Large, multi-national, corporations have long enjoyed a monolithic presence on Wall Street. Their quarterly earnings cadence was the central driver to the stock market and our economy.  Government policies, corporate law, and investment banking all organized themselves to support these complex corporate structures. The times were good and business was booming.  Top executives, running mega-corporations, only really worried about staying one step ahead of other mega-corporations run by other top executives.

Just when it seemed that the Mad Men ways of doing business were here to stay, along came the 90’s tech bubble. Disruptive technology, coupled with the seed of widely available VC money, gave birth to a new wave of start-ups. Initially, large corporations didn’t register any potential threat. After all, how could a 20-person office full of 20-somethings pose any real challenge to a 50,000-person, global giant run by 50-somethings? This was the prevailing corporate mindset until the first unicorns were born. Unicorns are those rare and highly sought-after start-ups that reach valuations of more than a billion dollars.  Their existence pushed established businesses to re-define themselves in an age when revenue multiples, not earnings, drove share price and investors put millions behind founders with grand ideas and no prototypes. Many mourned that business rules and culture would never be the same. Nearly forty years later, corporations are still grappling with how to evolve their cultures to capture the unicorn mystique.

I have spent many years in both types of business environments. I have seen the awkward struggle of large organizations trying to be innovative juxtaposed with the innate way startups dive into risk. While there is no magic formula, there are some unicorn traits worth contemplating.

Unicorns graze on the land of “what ifs”

Unicorns focus on what will happen if their idea goes right. They muse long and hard about all the scenarios for when their idea will take hold, how it will change the world, and why they want to do it.

This is a stark contrast to the corporate mindset that clings to consistency. Because corporations are rewarded for stability, their tendency is to approach new ideas by first analyzing every possible pitfall. Unfortunately, going down the path of what can go wrong before thinking about what can go right creates unfertile gounds for innovation and inspiration to thrive.

Unicorns have strong survival instincts – iterate or die

Unicorns understand they have evolution to thank for their existence.

Our technical landscape has exponentially increased the pace of change on the planet. Unicorns understand that speed wins over perfection. They also understand that more frequent iteration significantly increases their learning curve. The more times you try something and learn, the faster you will reach a breakthrough that will keep you relevant. Corporations tend to put their products on much longer planning cycles than startups (sometimes years versus weeks or months).  Adhering to this approach increases the likelihood that starts ups will lap their larger counterparts.

Unicorns believe in crowd sourcing

Unicorns don’t have a king. They believe in decentralized decision making, flat organizations, and fuzzy (if any) organizational charts.

To get things done, they leverage informal communication channels (like Slack, Google Hangouts, and good old fashioned getting up and talking to each other). They also utilize technology to optimize mobility and connectivity. By flattening organizations and opening up informal communication channels, ideas and information don’t have to make their way through rigid hierarchies. Corporations don’t realize the cost of lost information that gets trapped in a corporate silo or killed along the chain of command.

Unicorns are millennials at heart

Unicorns were born in the millennial era. They are digital natives who believe in meritocracies and are motivated by meaning and experiences. The traditional markers of corporate success are not enough.

Unicorn culture has deep roots into why they are in business, not the how or what.

Corporations lose their spirit when their only focus is on how many widgets they’re going to sell this year. Selling lots of stuff pays the bills, but ultimately people want their work to be associated with something that matters. 

For a great explanation of why Starting with Why matters, check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk.

Large, multi-national, corporations have long enjoyed a monolithic presence on Wall Street. Their quarterly earnings cadence was the central driver to the stock market and our economy.  Government policies, corporate law, and investment banking all organized themselves to support these complex corporate structures. The times were good and business was booming.  Top executives, running mega-corporations, only really worried about staying one step ahead of other mega-corporations run by other top executives.

Just when it seemed that the Mad Men ways of doing business were here to stay, along came the 90’s tech bubble. Disruptive technology, coupled with the seed of widely available VC money, gave birth to a new wave of start-ups. Initially, large corporations didn’t register any potential threat. After all, how could a 20-person office full of 20-somethings pose any real challenge to a 50,000-person, global giant run by 50-somethings? This was the prevailing corporate mindset until the first unicorns were born. Unicorns are those rare and highly sought-after start-ups that reach valuations of more than a billion dollars.  Their existence pushed established businesses to re-define themselves in an age when revenue multiples, not earnings, drove share price and investors put millions behind founders with grand ideas and no prototypes. Many mourned that business rules and culture would never be the same. Nearly forty years later, corporations are still grappling with how to evolve their cultures to capture the unicorn mystique.

I have spent many years in both types of business environments. I have seen the awkward struggle of large organizations trying to be innovative juxtaposed with the innate way startups dive into risk. While there is no magic formula, there are some unicorn traits worth contemplating.

Unicorns graze on the land of “what ifs”

Unicorns focus on what will happen if their idea goes right. They muse long and hard about all the scenarios for when their idea will take hold, how it will change the world, and why they want to do it.

This is a stark contrast to the corporate mindset that clings to consistency. Because corporations are rewarded for stability, their tendency is to approach new ideas by first analyzing every possible pitfall. Unfortunately, going down the path of what can go wrong before thinking about what can go right creates unfertile gounds for innovation and inspiration to thrive.

Unicorns have strong survival instincts – iterate or die

Unicorns understand they have evolution to thank for their existence.

Our technical landscape has exponentially increased the pace of change on the planet. Unicorns understand that speed wins over perfection. They also understand that more frequent iteration significantly increases their learning curve. The more times you try something and learn, the faster you will reach a breakthrough that will keep you relevant. Corporations tend to put their products on much longer planning cycles than startups (sometimes years versus weeks or months).  Adhering to this approach increases the likelihood that starts ups will lap their larger counterparts.

Unicorns believe in crowd sourcing

Unicorns don’t have a king. They believe in decentralized decision making, flat organizations, and fuzzy (if any) organizational charts.

To get things done, they leverage informal communication channels (like Slack, Google Hangouts, and good old fashioned getting up and talking to each other). They also utilize technology to optimize mobility and connectivity. By flattening organizations and opening up informal communication channels, ideas and information don’t have to make their way through rigid hierarchies. Corporations don’t realize the cost of lost information that gets trapped in a corporate silo or killed along the chain of command.

Unicorns are millennials at heart

Unicorns were born in the millennial era. They are digital natives who believe in meritocracies and are motivated by meaning and experiences. The traditional markers of corporate success are not enough.

Unicorn culture has deep roots into why they are in business, not the how or what.

Corporations lose their spirit when their only focus is on how many widgets they’re going to sell this year. Selling lots of stuff pays the bills, but ultimately people want their work to be associated with something that matters. 

For a great explanation of why Starting with Why matters, check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk.

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