February 11, 2013

Startups Aren't The Only Place To Innovate

Most of the readership of sites like Techcrunch, Hacker News, and the like want to work with only the sexiest, most hyped, most disruptive startups. It is exciting and validating to be working at a company that is constantly on the front page of your favorite news site. You feel like you are on a mission from God to disrupt some industry or to teach consumers that they need your new product. This is great and I must admit I often find myself drawn towards the job pages of high profile startups because of the internet fame that comes with working at these companies. This is all well and good, and I don’t discourage you from attempting to work at all the most exciting companies. There are a few challenges at startups that can hold back a real entrepreneurial hustler from achieving their goals.

Money, Moolah, Cash Money

Startups have to raise money, bootstrap, or keep a real tight leash on the budget.

  1. Raising money and dating venture capitalists wastes time. People who want to create great projects who are technically minded or product minded, aren’t usually the best at figuring out how to pitch a venture capitalist. They now have to spend time learning how to pitch and get the investments they need. This is wasted time that could be spent building a product.
  2. Bootstrapping sucks because whenever the company is not doing well, the guy with the big wallet is not happy. Everything has to get approved by the wallet man and you have finite resources. If you aren’t the guy with the wallet, its doubtful you will have a lot of effect on product decisions.
  3. Tightening the budget is not fun because you waste time doing things you could be paying an expert to do. Startups with tight budgets have to do their own accounting, hiring/firing, legal, and other general business tasks.

No Users

Startups have to attract users to test products that are rough around the edges and unpopular. Startups desperately need feedback and user data metrics, but they have none. They often iterate without real users testing it, or have to pay for user feedback.

Startup Mentality

It is so easy to get swept up in a mentality that can take down your company. Being in the startup world or actually located in SF/NY is the easiest way to get swept up in self-congratulating community. Everyone is congratulating each other for “building an MVP” or getting featured on some tech blog even though these aren’t necessarily indicators of success. Startups often get obsessed with their competition or what other popular startups are doing. This can slow companies down and make them lose focus from their initial product idea.

These problems are not faced by all startups, but it is much harder to avoid these problems when working in a standard small startup.

I think larger, possibly aging, tech giants are excellent places to truly innovate.

Using the example of the somewhat larger company, CityGrid Media that I am currently employed at. CityGrid is a local ad network that owns several ad publishers, namely Urbanspoon, Citysearch, and InsiderPages. These products don’t have the same hype or excitement that the latest startup might have, but the CityGrid family has a lot of great resources that the average startup does not.


The average large tech company has some existing income that is keeping them running. They have budgets, resources, and experience that are unavailable to most startups. I can request tech gear that I need without breaking the budget. I can ask to hire the employees with the skills we need. Money is not nearly as tight and you don’t have to waste time finding monetary resources.

Existing Users and Data

CityGrid has a ton of sites with great SEO and existing user bases. When we publish new features, they immediately get seen and used. We can look at our analytics and get instant feedback on whether our changes actually help or harm. Feedback is essential and large companies have tons of it. People always critique the old school tech companies and their products. I can use that to my advantage to iterate quickly with real user metrics.

Starved for Innovation

My company is desperately looking for people with new ideas (and I’m sure many other aging tech companies are as well). My company is scared of some new startup wiping them off the map. They are willing to throw their money and resources at any idea with promise. Imagine pitching a venture capitalist who is game for almost anything. The company will work with you if you are creating good ideas, working with the existing teams and products, and leveraging what the company has.

These companies NEED great product thinkers, excellent designers, and talented engineers. You can work on exciting products and truly innovate at large tech companies, despite what you may hear. Jump into these companies and innovate from the inside out. You just might find it a lot more satisfying than the hard work of starting a company.

Its not easy to push past the structure and old thinking at a company like CityGrid, but it is worth the effort. You can help save these companies and bring them into the modern age. In the meantime, I’ll be doing my best to make CityGrid’s products competitive with Yelp and Foursquare and every other competitor. If you have feedback or completely disagree with me, hit me up @iAmChrisTruman.

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