I love the web and am constantly amazed at what one can find or learn from others skilled in the art.
I recently came across a very interesting piece in Marc Andreesen's blog: "The Moby Dick Theory of Big Companies", in which he suggests that "There are times in the life of a startup when you have to deal with big companies." He then builds a very interesting metaphorical case for SmallCo as Captain Ahab and BigCo as Moby Dick. It's an entertaining and enlightening piece, but I will endeavour to go a few steps further and try to delve into the psychology driving the players in this game.
Marc makes some interesting points about a BigCo's behavior being inexplicable when viewed from the outside. He suggests that there are some many moving parts and agendas, that the dynamic of decision making is highly unpredictable. While I tend to agree at a macro level, it's my experience that people (and a company is an aggregation of people) will react most predictably to fear. I think it was Intro to Psych class where we are all introduced to the concept of "Fight or Flight" and that it applies equally to business psychology.
SmallCo's are used to talking about the opportunities created by their disruptive technology: new markets, huge revenue, vast market share, value creation. This is a natural side effect from their creating business plans and pitching investors on how compelling the opportunity is.
Once they've convinced themselves and their investors that the opportunity is huge, they will often go out and try to convince one or several BigCo's of the same thing. Getting funding or landing a whale require different stories, but usually SmallCo re-uses their investor pitch in trying to get BigCo's attention. You may get nodding heads in meetings and even hear that they agree with your assessment of the opportunity, but all too often BigCo inertia takes over and nothing happens.
I first experienced this in a big way shortly after being recruited from a start-up into the Disruptive Technology group at Nortel in Q3/2000. MeshNetworks had just emerged from stealth mode with a classic, highly disruptive story that had the potential to impact many incumbent technologies and R&D programs in the wireless space. Nortel was heavily invested in 3G, having made a major UMTS bet, and I was advised to identify a new market opportunity created by this emerging technology rather than positioning it as a disruptor to 3G. So, I began the exercise of focusing on a net new commercial opportunity that this technology could enable for Nortel. It was a billion dollar opportunity in 3-5 years, yadda, yadda. I got the nods in meetings and the "Atta boy" from my boss at review time, but there was no sense of urgency to act.
Frustrated by this, and deciding to win big or die trying, I spoofed a news story using the San Jose Mercury News banner and inserting quotes from John Chambers and industry analysts. The banner read: "Cisco Leapfrogs 3G and Goes Right to 4G; Acquires MeshNetworks for $400m". I then printed off my mock-up and put it on the fax machine, sending it around internally. Within 5 minutes, my phone began to ring - "Holy shit! What the hell just happened? How could we have let this happen?!?"
Basically I then told them that we have a do-over, that this didn't really happen (yet). But I then asked whether this was a version of the future that we were prepared to accept. If so, not acting was a reasonable course of (in)action. If we couldn't contemplate this version of the future, then we needed to act urgently.
What did I takeaway from this?
BigCo's are largely risk averse. Status quo rules the day and that having a team of singles hitters internally is easier to manage than going to the free agent market and bringing in the guy who will either hit it out of the ballpark or go down swinging. Unless that home run hitter is also talking to another team in your division, which could lose you more games. The threat of him landing with a competitor usually changes the way in which you look at his availability as well as what you're willing to pay to get him on your team. It's the competitor pre-emption premium.
Winning vs. not losing. Opportunities or threats. Two different ways of framing the discussion.
After 20 years of dancing with 800lb gorillas, or hunting the great white whale, my experience is that BigCo action is catalysed more often from perceived threats than from potential opportunities. My hunch is that this is an 80:20 relationship, although I have no quantitative data to support this.
What happens inside companies when presented with a perceived threat? The Fight or Flight instinct kicks in. Corporate DNA is pre-disposed to fighting (they don't call it "competition" for nothing), while fleeing is anathema to most BigCo's. Status quo is not an option when under threat of attack.
You've decided, for whatever reason, that you're going to go hunt the big white whale. You've got a disruptive technology, well it's called disruptive for a reason. Change the lens through which you have them view you. Build your story around the threat to their status quo and you are more likely to get them to act with a sense of urgency.
But be careful what you wish for. You might just end up harpooning the whale and you then have to answer the "Now what do I do?!?"
That's my .02!