OpenCo 2014: When do startups stop being startups?

More than 100 UK digital companies opened their London offices to the public for a day to show how they work

More than 100 UK digital companies opened their London offices to the public on 2 October 2014 to show how they work and innovate, as part of OpenCo 2014.

Organised by OpenCo UK and Tech City UK, a number of tech businesses and startups worldwide spoke about their culture, growth and direction. But a number of these companies are now well-known brands, posing the question: when do startups stop being startups?

According to head of labs at Spotify Gary Liu, a startup is about culture, and size can mean everything.

“We still refer to ourselves as a startup because the reality is that fast moving culture of being able to change directions, being able to fix mistakes, being able to fail and pick ourselves up very quickly – that part of startup DNA is still incredibly important to us. We have to be fast moving,” he said.

But Liu also pointed out this can be difficult to maintain once the organisation gets bigger, and growing in numbers is also integral to the company’s expansion and success. 

“You have to grow to scale. When you get into 190 countries, when you become a truly global company, you need people – you need resources. So growth is an inevitability,” he said.

Startup culture at

UK country manager at Annabel Kilner suggested coming from a startup background can offer more flexibility, and described how this can lead to a more open environment. She said it can often lead to different internal operations and the team regularly take meetings in its showroom rather than in an official environment

“I think it’s really about the culture of the company," said Kilner. "I’m sure there are other businesses out there that do work in a wonderful way, but I think being able to come and be in our kind of environment and see a little bit of how we work is a good thing. 

"We do a lot of meetings sitting on sofas or sitting on beds and I think that’s a lovely way to work, but also it’s about us interacting with our own product,” she added.

Part of the culture is those hired have to be extremely passionate about the products and the business to ensure this ethos is maintained.

“It’s a much more informal culture – it kind of feels like a family. It’s an intense environment and I think you become closer to people in many ways. If you start small, you grow with people,” said Kilner.

The company began in 2010 with three founding members and has constantly grown since to around 160 people. This can make maintaining culture difficult, so tries to combat this by hiring the right people and mixing managers and directors with other team members in the office. 

It’s important to keep this sort of attitude if a company wants to hold on to the culture as the businesses grows and expands, according to Kilner.

“It’s all about the people you hire," she explained. "It’s about you as a leader being really passionate about what you do and then creating the culture with the right people in the company. And then being clever about how you market that – your product or your services.”

Despite this growth since its beginnings, Kilner said the team still feels like a startup.

“I don’t know when you stop calling yourself a startup. Even though we're four years old, we definitely work at the same pace we did when the business was founded,” she said.

“We are constantly moving very fast and we’re always making new things, so it’s got that very similar feel to when the business started.”

An agile culture to drive innovation

In some ways a culture can be defined by the way a company works, as opposed to its size or whether it’s a startup. Firms such as Google are famous for allowing employees more flexibility, and promoting creativity and innovation through agile methodologies.

You have to grow to scale. When you get into 190 countries, when you become a truly global company, you need people – you need resources. So growth is an inevitability

Gary Liu, Spotify sets aside every other Friday as part of its project sprint cycle to allow employees to work on their own ideas for projects, which are then pitched in front of the product team, developers, and marketing team. This, as well as regular scrums and breakout areas, gives the office a feel of a startup and helps make the business more agile. CIO Mark Ridley said you can't have an agile development team and not have an agile business.

"If your board doesn’t understand what you’re doing, or if you project managers don’t understand it, you actually have this point at which somebody’s not talking the same language and you have to translate. It causes issues,” he said.

Accommodation website Airbnb also participated in OpenCo and the firm's CEO and co-founder, Brian Chesky, recently wrote a blog post which highlighted that for a business – be it large or small – culture is everything.

“The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products,” he said.

“The stronger the culture, the less corporate processes a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. 

"People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our 'next (wo)man on the moon' leap,” he added.

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