Over my summer break, I finally caught up on my reading list, at the top of which was Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One. I enjoyed it greatly. Thiel is a man of strong convictions and opinions, and his narrative got me thinking about a question that I have been pondering for a long time:
As Thiel points out the most important task in business is to drive new thinking that creates new markets, new products and ultimately, new value. I agree. Venture-backed companies have played a very important part in creating new value in today’s digital economy. And unicorn investing is on the rise. These companies are attractive again because they focus intensely on one thing, they take large risks because there is nothing to lose yet, and they attract extraordinary people. And they will change the way we live and work.
But what about large organizations? Are we just helping to grow and expand the existing value we deliver, or can we too create something new?
I wouldn’t have dedicated a large part of my life to work in a large company if I was not convinced that we can. For me, it all comes down to mindset. To create value like a startup, you need to think and act like a founder. You need to be externally focused, curious and think broadly. And as LinkedIn’s Andy Reid wrote in a nice piece, you need to recruit employees with this mindset and create a culture of innovation.
Others before me have coined a great term for all of this: The Founder’s Mindset. What does this term mean? I have not found a definition, but here is my take:
- Founders do not think in silos. Take a “big picture” view. Show curiosity of all aspects of a business. Do not think of what is good for your business area, but for the business as a whole. Too often goals and incentives are counterproductive for the greater good.
- Founders focus and say no. This part is hard. Steve Jobs was very famous for reducing product lines when he returned to Apple. Founders understand that without complete focus, you can’t be the best at what you do.
- Founders are owners. This really has to be engrained in any culture. AB InBev provides a good example of why. Coming in at #6 on their list of company values: “We are a company of owners. Owners take results personally.” Many companies now use stock options to create this ownership.
- Founders bring out the best in their people. Thiel mentions this point in Zero to One, and many other leadership books have been written about this, but being able to inspire others is critical.
- Founders relentlessly fight bureaucracy and don’t accept the status quo to achieve their vision. I am often amazed about the tenacity and energy that founders show in pursuing their dreams. That passionate and deep-rooted drive about your own creation is tough to emulate because the fire either burns in you or it doesn’t.
Joseph Schumpeter is my favorite economist and he argued that the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization”. In his view, innovation is the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating the new one.”
Accomplishing this as an individual is not easy regardless of what size of company you are part of. But passion and conviction don’t come in sizes. We might never be a founder of a new company that changes the world, but we can change the world in whatever company when we take the founder’s mindset. The next unicorn might be yours.