At last week’s DLD Conference in Munich, I had the opportunity to sit onstage with the co-founder and CPO of Airbnb, Joe Gebbia. We started by discussing the unique creative culture at Rhode Island School of Design, where Joe went to college, and where I currently serve as president. Joe shared some of his secrets of being a successful designer-founder, and then turned the tables and asked me what it’s like to run a 136-year-old institution like RISD.
As often happens these days, the Twitter summary of my answer was perhaps more articulate than my answer itself:
@johnmaeda: “Today end-ups — old companies and institutions — want to be become more like start-ups. Yet they are classic and important.” via @AnnePascual
@johnmaeda: “Start-ups want to end up successful. Both want to be great.” via @Sloane
I sit on the board of a couple of start-ups (like Sonos and Quirky), but I spend my days running RISD – what I call an “end-up” in contrast with a start-up. I also used to be at the academic equivalent of a start-up, the MIT Media Lab, which was founded in the 1980s (30 years is young in academic terms). Now, the term end-up may sound pejorative, but in fact I mean the opposite: If you think about it, the end goal for most start-ups is to eventually become an end-up, which is to say successful and long lasting.
At the same time, you increasingly hear that large corporations and institutions now wish to act more like start-ups, in order to innovate and become more agile. My friend Jocelyn Glei, editor-in-chief of 99U, remarked recently how “start-up culture” is so much more coveted and in the zeitgeist than it was 10 years ago; prior presidents simply didn’t talk about start-ups like Obama does.
(As an interesting side note, this analogy works for countries as well. European nations like France are the great end-ups of civilization. The U.S. was a start-up that is now coping with becoming an end-up. And China is an end-up that feels like a start-up again.)
Here are some of the crucial differences between start-ups and end-ups:
|Want to be something||Already are something|
|Culture is forming||Culture has formed|
|Have little||Have lots|
|Have little to lose||Have lots to lose|
|Try something for the first time||Tried everything and know what works|
|Do what needs to get done||Clear roles and responsibilities|
|Flat structure with empowerment||Hierarchical structure with rules|
|May come and go||Stand the test of time|
Start-ups have little, but also little to lose
By definition, customers aren’t drawn to start-ups because of a trusted legacy or brand. So they must prove their worth to each and every new customer and get their name out without a well-resourced marketing machine behind them.
End-ups with strong brands that draw customers in, however, can become hesitant to act for fear of tarnishing or altering that brand. Start-ups have no choice but to act, and act fully – it’s the only way they’ll survive.
Change comes naturally to a start-up
A start-up is like a baby growing up: It needs to change and grow to become itself. Start-ups often dream of having the strong internal cultures, passed-down stories, and shared history that you commonly find in end-ups and that guide their decisions.
But change is awkward to an end-up, much like it can be for a grown adult trying to reimagine him/herself. It’s often necessary for end-ups, but it’s never easy.
End-ups have resources; start-ups have commitment
At end-ups, employees have well-defined roles and responsibilities. In the best case, that ensures that things are done efficiently. In the worst case, though, it can inhibit people from taking on new responsibilities with agility. At a start-up, it’s all-hands-on-deck to make sure things get out the door, even if it’s sometimes unclear whose hands are doing what and chaos ensues.
And it’s important to note that it’s the stories and legends of the great end-ups that inspire most great start-ups – think of HP, Apple, IBM. Rather than assume that all end-ups are decaying dinosaurs, we must acknowledge that each is the envy of the other in some respects.
End-ups have learned to manage scale, and have accumulated wisdom over time; start-ups have the benefit of the agile beginner’s mind. The challenge for both is to seek greatness by learning from each other.
John Maeda is a graphic designer and artist, and is president of Rhode Island School of Design. Follow him on Twitter @johnmaeda.