I love tech startups. For the first half of my professional life, I had the good fortune of being able to live the startup life to the fullest.
When the World Wide Web hype hit the fan back in 1995, I was able to start up my first venture and was able to sell it four years later to the French corporate giant Alcatel.
It was an intense rush to literally start from scratch in my bedroom, see the company rise exponentially, and then hand off my baby to the French multinational, who completely destroyed it in less than a year.
It was my first encounter with the stupendous chasm between the startup and the corporate world.
Startups are fun
I love the idea of starting from scratch, focusing on a new idea, a new concept, or a new business model, and just following the customers to understand how the future unfolds.
My second startup was in streaming video, four years before YouTube came onto the scene, and it was fascinating and thrilling to navigate this uncharted territory.
Startups are easy
It’s a lot easier to start with a blank sheet of paper, no legacy, no ‘shit from yesterday’.
My third startup was one of the first cloud providers in Europe, we grew it with venture capital, and were able to put it on the stock exchange just before the financial debacle of 2008.
When we sold that to our American competitor, I decided to completely change my perspective. I still invest a lot in startups, but I wanted to understand the other side of the equation, to comprehend the corporate mindset.
This journey led me to write ‘The Phoenix & The Unicorn’ last year. The last couple of years, I was getting a little tired of all the unicorn stories. Every conference you attended was ‘AirBnB this, and Uber that’. And I would look into the audience filled with executives that were thinking:
“Sure, but we’re not AirBnB or Uber. What about us?”
I wanted to understand how traditional companies could reinvent themselves, how they could maybe use a few tricks from the unicorns of this world, and use the power of digital and innovation to truly reshape themselves, and come out stronger. How they could truly become a Phoenix in a ‘never normal’ world.
Henry Kissinger described a recipe for strategic disaster in his book ‘World Order’: “You cannot remain relevant by simply projecting the familiar forward.”
Yet, that is what companies do almost every day. They look at tomorrow by what they know today, they extrapolate their comfort zone into the future and hope for the best.
That might have worked for the 20th century, but it won’t fly in this exciting era of ‘disruption’ and ‘radical change’. Business models change overnight, and the ‘day after tomorrow’ comes faster than ever before.
Rising from the ashes: Finding a Phoenix
Over the course of the past few years, I’ve encountered a number of magnificent Phoenixes.
My direct inspiration for the book was Walmart, the largest retailer on the planet, and also the largest company in the world with 2.5 million employees.
It was fascinating to observe a behemoth like Walmart completely regenerate itself for the digital age, preparing for total combat with Amazon, and actually being phenomenally prepared for the pandemic as a result.
Most of the Phoenixes that I’ve encountered, used the north star of their customers as their guiding light for their transformation. The evolution of their markets and customer journeys, showed them the way towards reinvention and regeneration.
So my next quest is coming into sight: who are the Phoenixes out there, that use the power of their own people as the fuel for their transformation? Which Phoenixes can transform from the inside-out?
How can HR generate a Phoenix?
That will be my hunting ground in this spot on the UNLEASH platform.
As well as providing regular commentary on the latest news in the UNLEASH world of HR tech, I’m here to find the stories, methods, and recipes for people-led Phoenixes.
And hopefully to inspire and ignite the fire in companies to become a Phoenix: can you reinvent yourself, even under extreme pressure, to come out stronger in the end?
Startups are awesome, but Phoenixes are truly epic.
Peter Hinssen is an entrepreneur, author, and renowned thought-leader on technology, innovation, and the impact on society. Find his new column fortnightly on UNLEASH. Know a tech phoenix in HR? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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