Joe Cardillo

Three Things Internet Startups Can Teach Big Business

By: Joe Cardillo | August 5, 2013 | 

Three Lessons from Internet Startups

By Joe Cardillo

Last week marked three full months of working at a startup.

In that time I’ve learned dozens of things, ranging from email marketing and lead generation to biz dev for tech, and even a little bit about database queries / SQL (don’t be jealous).

I don’t come from a startup background. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever worked for one.

I’ve always been an entrepreneur though, and have gravitated towards jobs and activities where I get to be in charge of my time, and have the opportunity to define my own goals.

You could say I was sort of born for this. I love building things, and then stepping back to watch them flourish. I like working with people, but I am obsessed with – and loyal to – ideas above all else.

Perception is Not Reality

There are plenty of things about Internet startups that seem counterintuitive from the outside. “You guys take too many risks” is a common complaint from friends who work for more traditional and/or larger organizations. I also hear a lot of, “Yeah, but not everyone has the luxury of losing clients if things go wrong.”

When I’m done swacking my fist on my forehead, there’s only one response I can come back with: You got us all wrong, people.

To clarify, my personal opinion is  no business can afford not to take risks. And no one can afford to lose clients, so that’s also bad soup to spoon feed someone.

A whole bunch of large corporations that you know and maybe even love are going to go out of business in the next 10 years. And don’t get me started on PR agencies, many of whom are refusing to change and adapt, even though the writing is on the wall and has been for a while.

But, there is a way out.

It involves learning from the leanest segment of the economy – startups!

Three Things Internet Startups Can Teach Big Business


People talk about priorities all the time. But when was the last time you actually prioritized, I mean hardcore made some serious decisions about what was necessary and what was nice to have? In a startup environment there are often four or fives times as many problems as solutions. Sure, there are 20 things worth doing this week – but which three absolutely have to get done to move your business forward, and at what cost?

If you can figure that out, you will make serious changes happen faster – and end up bettering the health of your organization.

Momentum / Moving Quickly

I’ll come right out and say I think this is the hardest one for most people. I’ll tell you a secret about the human brain. Actually, I’ll tell you two secrets. The first is the processing power of the brain is vastly underrated. If you give your brain a goal it will immediately start calculating how to get there, and begin to build a framework for achieving said goal. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime, and tell me how it goes.

The other secret is that it very rarely matters if you figure something out in full right now because your brain (and your metrics) needs to make connections over time in order to truly validate something. That’s where moving quickly and momentum come in. The hot word / concept right now is “pivoting” but you’re far better off with “testing.”

If you identify what can be pushed forward by moving right now, you accomplish two things: One is instant feedback ,and the other is giving your brain the instruction this matters, it’s worth coming back to! Moving quickly, and then maintaining momentum is huge.

Make Time for Insight/Step Back

This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Someone quoted a piece of data to me last week about the number of videos uploaded to Instagram the first week they had video uploads enabled. I don’t remember the exact statistic, but it sounded really impressive. That’s the thing about stuff – anything can sound impressive when you don’t have insight.

A much better question to ask would be, what’s the trend over time? Are there core users uploading the most video? Are they influential? If 500,000 people uploaded a video in the first week what’s the drop-off rate in weeks two to six?

The only way you can find these things out is by stepping back for a moment. I think this applies in a couple of areas, one is the gut check where you ask yourself “how does this feel” and “is this all working well together” and the other is being a data-focused organization that steps back, and learns from the information gleaned.

What do you think other businesses can learn from startups? Is there anything startups can learn from larger companies and other organizations?

About Joe Cardillo

Joe Cardillo is a product/ops guy turned marketer and digital evangelist for San Francisco based design marketplace Visually. He digs writing, journalism, media, PR, design, rocanroll, startups, anything science-y, and thinking about how to become a better human.

  • Yes, speed! There’s nothing worse than working with a client whose processes and people seem designed to stop things from happening instead of making them happen. I know it’s a cliche, but there’s something to that “bias for action” concept. And when a company can’t get around to approving a simple communication tactic in a timely manner, it makes me wonder how they ever get any of the really important things done.

    • susancellura

      RobBiesenbach I once worked for a company that was technically a start-up in that it had spun off from the mothership, and it amazed me that the communication director would pull the “hurry up, hurry up” then “let me sit on it for two months” switcheroo.

      • susancellura Good point! I guess even a small business can be a bureaucracy. It only takes one person to create a bottleneck.

    • RobBiesenbach So true Rob, and I think there’s a pretty good case for keeping momentum in comms/marketing…..when you don’t the value of the relationship depreciates quickly and significantly…

  • What a relief! I tried to tell them I hadn’t gone completely off my rocker, as I sat forming a plan, remolding it…again-and-again, talking to myself as if I was a one-person board meeting on steroids. You eloquently described one of my more “typical” days.

