‘Start-ups need a culture where people can question things’

24 Oct 2019

Alton McDowell, JP Morgan. Image: Lean Startup Conference

Ahead of an appearance in San Francisco, JP Morgan’s Alton McDowell gives his top advice on building and maintaining culture at start-ups.

Alton McDowell, co-head of the technology and disruptive commerce group at JP Morgan, will appear today (24 October) at the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. The annual three-day event features practical advice for entrepreneurs and the start-up community on topics such as intelligent growth, creating a culture of experimentation and pivoting failure into success.

Lean Startup co-founder Eric Reis, author of the titular book that pioneered the lean start-up methodology, will interview McDowell in a session discussing how to foster a start-up culture, and the tools and resources that enable start-ups to build a strong foundation for rapid growth.

Ahead of his appearance, McDowell answered some questions on these topics for Siliconrepublic.com.

‘If you’re going to be successful and achieve perpetual motion, you have to have people who are continuously questioning leadership and fostering growth in the company’

Your topic for discussion at the Lean Startup Conference is ‘From Garage to IPO: Leveraging the Strength of Tech Trends’. What’s your opinion on the mythologising of the garage-founded start-up?

In my opinion, the garage is a symbol of how the inspiration for start-ups can come from anywhere, at the least expected or obvious moments. Ideation, creation and innovation can spark anywhere. Often times, people get inspiration for ideas when they are grinding through an unfulfilling job. They realise: ‘I can create a much better experience.’

On the agenda is a discussion on fostering start-up culture, and that’s a key word in business right now. Why is culture so important in forming a business? And how do founders establish a culture and embed it early on?

It is imperative that start-up founders establish a culture of inclusion and instil the notion that good ideas transcend status or tenure. Start-ups need a culture where people feel comfortable enough to question things, voice unfiltered opinions and become willing agents of change because the best ideas do not always originate from the most seasoned or senior person at the table. The most interesting part of the whole start-up culture is that some of the most valuable ideas in the world did not come from a CEO.

How can start-up culture be maintained through periods of high growth?

Maintaining that original start-up culture and vision is critical. However, it can be challenging to keep that mentality as you grow from five people to 65 people and beyond. If you’re going to be successful and achieve perpetual motion, you have to have people who are continuously questioning leadership and fostering growth in the company. If you don’t, you become victim of your own praise and lose sight of that North Star.

When you begin scaling really quickly, it can feel like you’re inside of a pressure cooker. Without that North Star, that initial entrepreneur vision may get clouded. Founders and employees alike need to know why they are doing what they do every day in order to scale and adapt.

What are the tools and resources start-ups need to build a strong foundation and grow quickly?

Start-ups benefit from the tools, resources and industry knowledge found at an experienced institutional partner with a global reach, because needs can evolve quickly as companies scale and grow more sophisticated. A good partner will provide curated solutions for start-ups that can scale with the business. For example, a real-time digital payment platform for the internet economy because, in the new economy, it can’t take companies weeks to process payments or deliver a product.

What should start-ups look to leverage now for future success?

Today, you have new businesses that are starting and ramping to $20m in top-line revenue in a matter of months. Increasingly, tech companies are entering global markets at earlier stages in their business life cycle. Having a clear understanding off-the-bat of the challenges and opportunities that lie abroad can position a start-up for future success.