is Deadly, Part Two from
Fantastic, inspirational post about the differences between startups and established corporations. Reminds us to stay hungry, nimble and passionate, not stagnate. Recommended reading for anyone who, like me, gets worn out by the machine at times. [Read More]

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"There's no REAL reason why a big, established company cannot keep the start-up spirit alive, while still running a business and yes, maximizing shareholder value."

In theory, I think I can accept this as true.

In practice, what big, established company has truly kept the start-up spirit alive?

Posted by: Rob Sanheim | Feb 28, 2006 11:18:11 PM

As a post-boomer, I disagree a little bit.

I want, if not a sense of professionalism, a sense of reliability from the companies I purchase or interact with. Professionalism doesn't guarantee reliability, of course, but there is a high correlation.

That is, why the heck would I sign up for the pro version of your web app if I thought that my data was vulnerable or that I'd have trouble getting to it when I needed it. Or why would I hire your firm for a job if there wasn't any historical data (you know, completed projects, stuff like that) that you and your guys could get the job done.

If a company can both help me kick ass and kick that ass on a regular timetable, then fuck yeah, let's rock and roll!

Posted by: Danno | Feb 28, 2006 11:32:35 PM

> [apologies for the huge graphic there, but I wanted to make it easy for people to grab it]

Nothing is more corporate than a giant honkin' graphic in place of a.. simple.. HTML.. table. Dubya Tee Eff, mate?

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Feb 28, 2006 11:59:24 PM

Provocative as always, Kathy, which is what makes life. I agree 100% with the sentiments here, except for one point. You're missing a valuable source of information if you don't think and know a lot about the competition. As Isaac Newton said in explaining how he got those amazing thoughts (gravity for example .. ), I stood on the shoulders of giants. Well those giants can be your competitors.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Mar 1, 2006 3:45:14 AM

"There's no REAL reason why a big, established company cannot keep the start-up spirit alive"

I have to say I disagree with this statement. Those people who get involved with start-ups, either the founders or the early employees, are people who are attracted to all the points you list on the left of the chart. As the business grows and becomes more established, the job applicants change. By definition these are not people who are attracted to "the start-up spirit" - if they were they'd be starting their own company rather than applying to yours for a job. And once they become the majority that's it, the underlying (unspoken of course) sentiment is "let's be careful" rather than "let's bet it all on red".

Great list though! Can I add another category?
Listens to: (start-up) our guts, (corporate) our stakeholders

Posted by: matt___ | Mar 1, 2006 4:10:12 AM

There are reasons for professional standards. It's important to understand them but in the end you shouldn't let them hold you back. I think that is the message.

Posted by: Michael | Mar 1, 2006 4:18:32 AM

As a pastor, I definitely see and feel the reality of this article. How many new church plants grow exponentially (sometimes hopping from meeting place to meeting place) while established congregations die protecting their reputations (professionalism) and edifices. I want the start-up spirit that does the impossible because they don't know they are not suppose to!

Posted by: Robbie H | Mar 1, 2006 6:32:33 AM

I work for a very, very big company -- all I can say is "ouch" too close to home....however, I'm not fully corporat-ized.

I am making it my mission to infect my team and the teams I work with to have a start-up, create passionate users mentality. I'm keeping this post for influencing material for senior leadership.


Posted by: Russ N. | Mar 1, 2006 7:51:06 AM

I think part of it is size. Not all but a significant chunk. So with bigger companies you have to fight a lot harder to stay fun, innovative, etc.

My friend Kevin Meagher's consulting company refuses to grow past 50 people. (Last I heard, at least.) They're very good, very much in demand, could do ten times the work and make more money, but what they have works.

GoreTex, I believe, divides its departments/divisions into no more than 200 or so people. Bigger than that, you can't at least have heard of all the people in the department, and accountability and other stuff slides. When a group grows past that mark, they divide it into two or somehow manage to preserve the small size.

My best ever employment experience by orders of magnitude, Great Plains Software in Fargo ND (now owned by MS....) was about 250 when I joined. Very low salary, not much for cubes, especially when we moved into a factory outlet mall. But we LOVED our jobs. For many reasons but one was that the CEO knew what was important, made it very clear to everyone what the values of the company were, and rewarded those behaviors publicly and frequently. If you had a good idea, you were allowed to implement it, and then you got rewarded. Amazing. Haven't found that culture since. (Why did I leave? Kinda cold.)

So--it's not the only factor, of course, but some aspects of corporate culture come from size. Not always size of the company but size of your "world" you work in, the department as in the Goretex example.

Though of course you can certainly have a soul-sucking small company, as well. ;>

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | Mar 1, 2006 8:31:01 AM

Perhaps an equivalent way of saying the same thing is that the corporate world doesn't have a lot of humility. There's a lot of ego associated with marketshare and position and other status indicators. Ironically, creating neat us vs. them tables actually fosters corporate-style status seeking and ego because it focuses attention on a set of criteria which we are encouraged to measure and rank with. From there, its just a few steps from becoming a superficial exercise in checking off boxes.

