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130. Every big company wants to be a small company, and every small company wants to be a big company

I can’t remember where I heard it first. Maybe it was from Paul Bulencea. Maybe somewher else. But the more our company grows and the more I get to work with some of the big fish, the more I appreciate the statement.

We’re just around 30 people, and though we’re quite multinational, with people in seven countries, we’re still a small company. I still not only know everyone, but I know most of them pretty well – and most of them know each other.

Still, I feel the chafing of “big corporate” slowly starting to creep in. Things like creating an employee handbook, having structured communication channels and clear hierarchies. When we were five people sitting in the same office, it wasn’t like this. We didn’t see the need for an official company culture – we lived it every day. We didn’t need protocols and processes – we knew them by heart, or quickly got to.

Now, with more people and more offices and workplaces, we need that structure to function. But we’re still a small company, and that makes us agile and superfast compared to the supertankers. We may no longer be a sloop, but we’re still a barque, with more firepower and capacity.

Yes, that was a Sid Meier’s Pirates! reference. I’m like that, sometimes.

I still remember the time when our risk capital was below a thousand euros. Now, that number is quite a bit higher, though we still have to think heavily before throwing ten thousand at an idea. But the days where I beat myself up for taking the odd taxi or declined meetings due to flight costs… they’re over.

Yet, we’re nowhere near the giants we now are in contact with. Disney. IKEA. The Danish church. Farah Experiences in Abu Dhabi, to name a few. These are huge, lumbering beasts, where even small changes take massive effort and time. I’ll never forget working with the marketing team in Yas Waterworld in the Emirates, where it took a five-person chain for someone to put an already produced video on the facebook page. It was crazy.

Working with these behemoths is frustrating and cumbersome. Not just for us, but for them. People in these big organisations are people just as much as we are, and they dream of fast feedback loops, effecient decision-making and visionary approaches. I’ve so far not found anyone working in a big organisation that isn’t at least somewhat frustrated by the lack of speed and willingness to embrace risk and change.

But.

Of course there’s a but, and it’s a big one. The giants have something we tiny wasps don’t. They have money. They have reach. They have institutional resources. They have structures.

When my brother Peter left the company we’d started together after a year of operations, I had six months where I didn’t send out invoices. I didn’t know how, and I was too stupid to ask for help. I don’t think Deloitte fails to invoice its customers because no-one knows how to create an invoice. But for half a year, that’s how things were when I was alone.

The artist collective Meow Wolf, who we’ve come to know through our work, is not a corporate giant, but they still had around half a million visitors come experience their latest creation, The House of Eternal Return. In contrast, our international division (Dziobak Larp Studios) has done events for somewhere in the 1200–1500 range here in 2017.

And let’s not even ask how many people drank a Carlsberg this year. ;-)

It fascinates me, this longing for what we’re not. When the well-paid and influential come to our events, they revel in how everyone connects and how the culture is completely different from what they’re used to. We’ve had quite a few consider leaving their jobs and joining the circus, after having gotten a taste of the passion and the community spirit.

It seldom translates into action, though, because most people who make six-figure salaries are pretty happy about them. And while it may sound lovely to jump onboard the crazy train and do something that’s fulfilling, it’s often less enticing, when it comes with a 50–90% pay cut.

I don’t blame people for not taking the leap. I’ve never made significant money myself, so I don’t know how nice it feels. On the other hand, the last job I had where I didn’t get to live the dream was when I was 21. So I can’t say I know what it feels like to be inside the hamster wheel, but I’m always impressed when other people manage it.

What’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. The only thing I’m sure of is that company culture is part of it. There are big companies out there, that refuse to play by the rules (one way or the other). There are big organisations that inspire their members and where there’s room to delight, to grow and to act.

Creating one of those is damn hard, and becoming one if you didn’t start that way is probably even harder.

I find it fitting that I end in a bit of a circular manner, since that’s where I started this blog post.

“Every small company wants to be a big company and every big company wants to be a small company.”

But maybe there is hope in the fact that while every small person wants to be a big person, I have yet to find a big person who wants to be a small one.

And if we’re to get better at making big companies feel like small companies, maybe we need to get better at making small people behave like big people – with trust, generosity and passion.

Or maybe I’m just waxing a bit too philosophical because it’s nicer to write a blog post than to look at the mails in my inbox that tell me that I need to prepare things for our Board of Directors meeting. ;-)

If you like my writing, and want to free up my time, so write more, you can do exactly that, by supporting me via Patreon.

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=3351676

If you want to get into contact, I’m easy to find online. So if it’s worth your time, search me out. I’ll do my best to answer. ;-)

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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