Going Big and Staying Small – An Entrepreneur’s View of Shifting from Startup to Big Business

By: Pehr Luedtke, Senior Vice President Business Development, Valassis Digital
Published Monday, Feb 20, 2017

Going Big and Staying Small – An Entrepreneur’s View of Shifting from Startup to Big Business

About two years ago, my current employer acquired my start-up -- a location-based mobile advertising company. Almost overnight, my professional life went from managing a small (but mighty) team, creating demand from advertisers, working with investors and building product, to meeting my new colleagues and introducing our product to a vast customer base.  Two years later, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way about making the transition from “small” to “big.”

First, there are many, many generalizations about the transition. The narrative, particularly in Silicon Valley, goes like this: Big companies have more resources, afford a better lifestyle, but move slowly. Small companies are fast-paced and highly innovative, but good luck seeing your family or friends. I’m sure there are truths in both of these, but in my experience that narrative suffers from exaggeration and polarity. With this in mind, here are a couple of practical takeaways I’ve learned over the past years:

To credit Led Zeppelin, some of the song remains the same. Most importantly, I still work with very smart people. My colleagues all have decades of experience and have started, sold and bought companies. We also all have battle scars. Everyone proactively chooses to work here.  The caliber of talent is top-notch.

At the same time, there are some mindset changes that I’ve gone through that were not obvious to me as I started my journey.

1. Client interactions: The ad tech landscape is packed, just check out any Lumascape. As a startup, client conversations are as much about your company as they are your product (the two are so powerfully linked). “How long have you been around? How many people? Are you well-funded?” It takes time and grit to get a meeting, then half of it is validation of your own existence (part of why startups are not for the faint of heart!) Oftentimes, I found that it was only after you get past this gate that you can talk about the details of the product and the specific value you bring.

2. The buyer/seller dynamic: As a startup CEO, you are ALWAYS selling– to customers; investors; employees; recruits and partners. As an executive at a larger company, particularly in my role in business development, the selling continues, but it shifts slightly. Because we have tens of thousands of advertisers, companies – mostly startups – seek us out as a potential partner. So I am on the listening end and in the somewhat fortunate position of being the “buyer.” My mindset has gone from always asking for “yes” to learning how to say “no.”

Client conversations at large companies, I believe, tend to be different. The client knows you and is familiar with your current offerings. The challenge is not to create credibility, but rather to convince them that the new product you’re offering is the ideal evolution of the existing relationship. Moreover, the first half of the meeting (during which I previously spent fighting for existence) is now spent reviewing the scope of the current relationship. Neither instance is better or worse – they’re just different.

3. Crowded solitude: One of my favorite books is “The Social Animal,” by David Brooks. To me, it’s a wonderful treatise on life’s biggest themes: love; loss; careers; children; age; friendship. Mr. Brooks describes Erica, one of the protagonists and a CEO, as experiencing “crowded solitude.” While there are many people around you, ultimately you do not have colleagues. It’s an incredible privilege to run a company, but for most of us who are by our very nature, social, the opportunity to have colleagues (as Mr. Brooks writes, “a small circle of intimates”) is of equal privilege. And big companies, purely because of the law of numbers, afford that privilege.

Many entrepreneurs have made this similar transition – and learned countless lessons. I’d love to hear from others about their experiences.

Thanks for the opportunity to share mine.