by Charlotte Trueman, Cristina Lago

What CIOs can learn from startups

May 10, 2019
IT LeadershipStartups

As startups continue to dominate the digital landscape, what lessons can today’s CIO learn from these emerging companies?

It’s official: you have made it right to the top of your company, your knowledge and leadership skills have no rival, you are the indispensable right hand to the CEO and the organisation’s internal champion. In short: you are the CIO.

To progress your career it would make sense to examine peers with more experience than yourself as examples to follow. But with all the news about startups, is there anything well-established enterprises can learn from these young entrepreneurs and their uber-optimistic culture?

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 and what they can learn from startups.


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 concepts, 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 of them 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.

Singaporean supply chain company Y3 Technologies is working with startups and universities on the fields of data analytics and machine learning to unearth the potential that these ventures can bring to the table. The collaboration is fostered through Supply Chain Angels, the corporate venture arm of Y3 Technologies and YCH Group.

“[Through Supply Chain Angels] we nurture startups and work with them to see what new tech and solutions they can bring to the supply chain arena,” Gabriel Tho, COO at Y3 Technologies and CIO of YCH, said at the time.

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 around 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!

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 aimed at nurturing early-stage startups within the domain of the internet of things (IoT), big data, the cloud and verticals in retail and healthcare.

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.

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A)

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, startups are the CIO’s natural ally.

Taking risks is a core tenant of their success strategy however, larger and 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.  

In 2018, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) organised its first hackathon – a bold move coming from a bank, where the culture tends to be risk averse and conservative at the time of trying new things.

500 startups took part in the hackathon to address three development challenges in Asia: health solutions for rural areas, digital IDs and artificial intelligence (AI) for trust in fintech. The event was a success and ADB began working with the winners.

“The first startup that we worked with was on digital ID for financial inclusion,” explained Shirin Hamid, CIO of ADB and one of the minds behind the hackathon. “We experimented on the technology with this startup. Early in January, my team went to Papua New Guinea and there we worked with a local bank. We also worked with a telecoms provider and we found a use case.”

“This was our first experiment and we are delighted that we’ve taken it into the next step,” she told CIO ASEAN.