What CIOs can learn from startups

What CIOs can learn from startups

The job title of the modern CIO now comes with more responsibilities than ever before, with many now being tasked with helping to set a company-wide agenda rather than just taking control of IT strategy. Corporate culture is more important than ever before, especially in Southeast Asia where the population in overwhelmingly young.

Opportunities, salary, company reputation and career progression are all still vital for helping you attract the right kind of talent however, if you don’t also offer an interesting and dynamic working environment, young people entering the workforce for the first time might be turned off if they think your company is too old-fashioned.

Startups seem to have got this balance right but the high-pressure, high-risk working environments aren’t right for everyone. As the digital disruptors helping to keep long-established organisations on their toes, there’s a lot that can be learnt from startup culture and implemented within your own company. Below, we take a look at some of the key takeaways for CIOs.

Adapt to new trends

The ability to adapt to new trends and continuously innovate are essential features for any business looking to achieve success in a competitive market, whether they’ve been around for two years or 20. One of the main threats for consolidated companies is the risk of stagnation.

As more and more digitally disruptive businesses enter the market, those who fail to evolve risk not being round long enough to see the next wave of innovation.

Take Kodak, for example. Despite being the film market giant during most of the 20th century, it missed the opportunity of leading the digital photography revolution. And are you reading this article on a mobile device? It probably isn’t a Blackberry or a Nokia phone!

Hywel Sloman, IT Director at Arsenal Football Club, is aware of how important it is to keep bringing fresh ideas to the table. “I like to work with smaller, more nimble vendors who can work at the pace we need and can bring innovation and new ideas to us,” he told sister title CIO UK. “I am also very clear that innovation tends not to come from our industry, so I work hard to build relationships and get ideas from organisations outside football.”


For startups, innovation and agility are both necessary to ensure not only the success of a business but also its survival. In an increasingly aggressive market, fresh and innovative ideas, as well as a quasi-religious faith in trend-setting ideas, are a way of ensuring you stay one step ahead of the industry curb.

Startups often have to work hard to maximise productivity, most have to contend with a shoe-string budget at the early stages before initial rounds of investment. You might also see startups making use of free or open source software, for example, to avoid running into expensive licensing issues – something that could ultimately be attractive to an open-minded CFO.

Build a company-wide culture

What is it that makes startups such desirable places to work? Is it the opportunities they can present you with or the new, emerging skills you can develop? While both of those are true, for some it is their attractive mix of relaxed and inclusive office culture. Take for example, Malaysian venture CO3, “probably south east Asia’s coolest office”, has a red plane in the middle of its premises to encourage staff “to fly”.

A friendly and fun work environment doesn’t just mean having an aesthetically pleasing work environment, it can also help to stimulate creativity, camaraderie, and group spirit. In theory, startup employees are the happy workers of capitalism. And of course, there’s the thinking out of the box mentality, an attribute mastered by most emerging businesses on their succeed-or-die journeys.

Other startup strategies include running innovation labs, corporate venturing and the ever-popular hackathons, where experimentation is always encouraged. In June 2016, SAP launched a 100-seat incubator for startups in the IoT, Big Data or Cloud sphere. Their CIO, Manik Narayan Saha, has made it part of the company’s mission to proactively support startup culture.  

When startups have the right backing, the sky really is the limit. Some of the entrepreneurial ventures that have succeeded now boast a shiny place in the Fortune 500 list. These include Alibaba, PayPal and the ever-controversial Facebook.


Venture capitalists are not the only ones throwing large sums of cash at fledgling companies. Corporate giants have also seen the attractive profit possibilities by investing in startups. As of 2017, Tencent had backed the highest number of Chinese unicorns. The Alibaba Group and Japan’s SoftBank are also heavily investing in early and late stage ventures.

In today’s fast-paced world, having a brilliant idea is no longer enough: you have to be the first one to make your idea reach the market or there’s a very real possibility someone else will do it for you.

However, collaborating with startups doesn’t always have to come at a significant cost. Major organisations such as AstraZeneca or Oxfam, have achieved considerable gains from their partnerships with emerging companies. Fostering with these privileged working relationships with flexible startups can help you to get prototypes and trials to market in less time than a legacy partner might be able (or willing) to.

Take risks where possible

Unlike larger companies, where dynamism can often be obstructed by internal processes, startups have speed on their side and are ready to use it. In that respect, as a CIO the startup is your natural ally.

Taking risks is a core tenant of their success strategy however, larger, more established corporations have a higher degree of accountability that they cannot (and shouldn’t) bypass. As well as global compliance laws, regulations and audits, they also have to answer to shareholders and a board of directors that will historically err on the side of caution.  

Chris Zissis, CIO at JLL, understands the benefits of working with smaller tech startups and in 2016 his company partnered with Leverton, a Berlin-based machine learning and artificial intelligence startup. However, he also advocates caution when partnering with startups: “[You also have to consider] ...do startups really have the capability to do what they say they can?"

IDG Insider


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