Friday, 21 August 2009

Retaining the culture of innovation is a challenge as a start up scales

This is my August 2009 column in Mint.

One of the issues that we constantly struggle with, in Naukri, is trying to protect the culture of innovation as the organisation grows larger.

The company is no longer a start up. We employ over 1600 people and have offices in over forty cities. There are more than two hundred people engaged in building and maintain the product offering. There was a time ten years ago when that number was three people.

The top management is no longer engaged with the nuts and bolts as much as they were earlier. There is an organisation to be managed. Large teams are complex animals and managing them does take up time.

Most business managers are now working in a matrix – while they do have teams reporting to them more often than not they have to get work done from people who are not reporting to them - people who are their peers. There are departments – engineering, product, analytics, legal, finance, sales, marketing, UI and QA. And there are process, a prioritised product pipeline and review and co-ordination meetings. Decision making cycles are longer than before – idea to implementation and final release to the consumer can take weeks or for a large job even months. It can get frustrating at times for the people engaged in this task.

We are beginning to understand the complexities of innovating in a large organisation. This problem is not unique – others have faced it before.

Large companies have advantages. They can throw more resources at a problem. They can sustain losses for a longer time. It now takes us five years to get a new business to break even and costs us Rs. 40 to Rs. 50 crores in investments in that time period. Barriers to entry in our business are therefore higher now and that’s a good thing for us. The servant quarter above the garage days are over – unless you have something totally new and disruptive.

Small organisations have their advantages too – they find it easier to innovate because decision making is quicker. They are focussed and agile with small cohesive teams. They move fast. They are not encumbered by complex processes, matrix structures and departments. Frequently they are more capital efficient.

But they do not have the kind of resources or knowledge that large organisations do – our new businesses benefit a lot from our learning in the older businesses. It is the large revenue streams and profits of Naukri that enable us to build high quality teams in analytics, algorithms and QA – expensive overheads that most start ups in India would not usually invest in. Our smaller businesses and our start up investee companies use this capability to create more value for their customers and compete better in the market.

Large businesses on the other hand have legacy revenues to defend and would not want to disrupt their existing successful business models. We know this because we have benefitted precisely because of this against print publications that have tried but not really made a mark on the internet.

Further - a small business in large organisation gets dwarfed. All senior management attention and focus is on the main big business. It takes a courageous manager to head a start up business in an existing large company. All too frequently the best talent is not moved to the start up. After all conventional wisdom says that you must put your best talent onto your largest and most profitable business.

The challenge for any start up as it scales therefore is to retain the ability of a small organisation while simultaneously enjoying the advantages of a big one.

How have we tackled that problem at naukri.

The task for any top management is to recognise this problem and then take a few bold steps proactively to resolve it.

First – ensure that there is an adequate talent pipeline at the second and third levels in every department within the company. Wherever required get high quality talent from outside the company. Basically invest in a talent bench.

When a new business starts - move some of the best talent there and give that business senior management attention. This gives everyone career growth while at the same time giving the start up business a real chance of success, without compromising on the prospects of the existing large business. Reward for milestones other than revenue early on – remember that on a revenue comparison the older larger business will always outshine a new business. If the system ensures that Business Managers use only revenue and profits as a measure of their self worth in a start up business in a large organisation they will be demotivated and probably quit. Celebrate innovations. Punish incompetence and lack of commitment – but do not punish failure.

When innovating on product within a large business – have small high quality teams and empower them. You need to ensure that you have the agility, focus and quick decision cycles of a start up – essentially have a many start ups within a large company.

All this is easy to write in an eight hundred word column – however it is a lot harder to execute. But that story is for another time.