Grégoire Vigroux is a French Serial Entrepreneur and Business Angel, based in Romania since 2006. He co-founded and invested in 21 businesses across Eastern Europe and had 4 exits. The French entrepreneur believes entrepreneurs have an increasing role to play in shaping a meaningful world. He thinks success, in business, must come with responsibility. Profits with purpose. Growth with progress. Prosperity with philanthropy. Connect with Grégoire on Linkedin.
In his book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, John Gray exposes the differences between the sexes. In a not-so-distant galaxy – the business world – two other groups find it similarly difficult to understand each other: employees of startups and those of large companies.
But are they really that different? What can they learn from each other?
Creatures with contradictory profiles
Startuppers are young, free-spirited, and pioneering, active in the new technologies sector. They want to change the world with their innovative, fast-growing companies. In the digital age, their popularity is ensured by the intergalactic reign of online press and social media. Startups are masters of communication: the Internet is their preferred universe.
Big businesses, or corporations, are conservative and powerful. They appear in the French CAC 40, among the 30 stocks of the American Dow Jones and other major stock markets around the world.
Like the caricature of the company Hudsucker Industries in the Coen brothers’ film The Hudsucker Proxy, corporations belong to the old world: they represent the economic establishment, bureaucratic, governed by strict rules, and with a pyramid-shaped hierarchy.
Startups are sprinters, corporations are marathon runners
The bigger the business, the less intrinsically flexible it is. You can’t change the strategic direction of Wal-Mart, which has 2.3 million employees and 11,000 POS, with the same agility as a small, newly established startup.
A corporation that generates hundreds of billions of euros in turnover and has had numerous employees over decades, if not centuries, does not have the same risk ratio as a new startup. Corporations protect themselves vigorously against any danger, arming themselves with rigorous rules, governed by procedures, guides, and manuals. In large companies, everything is inspected, structured, documented, and archived. There is one supreme objective: to maintain, at all costs, the reputation, customer base, and competitive advantages so hard-won over time.
In corporations, projects must be presented to and debated by a multitude of employees from different teams, before being submitted for approval to management and the board of directors, or even to shareholders. In the digital age, when a business has to move fast, this slowness can be a serious handicap. Won’t being antifragile make corporations anti-agile?
By contrast, risk-taking is essential for startups. They must innovate constantly, so as not to disappear, or become what venture capitalists call zombies: startups that never take off, neither properly alive nor completely dead.
In short, the imperatives can be summed up in these two contradictory paradigms: “innovate or die” for startups and “maintain your gains or die” for corporations.
Infant mortality among startups
In the rush to celebrate the cool and dynamic startup environment, it is too easy to forget that the world of entrepreneurship is a huge graveyard. In Europe, between 70% and 90% of startups fail before reaching their fifth birthday! Unlike corporations, which offer their employees a stable and reassuring environment, startups are unpredictable and volatile organizations.
Behind the 80 European unicorns – startups valued at over a billion dollars – lie thousands of bankruptcies, burnouts and ruined entrepreneurs. Launching a startup is a unique and fascinating adventure, but it often ends in a crash.
Corporations weather economic crises, wars and international competition with aplomb. JP Morgan Chase has been around since 1799, and Saint-Gobain since 1665 – while the SEE unicorns UiPath and Infobip have only existed since 2005 and 2006 respectively.
The great paradox
The founders of startups are ambitious people. They dream that their startup will one day become a big company. A corporation, in short! In business, “Big is Beautiful”, in the words of Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind.
As for corporations, they secretly envy startups’ freedom and speed of execution. They admire their ability to keep pace with the times and their fierce desire to change the world.
Corporations need startups to innovate, just as startups need the support of corporations to grow. Ultimately, startuppers and corporate types are not that different. They operate in the same universe: the business world, and feel the imperatives of growth and profitability just the same.
The art of versatility
Years of conjugal experience enabled John Gray to understand the differences between men and women, to make them a source of mutual enrichment rather than tension. In an age when social media tends to polarize individuals, it’s worth remembering that categorizing people based on their gender, or the type of business they work for, is neither fair nor desirable.
Like startuppers, successful business leaders often manage to climb the corporate ladder by using their entrepreneurial qualities to move projects deftly forward. As for startuppers with corporate experience, they have often assimilated the codes, methods, discipline and leadership and have been shaped through contact with mentors. In business, aren’t the most seasoned professionals those who skilfully acquire the complementary strengths of both worlds?