Learnings From a Corporate Garage

January 12, 2017 Focus area: Digital Transformation , Continuous Innovation

Startups are often seen as cool, agile and innovative. Corporates, contrarily, are often viewed as slow, rigid and boring. So, what happens when corporates want to be more like startups?

Well… they could start a corporate garage.

In Steve Jobs' footsteps

The term ‘corporate garage’ comes from the romantic notion that leading innovative companies, like Apple and Google, often began in a garage.

While a corporate garage isn’t set in a garage per se, it’s usually a small team that’s trying to make the big, innovative leaps a corporate can’t. By applying startup principles over the rules and guidelines of the corporate, corporates themselves have a chance to become more competitive in today’s rapidly changing environments.

Jobs and Wozniak reportedly working on the first Apple computers from Jobs' garage (ca. 1975)

Jobs Wozniak garage

My garage

For 6 months, I worked in the corporate garage of a big insurer in the Netherlands. The garage had been up and running for 1,5 years by the time I got there and included a total of 15 people. These people were divided over 6 initiatives, which were basically all startups of their own.

All initiatives were grounded in the business model canvas and followed lean startup principles. In practice, this meant starting with minimum viable products (MVPs), trying to validate these in the market as quickly as possible, then building on those and validating them again. This iterative process continued until a startup was either cancelled, had become too big to stay in the garage, or got absorbed back into the corporate.

Five key learnings

During my time in this corporate garage, I learned more than a few valuable things which I’d like to share. My five key learnings are summarised below.

Learning 1: Location and environment matter. When picking a spot to setup a corporate garage, it might be tempting to setup shop in the building where all other employees work. This might be a mistake.

While still close to the corporate, our garage was entirely separated from it. A modern, renovated building full of other startups proved to be the right environment. While both inspiring and enabling, this environment also fuelled a sense of our own identity and way of thinking – free from the corporate ways of doing things.

Learning 2: Be rebellious, but don’t start a revolution. A corporate’s involvement in a corporate garage is both enabling and disabling. On the one hand, the corporate provides important resources, like money, networks and credibility. On the other hand, it brings a whole lot of rules, policies and ways of working that can slow down a startup considerably or even shut it down.

That’s why it can be important to be rebellious sometimes and find a way around these corporate processes. We sure did. And yes, that definitely upset a person or two. Yet, we always picked our ‘battles’ carefully and made sure not to upset anyone with enough power to become a road block on our way to success.

Learning 3: Stay focused on what’s necessary. To create an MVP, you have to leave out those things that are not necessary for validating the product. However, once you start working on something, you tend to grow emotionally attached to it. When this happens, one might attempt to make a product so good in the hope that it will get validated. In this case, you’re no longer creating an MVP.

Staying focused only on what’s necessary proved to be one of the biggest challenges for my team. Being aware of this, we made a streamlined, fast process with regards to building and validating our MVPs into a key priority.

But what about a day in the life of a corporate startup? Does the corporate run faster and is the rock even bigger?

A Day in the LIfe of...

Learning 4: Be wary of corporate behaviour. Certain work habits that fit within a corporate – like having long meetings and planning sessions – don’t fit well within a lean startup. Yet, it’s likely that a corporate garage includes at least some people that are used to work for a corporate. It’s important to be aware of it when their long-formed habits occur in a corporate garage, so that these do not get in the way of the startups’ progress and success.

Aside from trying to limit corporate behaviours by being aware of them, I believe in selecting the right people from the start. People with experience in diverse and changing environments are more likely to practice a way of working that’s essential within a startup.

Learning 5: Unite and stick together. Over two-thirds of the people working in our corporate garage were external hires. While it’s great to have hard-working experts that only work when their services are required, it’s also challenging as they tend to work part-time and generally don’t stay in a corporate garage for long. In our team, working from home wasn’t uncommon either. This can result in relatively few times when you see your colleagues in person, which may cause a feeling of disconnectedness from your team members and startup’s goals.

I found that simply putting a high value on working together in the same room can increase a team’s effectiveness significantly. It helps to form strong personal relationships and have fun together. And isn’t that what a startup is all about?

Still want more?

Well, that's half a year’s work summed up in five key learnings!

Please keep in mind that these are my personal learnings and they might not apply to any corporate garage. Still, I believe they hold value for anyone working with lean startups or agile ways of working in general.