    • SJSnelling Are you SURE you haven’t gone off your rocker = )
      I never quite am myself..
      All kidding aside, I think it’s a great quality. One thing I’ve noticed about momentum is that it’s not necessarily about changing your mind all the time (although change and flexibility are important)…..sometimes it’s about working in small chunks that you know are getting you where you need to go.

      • JoeCardillo SJSnelling I felt it better to leave some “rocker” doubt.
        I actually thrive on this type of living in flux…testing and never hesitating to tell myself, whoops.

        • SJSnelling JoeCardillo Totally. I like being wrong, tons of feedback. Though I will say, I’m not necessarily a fan of the “fail fast” quote that circulates the startup world….I’d rather know what’s working and build on that.

  • Oh, I’m empathising right now! I recognise all of that and more. I used to work as a senior manager in a big corporate but for the last 3 years have been in an internet start-up and wow it’s different. There are good things to bring from the corporate world – e.g. discipline and rigour – but the biggest change is cultural – being open, honest, innovative, flexible, entrepreneurial and action orientated – “can do” – are all essential in the early stage environment. Enjoy the ride!

    • HughAnderson I was just at a lean startup thing yesterday and we were talking about culture fit and how we’d pass over someone with amazing skills if we didn’t feel good about their attitude / spirit… sounds like you practice that regularly?

      • HughAnderson & I have to admit I probably ruined my desire to ever go back to big, corporate… and I wasn’t even at an org with more than 1k people..

        • JoeCardillo Yep, with you there. As long as you like roller-coasters! And you’re right, having the skills is necessary, but having the right behaviours is simply critical.

      • JoeCardillo HughAnderson A while back I met with a team of six people and that was the crux of the conversation- how to find someone who could do the work and not “ruin” the team.

        • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes JoeCardillo HughAnderson That’s the magic combination. Amazing how many people can do the work, but derail the business.

  • When I read this on Friday (I get a sneak peek!), I read, “Yeah, but not everyone has the luxury of losing clients if things go wrong.” and yelled, “WHAT?!” out loud. I was happy to see you say no one has the luxury of losing clients. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    • ginidietrich Right? Someone introduce me to this mythical business person who sends that mass email… “Hi, thanks for being a customer but feel free to go elsewhere because you’re only just ok”

    • Randy Milanovic

      Sometimes, the success of both your business and theirs depends on letting some clients go.

      • Randy Milanovic Ah, yes – agree. Which reminds me of this..

        • Randy Milanovic

          Hoooooboy. Did you nail this one. Change the name and industry and the story behind that article could be ours. At least they got paid for the first invoice. In our case, we moved forward based on our contacts requests. However her boss (between rounds of golf), didn’t bother to read the scope and decided he wanted a lot more but was damned if he’d pay our exorbitant fees. Painful.

        • Randy Milanovic Y’know what gets buried a lot, is operational cost of clients like that. Many companies can quote revenue, but few people know the dollar cost. If you know that you can have a real conversation with a client, and make the determination of who to keep and who to let go.

  • I love the brain experiment you assign — it’s true. It’s almost like some project management software kicks in and builds everything out, with broad-ish brushstrokes at least.
    Boat imagery comes to mind when we start talking about momentum, testing and pivoting. When you’ve got 5-20 people ready to dig their oars in and swing that baby in the right direction, it’s going to be a lot easier than with 500-2,000 in the bowels of a behemoth. That might be obvious. But there it is.
    Seems like business units of big corporations could certainly adopt startup-type values, but that would involve a significant amount of autonomy.  I wonder if there are any examples of big businesses that have moved quickly on something successfully?

    • DwayneAlicie There’s actually a good bit of research about the brain’s processing power (for ex. it can process up to 36,000 visuals in an hour) and whenever I read something about it I always leave amazed. For all of the talk about AI and smartphones, both are still light years behind the human brain. 
      I was at a lean startup thing the other day, we asked that exact question about medium & big biz. I’m not sure it’s possible to adopt / execute….there were people with 10+ years of exp and eBays, Google, etc… on their resume and not a one of us could think of an example. Would be an interesting challenge.

      • JoeCardillo DwayneAlicie I am SUCH a brain geek. Seriously. I am always reading something or ‘nother about the wondrous mystery that is the brain – our ‘self’ – our being – and more so what scientists have no clue about re: same. Our brains are the freakiest things ever. Here’s a doc I watched that posits “how do we know who we are” – it’s AWESOME – a must watch – actually everything BBC Horizon does is fantastic.

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo Wow … I am looking forward to watching that video! So fragile but so powerful and resilient … yep … freakiest things ever, d’accord!

        • DwayneAlicie belllindsay JoeCardillo Now watching, preparing to have mind blown…

        • RebeccaTodd DwayneAlicie JoeCardillo You will! I recall,after I finished watching it – my post to Facebook was simply “Why do I watch things like this.”