You can observe this phenomenon at work with AJAX/Web 2.0, or even punk rock - the enthusiasm for something different ends up creating a set of criteria that trend-followers can appropriate and misuse. The danger is that these new, revolutionary ways of thinking will become codified and become a set of rigid and inflexible blinders much like the one's the corporate world is currently wearing.

The line of thinking we have here is remarkably corporate, because it sets two philosophies in competition to each other to see which is better, which is quite a reversal when the same people also claim to shun competition and are focus purely on enjoying what they do. I would encourage people to live and let live a bit more, and to the extent that criticism is useful and called for, focus on the general principles.

Posted by: Mike | Mar 1, 2006 11:59:32 AM

There is merit to what you say, but I think your exageration also points to a flaw in your logic. What good is "professionalism"? Repeatability, reliability. CMM level 3+ is boring as all get-out, gobs of useless-seeming documentation, archiving, training, etc, BUT it has the advantage of producing at least "average" product over and over and over. The "startup mode" will produce exceptional stuff occasionally, but there will be a LOT of stuff produced that quite frankly, is disgusting.

Oh, and in that same neighborhood, startups frequently will be lax on important standards of Many kinds, including things like workplace harassment training...

Posted by: greenup | Mar 1, 2006 1:11:46 PM

Thanks for adding to the discussion (and pointing out flaws). It can only help...

Rob: there are at least *pieces* of established companies that are able to do this, but it's often through pirate projects or skunkworks. But I might claim that Amazon, has at least some of this, despite their growth. That said, Amazon might have a bit too MUCH of the start-up mentality when it comes to scaling. But that's another topic.

Jeff: I've been stuffed away as a server-side girl for the last six years. You're assuming I'd have a clue how to do an HTML table. I tried to get away with it by saying you can't drag a table to your desktop. You know, it's a feature not a bug... But I hear you-- I acknowledged I was doing something bad, but it doesn't excuse it.

Barry: "You're missing a valuable source of information if you don't think and know a lot about the competition"

Hmmm... I wasn't clear about that -- when I said, "irrelevant", I didn't mean that they didn't know or care, but rather that they were doing something in a space where competition did not yet exist--the Blue Ocean approach, where you are uncontested in whatever "market" you are in. So yes, I agree with you -- you should DEFINITELY know as much as possible about what else is out there, if for no other reason than to learn what needs are not currently served, or where users are frustrated.

Danno, and others:
This really depends on your definition of "professionalism". I agree that trust and quality are EXTREMELY important, and must be communicated in some way. I'm assuming that the start-up cares deeply about quality, but I didn't make that clear.

greenup: "BUT it has the advantage of producing at least "average" product over and over and over. The "startup mode" will produce exceptional stuff occasionally, but there will be a LOT of stuff produced that quite frankly, is disgusting."

Completely agree on all counts. But again, this post (and this blog) is not about producing average or even *good* products. This is not a management blog--it's about creating passionate users, and it's worth producing some really bad things to get to the f'n amazing and exceptional things.

Mike: "The line of thinking we have here is remarkably corporate, because it sets two philosophies in competition to each other to see which is better"

This is exactly why I do it. This notion of putting too philosophies in competition, especially when there are conflicting and compelling points on each side, is a foundation of the learning principles we apply here and in our classrooms or books. Facing cognitive dissonance, the brain is virtually *forced* to think more deeply rather than simply skimming the surface. It's almost impossible for a brain to NOT do it. The fact that y'all have found flaws on both sides, and agree with some and disagree with others is the important part.

In our books, we consider this one of our best tools for getting brains to flex more neurons. There is no one true answer. In our books, we implement this all over the place through interviews between two characters (including anthropomorphized parts of a system), debates, "fireside chats", etc., many of which take extreme positions on both sides. It wouldn't surprise me if down the road I made a post that would seem to contradict what this one says, if only because it points the flashlight in a different spot in the same room.

Mike: I could not agree more with you on this:
"You can observe this phenomenon at work with AJAX/Web 2.0, or even punk rock - the enthusiasm for something different ends up creating a set of criteria that trend-followers can appropriate and misuse. The danger is that these new, revolutionary ways of thinking will become codified and become a set of rigid and inflexible blinders much like the one's the corporate world is currently wearing."

The question is, how can we avoid that? It's happening everywhere, and so quickly it's scary.

I suppose there's a danger that putting up lists like this one only adds to the problem, but I have greater faith in the readers here than that. And the comments on this particular post are evidence. Selfishly, it means I get to learn from everyone else here.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 1, 2006 2:12:15 PM

I think a good bit of what happens is caused by basic social instincts based on group size. People behave differently depending on the size of the group they see themselves in.

Standing up in front of a group of 5 is very different from a group of 50 or a group of 5000.

In a small group you're thinking, "can we be friends?" "do you understand me?"

In a medium size group you start to become conscious of the primate pecking order. "Who is the leader?" "What is the dominant person doing?"

Finally, in a very large group the herd dynamic takes over. "How can I avoid being noticed?"

I'm sure this has its roots in basic primate brain behavior. So what we need are the tricks to get past this, just like the Head First books use tricks to get past the primitive brain barriers to learning. What are the mind-hacks to getting larger groups to function effectively?

