Why There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Startup Within a Big Company’

You will never be able to take the brand risks, the legal risks, or the partnerships risks that a true startup can

Noam Bardin of Waze. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

I’d exchanged DMs with Waze co-founder and CEO Noam Bardin a few weeks back to ask about learnings from his last few years inside Google. Waze is the $1 billion-plus acquisition that people, well, forgot about despite its size and growth. I mean, in all the “Big Tech” regulations discussions we regularly hear about Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram and Google/YouTube, but Waze just kind of flies under the radar. Bardin replied that he was leaving Google at the end of January and would do some sharing after. Boy, understatement.

Today, Bardin published a personal essay titled “Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?” and it’s a really telling, thoughtful, honest post. You should read it all but let me share a specific paragraph here:

I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could build out Waze within Google, breaking the myth about what happens to companies after being acquired by large corporations. Looking back, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every Western CEO thinks she or he will be the first to be a successful Western brand in China and many try and launch a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the Western CEO leaves with some China experience and the Chinese partner keeps the IP, money, business… You cannot fight the nature of the beast, this is China. Same thing happened to me in China pre acquisition… So, to complete the analogy, I was the naive startup leader believing that I can build out Waze within Google to its full potential and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is critical for a startup leader but challenging in the corporate environment.

There is no such thing as a startup inside a big company. There’s various leash lengths to your freedom, but you’re no longer a startup. You get a bunch of things in return and, for many people, it can be a wonderful outcome, but you’re no longer a startup. I love that Bardin took this challenge and stayed well beyond when he needed to in order to set up a management team who could carry the product forward, as a business unit.

I got to see the YouTube acquisition firsthand and I think, for at least the first few years, we were the best version of “independent” you could ask for. Two people are primarily responsible for this: Chad Hurley and Eric Schmidt. Hurley, and his co-founder Steven Chen, had gone through the PayPal/eBay merger so they were the proverbial “wise beyond their years” when it came to what being bought meant and all the trade-offs that came with it. Schmidt had promised a high degree of autonomy and kept his word. We did deals with Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. We hired people directly into YouTube. We made acquisitions. I even got to route around some of the stuff Bardin pointed out as being especially frustrating with regards to PeopleOps (firing folks, optimizing bonuses for high performers).

When Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013, I shared some of my advice with the team, first publicly in a blog post and then in a private conversation with some Yahoo folks who read the post and reached out. We all know what happened there and I’m glad Tumblr is now with Automattic.

This stuff all works in reverse, too: When someone tells you that there’s an opportunity to “build a startup within a big company,” don’t believe them. It’s just not true. You can work on experimental products in a mechanism that tries to counterbalance some of the gravitational pull and processes that a big company otherwise uses to manage itself, but it’s not a startup. You will never be able to take the brand risks, the legal risks, or the partnerships risks that a startup can. To paraphrase someone I know who tried to lead one of these projects at Google (and had done an actual startup themselves): It can never be like a startup so long as my team has the Google badge on their belt and walks into the fancy cafeteria every day.

This wasn’t a comment about co-location; it was a comment about the working style, the expectations, the flying without a net, that high performing startups require and the people they attract. It’s not that those Googlers were “better” or “worse” than startup hires, but just that startups are completely different.

You can find experimental groups within larger companies — Area 120 at Google and NPE at Facebook — but they’re not startups.

If you want to be at a startup, join a startup. As Bardin says, “I am confident that the Waze acquisition was a success. The problem was me — believing I can keep the startup magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing the opposite.”