Are Start-Ups More Innovative Than Large Established Firms?

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Start-ups are typically considered to be free-thinking, risk-taking, and open-minded – characteristics that are universally agreed as necessary for incubation of radical or disruptive innovation. Meanwhile large companies are viewed as too results-focused and risk-averse to create anything besides slow incremental innovations. Is this commonly-held assumption truth or fiction or something in-between and are start-ups or large firms better positioned to successfully commercialize innovation?

Who or where you ask these questions will generally inform the final answer. At most big corporations they focus on the extremely high failure rate for start-ups (even the ones that obtain VC funding) while in the converse situation they’ll point to the radical or disruptive work done by Twitter and Facebook and compare it to the relatively incremental product improvements being churned out by their larger counterparts.

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Is it better to be bigger?

In “Why Small Companies Have the Innovation Advantage”[i]  Sam Hogg argues that small companies are more innovative because, besides differences in culture (valuing entrepreneurship more highly) and organizational structure (making faster decisions), they are built to take risks that a larger company cannot justify. However, justifying innovativeness based on risk tolerance alone just doesn’t make sense. The counter-argument could be made that big companies have a better process to balance risk – by ensuring that innovative projects with the highest potential for success are funded while those that do not meet internal standards are killed or allowed to leave for external development (where failure cannot hurt the bottom line) or that bigger companies are better positioned to understand their markets.

This counterargument leads to a point made regarding 3M in a past Schumpeter column in The Economist[ii] – that large companies “can combine the virtues of creativity and scale. 3M likes to conduct lots of small experiments, just like a start-up. But it can also mix technologies from a wide range of areas and, if an idea catches fire, summon up vast resources to feed the flames.” If one is to take this side of the discussion fully, one then assumes that large companies have the knowledge and resources to determine what areas to work in and which ideas to fund toward development and thus have the advantage in innovation.

That entrepreneurial people can have a bigger impact by leveraging the resources of a larger company to drive innovation is a sentiment shared by no-less than Sean Parker[iii], who feels that many talented engineers and product designers starting their own companies could have a bigger impact at the larger firms they are flocking away from.

So, if big companies have inherent advantages in scale, expertise, and distribution that make them more capable of capitalizing on innovation, how can we explain the downfall of Blockbuster or Kodak, two companies with market leading positions that missed the opportunity to innovate in their space? It appears the advantage in resources and skills is not enough to ensure innovation.

Some suggest that by acting like start-ups big companies can effectively utilize their strengths to make real, transformative innovation.[iv] That means taking risks, getting passionate talent that can be directed toward a single goal, interacting with the customer more often, and streamlining bureaucracy.

Steve Jobs’ own description of Apple[v] shows that he bought into this theory – that to be innovative companies, regardless of size, need to embrace a culture that encourages innovation. At Apple that culture meant a focused strategy, a willingness to tolerate tension in favor of working together, and instilling a cross-disciplinary view of how the company can succeed. All-told, this strategy hasn’t worked out too poorly for Apple but probably can’t be expected to work or be as easily deployed at other large companies lacking the strong leadership Steve Jobs’ offered.

Jobs’ would have likely agreed with a point made in the Schumpeter column mentioned earlier2; “The key to promoting innovation (and productivity in general) lies in allowing vigorous new companies to grow big, and inefficient old ones to die.

On the balance, a fair conclusion would be that start-ups do generally embody characteristics that allow innovative ideas to succeed along with an inherently high tolerance for risk but can lack the resources and connections to effectively capitalize on them while bigger firms offer better systems, skills, and distribution channels but can stifle innovation through a reluctance to accept risk and overly-complicated bureaucracy that frustrates entrepreneurs.

Are start-ups more innovative? Only when large companies chose to stifle their ability to make meaningful innovation real.

What is the lesson for the Osmotic Innovator? Structure teams within your organization to value the things that allow innovative ideas to move forward and succeed. Even if the CEO doesn’t value a start-up culture like Steve Jobs you should do your best to encourage the same values in your teams’ innovation efforts.

Ensure clear focus – make sure the strategy, mission, and customer for your organization is always front and center

Tolerate tension and argument – people should be willing to speak-up, dissent with listening allows for the best ideas to move forward, product improvements to be made, and builds ownership

Accept balanced risk –maintain a portfolio of projects that exhibit different degrees of risk, without accepting risk few disruptive or radical ideas will be allocated sufficient resources to succeed

Give people responsibility – encourage your team to be entrepreneurs that take on leadership and ownership of the ideas they are passionate about


[i] Sam Hogg. Why Small Companies Have the Innovation Advantage. Nov 15, 2011. Entrepeneur. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/220558

[ii] Big and clever. The Economist. Dec 17, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/21541826

[iii] Eric Schonfeld. Sean Parker: “Little Startups Are Ridiculously Over-Funded” TechCruch. Nov 15, 2011. http://techcrunch.com/2011/11/15/sean-parker-little-startups-are-ridiculously-overfunded/

[iv] Tomkubilius. 4 Ways Big Companies Can Act Like Start-Ups to be More Innovative. Story of Design by Bright Innovation. March 30, 2011. http://storyofdesign.com/2011/03/30/4-ways-big-companies-can-act-like-start-ups-to-be-more-innovative/

[v] Nilofer Merchant. Apples Startup Culture. Bloomberg Businessweek. June 14, 2010. http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/jun2010/id20100610_525759.htm

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