Being Entrepreneurial in a Big Organization

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated May 18, 2021

Acton taught me how to be an entrepreneur: in the classroom pit I learned to make the critical decisions a small company needs for success.

Now I work in a 15 person affiliate of a 250+ person non-profit organization. Does what I learned at Acton apply to my current work?

Acton directly primed me for success. Critical thinking (data, not opinion, driving decisions), “rat like cunning”, and always starting with the customer are three of the core lessons I learned, and each helps me succeed now in a large organization.

Critical Thinking

When my organization needs to make a decision, the first thing I look for is relevant data. I manage online efforts and when we choose between two equally attractive options, I run an A/B test. Internal politics can drive decision-making in any large organization. Focusing on facts helps correct that tendency.

I often think of one of my classmate’s frequent interjection, “but the case fact says...” It kept us grounded in the data, and that’s how decisions should be made.

Rat Like Cunning

Some of the best action plans from our case discussions were the most simple. One of my classmates frequently said “we just need to call these three people, hear them out, and do what they need.” Some of us ran the most complicated financial analysis possible, but often a quick operations change solved the real problem in the case. These plans were grounded in the real world, where winners are hackers.

Working quickly and cheaply isn’t often the hallmark of big companies, but it should be. They typically rely on expensive outside vendors, but those firms are frequently slow and can produce projects that don’t align with the original goal. In managing our online efforts, I realized that assembling a team of freelancers and industry outsiders would lead to more innovation, faster production, and cheaper prices. Those contractors have delivered more success for less money. Even if you’re in a large organization with big budgets, that success gets noticed.

Where is the Customer?

The biggest problem in most large organizations is the number of layers between the customer and decision-makers. This is even more complicated in a non-profit setting.

But even here Acton’s lessons helped me. As a large and complex organization, we don’t have one customer, but every project has a set of customers, either internal or external. Finding the target audience is the key first step for success. Listening to them and putting myself in their shoes is the second. For me, that means thinking about who our donors are and what they’re looking for or who our activists and advocates are and what they need. That has been my critical insight. Acton taught me to think about customers first.

My big lessons learned from Acton drive my success today, even though I’m far from the world of startups and entrepreneurs.

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