The business story of the decade is one of insurgency: Every sector of our economy has spawned a cohort of software-driven companies “moving fast and breaking things,” “asking for forgiveness, not permission,” and “blitzscaling” their way to “eating the world.” For years we’ve collectively marveled as new kinds of companies have stormed traditional markets, garnering winner-take-all valuations and delivering extraordinary growth in customers, top line revenue, and private valuations.
But what happens when the insurgents hit headwinds? In the past year or so, we’ve begun to find out. The unicorn class has had its collective mane shorn. A quick spin through the “unicorn leaderboard” finds a cohort strewn with cautionary tales: Uber’s under continual attack by regulators and increasingly well funded competitors. Square and Box, both of which managed tepid public debuts, have consistently traded below their private valuations. Airbnb, SnapChat, DropBox, and many others have been marked down by their largest investors. And of course, there’s the cautionary tale of Zenefits.
While this news has evinced a self-congratulatory whiff of schadenfreude throughout the tech press, I think the reckoning is more fundamental in nature. The hardest part of running a company, it turns out, is actually running a company. Put another way: Growth can be bought, but growing up has to be earned.
Take Uber, for example. Once a poster child for a culture of “ask for forgiveness, not permission,” Uber is now taking a more traditional approach to new markets, meeting (and working with) local regulators, hiring seasoned pros, and learning how to play politics just like any other big company. It even gave itself a new grown-up “haircut.”
Young companies built on venture-fueled cultures of grow-at-all costs are facing a shift: The essential truth of business is that you must create value for all constituents — your employees, your customers, and your community. That last part may sound squishy, but it’s the soft stuff that can kill you. Learning to become a respected corporate citizen isn’t on the minds of founders and executives chasing top line revenue and lofty private valuations. But at some point, it will be. I think that moment is nigh.
Facebook is a good example. In 2014 it changed its internal motto from “Move Fast and Break Things” to “Move Fast With Stable Infrastructure.” Among companies I like to call “established insurgents,” Facebook stands out for mindfully transitioning from a culture of youthful arrogance to one of continual learning and partnership. I spend a fair amount of time talking to senior folks at large, established “BigCos,” the kinds of companies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on platforms like Facebook and Google. Nearly all of them have commented on Facebook’s maturing culture, noting in particular that the company genuinely wants to learn from its big company partners.
What could Facebook possibly learn from a Nestle, P&G, or a Ford, you might ask? We sometimes forget that the current crop of unicorns aren’t the first group of companies to transition from roaring startup culture to Blue Chip incumbency, or from regulatory outlaw to lobbying insider.
Yes, the insurgents threaten the incumbents’ very existence. But they face their own existential questions as well: “How do I build a company that will last for generations? How can I maintain a strong corporate culture now that I have thousands of employees? How do I work productively with regulatory and policy frameworks, now that I’m an established player?”
Turns out, BigCos have decades of experience with exactly those kinds of questions. Over the next few years, I predict the two sides will increasingly engage in a dialog about how each might learn from the other. In many cases, the dialog has already spawned partnerships: Whole Foods and Instacart, GM and Lyft, Earnest and New York Life. In the end, the established insurgents and the BigCo incumbents have more to gain from working with each other than they do by tearing each other down. In the process, we might just re-invent the very nature of business itself — taking the best of both sides, and abandoning the worst. Let’s get on with it, shall we?