I would bet that a "startup" with 1000 employees would act much the same as an older company within weeks of its founding. (Wouldn't that be a fun experiment, though!)

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Mar 1, 2006 5:02:12 PM

What a great list - had me laughing out loud. May I suggest some additions?

When we screw up:
Startup: Admit it, apologize, fix it, compensate customers, move on.
Corporate: Try to hide it. When that fails, blame the customers.

Startup: Fun, chaotic, everyone is heard.
Corporate: The boss talks, you listen.

When you disagree with management:
Startup: You're valued.
Corporate: You're fired.

Startup: Whatever works for you
Corporate: 9-5. On paper. In reality: 9-9.

Having children:
Startup: Hell yeah. Come back in 6 months. Or when you're ready.
Corporate: Are you sure you want to jeopardize your career?

When you succeed:
Startup: The whole company celebrates with you.
Corporate: "Employee of the month" certificate.

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Mar 2, 2006 6:31:06 AM

I guess my problem is mainly one of where the focus is. We're not really comparing philosophies so much as we are looking at differences of expressions of those philosophies. I'd like to see more about why these differences exist, what they represent and why they are better/different. To that end:

Its important to realize that some of these differences exist because of structural differences (small vs. big) between startups and corporations rather than philosophic differences. Some of these Culture, Focus, Innovation, Voice, Public Image, Business Plan, Daily Reads. If your startup becomes successful and expands, these things should be allowed to change or included without feeling like you are abandoning your principles. For example, it isn't feasible for a large corporation to speak in an authentically human-to-human voice, because at that scale, you hire people whose job is to speak on behalf of other parts of the organization. This is also partly due to philosophic differences which favors centralizing everything in one specialized department which co-ordinates all external communication, and some companies like Microsoft are moving toward softening this by decentralizing some of their communications with blogs. But still, any large company needs some co-ordinated communication, and it would be a mistake to think that the absence or presence of it is a strong predictor of the underlying philosophy. What's more, it is possible to have blogs that are reviewed and controlled by a centralized authority within the company, even with small startups, and readers would never realize that.

A few of these differences aren't differences at all, like Competition and Passion. Startups are always competing internally, with other startups, and of course, with the big guys. Profit is a kind of passion for a certain kind of person. Its true that for large technology companies, the people who actually work on the product aren't terribly passionate, but the business guys have a passion for doing the kinds of things that you get an MBA for. Its not my thing, personally, but I can acknowledge that there's something there that is fun for them.

The differences that I think are clearly philosophic include Presentation Style, Dress Code, Workspace, Corporate Office, You'll Be Fired For. I think the obsession with status, hierarchy, authority and bureaucracy reflects an essentialist philosophy which says there is a natural order such that certain people are meant to rule over or manage others, sometimes ignoring whether they are actually competent or not. In some ways, our whole economic system is structured around this, because people are trained to become specialists, not generalists, which means that you take your place in the natural order. Of course, this viewpoint has been eroding over the last century or two, we're a bit more meritocratic than that, but I think this effect is still felt in business, especially with its obsession as status, which I see an effort to be perceived as Important, belonging somewhere higher up in the hierarchy. One problem with this is that making business decisions based on some abstract concept of order such as "Men are natural leaders" or "Nobody can question the CEO because he's like God" is frequently inefficient, which is one concern among several perhaps more serious ones involving civil rights, equality and so on. There might be an argument there that people with a startup mentality are more likely to be liberal and libertarian than conservative in political outlook.

On the question of how to avoid codifying a philosophy, it may not be possible to do that, and what's more, I suspect that you actually don't want to do that. It is sometimes easy to forget that organizations don't exist just to deliver products to customers, they also function as communities for the employees, and its in this capacity that they become inflexible. Its very comforting to believe that the world has a natural order and hierarchy to it, or the reverse of that, that everyone is equal and no-one's opinion is any more valid than any other. Communities coalesce around these ideas, and it is the function of a community to preserve the common ground that makes up interpersonal relationships, but this often comes at the expense of efficiency. Additionally, communities often deal quite harshly with people who are perceived as threats. Even supposedly inclusive communities do this, since all communities have a protective function for itself and its members, but that protection can become stifling too, as innovators from within are branded as traitors and cast out of the inner circle.

And so on. I recommend Don Beck and Christopher Cowan's Spiral Dynamics for those interested in understanding the various value systems among and within organizations and how to create change.

Posted by: Mike | Mar 2, 2006 2:46:50 PM

Guess you worked for the wrong parts of the wrong sorts of corporations. I have lots of fun with my software dev team at IBM. And the folks at IBM don't seem to care what I write on my blog, and it's even on ibm.com.

I think the sorts of corporations you describe will go the way of the dinosaur.

Posted by: Bill Higgins | Mar 4, 2006 7:43:37 PM

Thanks for keep writing these columns. I enjoy how you put things. the contrast between corporate and startup apply as well to being in a rut or burned out, or starting any new venture. :-)

Posted by: Pearl | Mar 6, 2006 7:17:53 PM

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