Reimagining Startup and Enterprise Innovation

What Can Justin Timberlake Teach Corporates About Startup Culture?

Guest Author

Blog authored by Nik Adhia, Senior Director, Global Open Innovation, Oracle.

Imagine a society where by the age of 25, you are only engineered to live for one more year. There is no salary. Time is your only currency. Depending on the time you have, you live your life within a district with the shared characteristics of those around you (e.g. multiple people who all have less than a day to live). Every activity you undertake reduces that currency (e.g. a coffee costs you three minutes of life). Every effort you make increases the time you have to live. If you waste that time, or you run out, the inevitable happens: You die. This is the basic principle of the movie ‘In Time’ (2011) [1], which I’d highly recommend you watch. Whilst extreme, this is not dissimilar to the life of a startup. Time is your most precious commodity. Every activity matters. The people you surround yourself with drive the culture you adopt and the actions you take. Every effort and right decision gives you a longer runway. Make the wrong decision(s) and the inevitable happens.

In the movie, Justin Timberlake (JT) is from a time poor background. Each person in the district wears a watch, which allows you to gain time through both sensors and by touch. Time can be given, taken or even stolen. In a combined effort to run away from a situation from time bandits, JT meets a stranger, who has 100+ years on his ‘clock’. The stranger is incredibly unhappy with his life, which JT finds surreal particularly as he experiences the death of his mother earlier on who tragically runs out of time. The stranger decides to end his life but before transfers all of his remaining years to JT. This gives JT access to the wealthiest district where time does not matter. Decisions are slower. There is not a sense of urgency. If you lose time, the consequences are not as dire as those in the poorer districts who live day to day, and live and die by each decision they make.

This analogy, whilst slightly extreme, is similar to life in multi-national corporations. We expect things to take longer, we expect things to be more complex, and we (over time) relinquish our fullest ability to challenge the status quo or change the culture of the values of our “district”. Those who continue to enter the district, who either enjoy the safety of the environment, or are unable or unwilling to make the change, continue to breed an environment where empty phrases like “respect” or “excellence” are mere words that have little meaning to the mission the company originally stood for. The irony—that the culture that created the success instilling a sense of urgency, the ability to fail fast, the ability to embrace risk where time mattered—is the very same culture replaced. How many more articles do you need to see of X corporate executive moving to X startup, before we realise that, perhaps it’s not them; it’s the corporate culture. Why could the corporate not retain David, the maverick who had those great ideas, executed impeccably and had the vision to really disrupt a specific part of the business? Why did David feel the need to change from the culture of that company to that of another?

There are many Davids. In fact, each one of us has David within us. As humans, we seek not only the need to feel accepted, but also the feeling that our contributions are valued, that our efforts contribute to something bigger than ourselves. In fact, JT finds exactly this as the movie presses on and he meets Sylvia, the daughter of a wealthy businessman at a high-stakes gamble. Sylvia is clearly attracted to JT as he disrupts the status quo and the culture he has adopted and has a completely different view of how to utilize time. Sylvia and JT are more similar than she thought. Within the bourgeoisie, and the confines and culture of the district she has grown up with, she herself comes to the realization that what is happening (the distribution and inequality of time) is wrong and that she can work with JT to change this. Individuals like Sylvia exist in all organisations if you can find them. Once found, if you can harness the power of these individuals, create the room they need to be creative, not overburden them with process and be comfortable with risk and the chance of failure, you are one step closer to figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Even just creating a pocket of this culture can lead to phenomenal results.

For example, a team of entrepreneurs that many do not refer to as commonly as your typical Elon Musks or Mark Zuckerbergs, is that of Kassir Hussain, former Director of Connected Homes at Hive and Seb Chakraborty, CTO at Hive. The story of Hive is particularly interesting (regardless of your feelings of Nest vs. Hive) in context of culture. The team at Hive was created as an internal startup within British Gas, a large and complex multi-national utilities company. Hussain, guided by the lean startup principles of Eric Reis, convinced management at British Gas that the majority (70%) [2] of the Hive team should come from outside of the company and be based out of the normal British Gas offices at a base in Central London. Why? The exact reason was in his words: “CIOs need to recognise that innovation can originate from the existing IT function and engender the culture, behaviour and mentality to encourage its development.” Hive, as a result of a shift in its culture, embracing the values of old, now has an install base of 360,000 customers in the UK and is expanding to the US [3]. This install base, although perhaps modest when compared to the numbers at Nest, represents a noteworthy achievement for British Gas / Centrica as it proved that a shift in their culture allowed them to innovate at scale and find their inner startup again.

More importantly, the lesson to learn is that corporates do not need to be cold, soulless entities that never change, but instead their strength lies within their people and the culture that surrounds them - the fundamental principles that startups have cracked. This is why the world’s best and most innovative companies are those that focus on harnessing intellectual capital.

At Oracle, we are experiencing a shift in our culture, embracing change for the better and identifying and elevating people and practices that pave the way to innovation. It’s the reason why we have entrepreneurs like Reggie Bradford (SVP for Startup Ecosystem and Accelerators) internally exploring how to bring the startup culture to the forefront of our activity. [Read his ‘Why Oracle’s Approach in Investing in Startups Has Made Me Feeling Like An Entrepreneur Again’ when you get a spare moment.]

The story for JT and Sylvia ends with them redistributing ‘time’ to those in the time poorest of communities, where they successfully disrupt the status quo and bring down the ruling class. The interpretation I take from this moment in the movie is the inevitability that every corporate will come to face the reality that times are changing and if you do not disrupt your own business (and namely the culture which underpins everything, including your talent), you yourself will be disrupted.

Do you remember the days where you actually had to go into a physical shop to rent a video tape (yes those cassette things, remember them?) - that was only a decade ago. A surprising fact to leave you with: Did you know Blockbuster was offered the chance to buy Netflix for $50M? [4]

The world will change, and it’ll come faster than you think. Will the culture of your organisation embrace the people to move with it? That’s for you to decide.

So here are my three takeaways:

Embrace: Embrace a culture that allows you to take risk. Don’t be afraid to fail. You learn the most when you fail, and you’re one step closer to figuring out what works and what does not work.

Empower: Give your people a path. Give your mavericks opportunities. Give your critics a voice, and a path to create positive change. If someone is so passionate about arguing why something should or shouldn’t be done in a certain way, if you gave them the freedom to prove it, what might happen, what would you discover?

Environment: Support and nurture your talent. Give them room to breathe, and to channel their creativity with others like them. Your job is to remove their roadblocks. To remove the politics. To focus on the mission. To focus on creating that change. Don’t overburden them with process. Be patient. Sit back, let it happen; let them create the new and you may just be surprised.

So, if you only had 24 hours left to live and the only way to extend your life was to create change in what you do and how you do it, what would you do differently?


[1] : In Time (2001): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Time

[2]  How British Gas Wrote A Digital Disruption Playbook: http://www.i-cio.com/innovation/internet-of-things/item/how-british-gas-wrote-a-digital-disruption-playbook

[3] British Gas Hive Active Thermostat Sets to Conquer America: https://ce-pro.eu/2017/04/british-gas-hive-active-thermostat-set-conquer-america/ 

[4] Blockbuster CEO passed up the chance to buy Netflix for $50m: http://uk.businessinsider.com/blockbuster-ceo-passed-up-chance-to-buy-netflix-for-50-million-2015-7

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