Gregory Phipps
Gregory Phipps, Managing Director, Venture Capital, Innovacorp

Building a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in a corporate environment

“How can an established company react to market realities, remain competitive and fundamentally change the way it operates – internally and externally?” The answer is simple: Act like a start-up.

This is not a revolutionary or original thought. The reality is that companies from all verticals and of any size can adopt and sustain a start-up culture. In fact, they must do so, to remain competitive and to stave off obsolescence and potential death of their brands.

What is start-up culture?

When we think of “start-up culture,” we might picture millennials in cargo shorts and sandals, padding around an open-concept office space with bean bag chairs, scratching out plans on a whiteboard in between games of foosball.

A true start-up culture, however, involves much more than cool office space and free snacks. Companies of any size can embrace and sustain a culture of innovation by embracing and emulating many of the practices of start-ups and the cultural values common among the most successful ones, including:

Innovation. Entrepreneurial start-ups always embrace the latest innovations. They leverage technologies that are cost-effective and enable more efficient planning, CRM, product development, and marketing automation. Start-ups also use cloud-centric tools that allow employees to contribute and collaborate anywhere, anytime.

Passion. Passion is a hard quality to define, let alone find, among candidates for employment or internal promotion. A start-up culture hires, develops, retains, celebrates, incents, rewards, encourages and promotes people who have passion for the business and its success.

Workspace. Start-ups create efficient and effective spaces for personal and collaborative output. They value cool work spaces because they want employees to look forward to coming to work and remaining fully engaged while there. They provide the conditions for employees to create and work in comfortable environments, with freedom to personalize their workspaces.

Eschewing corporate rules and rigid work structures. Rigid corporate policies and old-school structure is the bête noire to a start-up. Start-ups hold a philosophy of collaborating externally and across the org structure, finding ways to work smarter, and tossing outmoded, cumbersome corporate rules out the window – all to ensure efficient and effective, timely delivery of solutions to customers.

The ability to act quickly and decisively. In start-up culture, there’s always a collaborative approach to solving problems, and employees are empowered to swiftly make decisions that can affect company performance and success, decisions they can “own” and be held responsible for. When people are empowered to make decisions and know their contributions are valued, they will step up and make a difference.

Keeping the aforementioned top-of-mind, established companies can create a culture of innovation within by adopting some of the following practices:

Create a role or department to drive innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour. Some people believe that a mandate for everyone in a company to think and act like an entrepreneur must start at the top. Although there absolutely has to be a senior-level embrace of the concept, the action plan can be defined and initiated at a much lower level in the org structure and driven both up and down from there. Establish a new role, with a direct reporting line to the CEO, and define it as Chief Innovation Officer.

Encourage intrapreneurship. Create an internal “ideas” incubator to get new products or services off the ground in a non-traditional and non-linear way. Create an opportunity for employees to share their ideas for innovative solutions, and you can rightfully declare your company as being entrepreneurial. Launch an internal “pitch” competition to uncover ideas that are of strategic benefit to the company, and like venture capitalists –fund the best of them. If this approach becomes a catalyst to more efficient service delivery and/or incents the development of new products or services, it’s a win-win for the company.

Recruit and reward an entrepreneurial mindset. Injecting any established company with former entrepreneurs, venture capital professionals and others with actual start-up experience, is the best way to kick-start a sustainable culture that emulates an entrepreneurial start-up.

Think and act like an owner. If you want to motivate employees to think and act like an owner, and all the positive performance outcomes inherent to that approach, you’ve got to make them owners. Almost every start-up embraces the concept of distribution of shares or share options to employees as an effective instrument for attraction, retention and motivation. Corporations of any size can adopt a similar approach with relative ease at any stage in their evolution.

Embrace and adoption of those practices embodied within the start-up community need not be daunting or represent a fundamental change to your business or management practices. Their implementation will pay rich dividends in maintaining competitiveness, engaging and retaining high-performing employees, and provide for a solid foundation for sustaining growth.

Greg Phipps is Managing Director, Venture Capital at Innovacorp. Greg has managed more than 70 investment transactions, in more than twenty companies, in the IT, telecommunications and healthcare vertical sectors. Contact him @phippsgregory and