        • belllindsay RebeccaTodd DwayneAlicie JoeCardillo Oh hah I recall that! I got to see Dr. Dennett live a couple years ago- looking forward to this new book-

  • Randy Milanovic

    Timely article. I’d add “the only constant is change”. Having launched my online marketing firm KAYAK Online Marketing on Halloween day 2011, we remain in full startup phase (will we ever pass it?) With an initial goal of delivering solid ROI to our clients, I’ve seen that goal change to becoming a leader in our space locally, to becoming a leader across North America. As the goals get bigger, the stakes get higher and the challenge greater. Best of all, the rewards of achieving each goal grow as well.

    • Randy Milanovic Be curious to know roughly how many people are in your org / how you emphasize the startup mindset to new employees?

      • Randy Milanovic

        5 internal supported by roughly a dozen contractors. Our team participates in weekly business discussions that help shape our direction, as well as weekly team training sessions on new and developing issues/opportunities in our field.

        • Randy Milanovic Interesting – one of the things I’m kind of puzzling over is that thing DwayneAlicie mentions below, not sure if there’s a size threshold (30, 50 employees, etc…) where you have to shift gears. Related article:

  • Great post Joe! I especially like your glimpses in to the workings of the human mind. I know you and I share a love of constant change and challenge- I’ve got the “moving quickly” part down pat… now I just need to learn to prioritize more effectively. Thanks for this!

    • RebeccaTodd Thanks – can’t really be effective with momentum/moving quickly if you don’t know what’s important. Not that I’ve got all 3 of these things down pat either…

      • JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd Egad. I hate change. I mean, I deal with it,  and embrace it, eventually, but it causes me no end of stress and anxiety leading up to.

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd For me, learning to do the momentum bit has helped with change….because, to be quite frank, in the past I was one of those planner types who had to have everything completely booked out.
          One metaphor that surprised / engaged happened last year…I was at my brother’s house out in Oregon and was taking a walk on bike path by the river. I was thinking about big picture life changes (I’ve had a few in the last 5 years) and I noticed that I kept having to correct my path because I was running into the edge. I was literally taking right degree turns because I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that the bike path was curving. As it turns out that’s exactly how I’d lived my life for the 5 years before. Refused to change/turn and made a lot of 90 degree turns as a result.

        • JoeCardillo belllindsay RebeccaTodd Oh jeez now we’re getting WAY deep! Where’s that Manhattan I ordered…?
          I really like this, Joe- “Refused to change/turn and made a lot of 90 degree turns as a result.” Yessir! Moi aussi. 
          In summary- momentum without focus moves us, but not necessarily forward…?

        • JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd I totally and completely get that Joe. Funny how I say I hate change, yet in the last 7 years I’ve made two of the biggest that people ever do in their adult live – left a bad marriage and left a solid 20 year career in TV (with insane benefits). T’was once said about me “It’s takes awhile for Lindsay to make a big decision – but wow, once she does, she goes from zero to a hundred implementing the change”.

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd Yes, you keep saying you do not like change, yet what you do tells a different story, Ell Bee…

  • Prioritization is a good lesson from smart startups. Although I’ve also seen small organizations struggle with this–some of us referred to it as spreading our branches but not deepening our roots–I have witnessed it more so with large ones. Sure there are many worthwhile things you could choose to do but SHOULD you? Good lesson for me, too, RebeccaTodd. Also, it seems certain endeavors become more about personal “accomplishments” than what is best for the overall health of the company.

    • Word Ninja RebeccaTodd Bingo. Let’s be honest, there are tons of things worth doing. That’s not the problem. The problem is what to focus on…. I’ve gotten a lot of value out of rinse & repeat of these 3 things.

      • JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd Absolutely. But we do tend to place value on the quantity of the things we do. Really enjoyed this post, Joe.

        • Word Ninja JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd Thanks, I’m glad it was useful. You’re right there though, 50 ok things vs. 5 amazing things, I’m afraid we tend to gravitate towards the higher number = / P

      • JoeCardillo Word Ninja RebeccaTodd “spreading our branches but not deepening our roots” – you have no idea how much I love this.

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd RIGHT?!

        • Word Ninja belllindsay JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd Yes, that’s GOLD! As to the quantity issue-absolutely! As I say about in-person calls- I would rather have 1 call with *THE* right person than do 21 unqualified calls. Instead, I do both… eep.

  • I’m not sure what I love more — this article or some of the deeper conversations here in the comments. This seriously is something I needed to read tonight, so thank you JoeCardillo. I especially need to prioritize right now. I a amazingly adept at being busy doing tasks that probably aren’t the most pressing. My kids start school Thursday and I am using it as a big reason to kick it into high gear. This post helped!

    • TaraGeissinger JoeCardillo Excellent, glad to hear it was useful. Been talking a lot lately about value creation / user engagement as a larger umbrella that drives marketing/sales, glad to add a bit of that myself to And it works, too. I’d buy anything Gini or her team would sell me.

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