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Startups are great, but we can learn a lot from “end-ups,” too

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At last week’s DLD Conference in Munich, I had the opportunity to sit onstage with the co-founder and CPO of Airbnb, Joe Gebbia. We started by discussing the unique creative culture at Rhode Island School of Design, where Joe went to college, and where I currently serve as president. Joe shared some of his secrets of being a successful designer-founder, and then turned the tables and asked me what it’s like to run a 136-year-old institution like RISD.

As often happens these days, the Twitter summary of my answer was perhaps more articulate than my answer itself:

@johnmaeda: “Today end-ups — old companies and institutions — want to be become more like start-ups. Yet they are classic and important.” via @AnnePascual

@johnmaeda: “Start-ups want to end up successful. Both want to be great.” via @Sloane

I sit on the board of a couple of start-ups (like Sonos and Quirky), but I spend my days running RISD – what I call an “end-up” in contrast with a start-up. I also used to be at the academic equivalent of a start-up,  the MIT Media Lab, which was founded in the 1980s (30 years is young in academic terms). Now, the term end-up may sound pejorative, but in fact I mean the opposite: If you think about it, the end goal for most start-ups is to eventually become an end-up, which is to say successful and long lasting.

At the same time, you increasingly hear that large corporations and institutions now wish to act more like start-ups, in order to innovate and become more agile. My friend Jocelyn Glei, editor-in-chief of 99U, remarked recently how “start-up culture” is so much more coveted and in the zeitgeist than it was 10 years ago; prior presidents simply didn’t talk about start-ups like Obama does.

(As an interesting side note, this analogy works for countries as well. European nations like France are the great end-ups of civilization. The U.S. was a start-up that is now coping with becoming an end-up. And China is an end-up that feels like a start-up again.)

Here are some of the crucial differences between start-ups and end-ups:

Start-ups End-ups
Want to be something Already are something
Agile Stable
Culture is forming Culture has formed
Have little Have lots
Have little to lose Have lots to lose
Try something for the first time Tried everything and know what works
Unproven Proven
Do what needs to get done Clear roles and responsibilities
Flat structure with empowerment Hierarchical structure with rules
May come and go Stand the test of time
Heterarchy Hierarchy

Start-ups have little, but also little to lose

By definition, customers aren’t drawn to start-ups because of a trusted legacy or brand. So they must prove their worth to each and every new customer and get their name out without a well-resourced marketing machine behind them.

End-ups with strong brands that draw customers in, however, can become hesitant to act for fear of tarnishing or altering that brand. Start-ups have no choice but to act, and act fully – it’s the only way they’ll survive.

Change comes naturally to a start-up

A start-up is like a baby growing up: It needs to change and grow to become itself. Start-ups often dream of having the strong internal cultures, passed-down stories, and shared history that you commonly find in end-ups and that guide their decisions.

But change is awkward to an end-up, much like it can be for a grown adult trying to reimagine him/herself. It’s often necessary for end-ups, but it’s never easy.

End-ups have resources; start-ups have commitment

At end-ups, employees have well-defined roles and responsibilities. In the best case, that ensures that things are done efficiently. In the worst case, though, it can inhibit people from taking on new responsibilities with agility.  At a start-up, it’s all-hands-on-deck to make sure things get out the door, even if it’s sometimes unclear whose hands are doing what and chaos ensues.

And it’s important to note that it’s the stories and legends of the great end-ups that inspire most great start-ups – think of HP, Apple, IBM. Rather than assume that all end-ups are decaying dinosaurs, we must acknowledge that each is the envy of the other in some respects.

End-ups have learned to manage scale, and have accumulated wisdom over time; start-ups have the benefit of the agile beginner’s mind. The challenge for both is to seek greatness by learning from each other.

John Maeda is a graphic designer and artist, and is president of Rhode Island School of Design. Follow him on Twitter @johnmaeda.

Photo courtesy of Anettphoto/

8 Responses to “Startups are great, but we can learn a lot from “end-ups,” too”

  1. JaeYeon Joseph Kim

    Interesting article. I have also both worked at an academic institution which is more than 100 years old (quite young also from the academic perspective but one of the oldest in S. Korea) and now working at a local startup in Seoul. As John rightly describes there is no absolute criteria by which we can hastily judge startup or end-up is better than their counterparts. Each has its own unique pros and cons. Personally, also I’d like to think that it’s relevant if you were young (around 20s or 30s) it might be a good choice to work for a startup but if you get older the decision to join a startup must be more cautious.

  2. Marius Fermi

    Great article! However I’m not completely convinced on ‘most’ start ups are looking to become end ups.

    The more I read and have some sort of exposure to the individuals behind these start ups the more you realise that, yes they have sensational passion for their product/company/service but they are without doubt perplexed by the chance of selling their company, for a cool $1bn.

    Start ups are a wonderful thing to view and watch but reality is many of them have no use, like the flooded app market filled with junk that makes no sense or has literally no need.

  3. I’m not entirely sure how true it is that most start ups are looking to becoming end ups or at least stable. The vast majority are now perplexed by this need to create and dump before anything is in actual fact stable.

    Everyone will say they want a stable business but without doubt no matter how much passion you have for that company, you’ll sell it for that $1bn offer.

  4. * Worked hours/Social rights of employees
    * Burn-out/Depression
    * fast/slow paces (and their cost/benefits on both sides)

    There are certainly a lot more to say and add in terms of categories when we include humans. There are also differences depending on the country. Culture plays a role.