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Entrepreneurial Spirit at Spreadshirt - When start-ups turn adolescent
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Entrepreneurial Spirit at Spreadshirt - When start-ups turn adolescent
Spreadshirt is often considered to be a reference for building up a company. Its history provides an example for many uprising (potential) entrepreneurs. Its company culture is said to reflect the spirit of an inspiring start-up (a reason for me to come here). The entrepreneurial spirit seems to belong to Spreadshirt like the ‘Amen’ to the church.

Regarding its five years of existence, the market entries of several competitors and a total number of 250 employees (150 in the HQ in Leipzig), one might wonder whether Spreadshirt could maintain an “entrepreneur’s spark” in their employees – a willingness to undertake a venture and to achieve through taking risk, improvising by following a vision.

The answer? - Well, they try to.
The theory: Core values of Spreadshirt’s company culture

The entrepreneurial Spirit is fostered (if not ‘spread’) among the employees through one of Spreadshirt’s core values. Such a value (there are six in total) reflects the “typical” Spreadshirt culture and shall be internalised by each employee. Each new employee has to attend a so-called “cultural onboarding” where Lukasz (founder of Spreadshirt) introduces these values.

At the last general assembly (a monthly held employee meeting) the relevant core value of this article was addressed: “think smart, move fast”. This value is about lighting the entrepreneurial fire in every employee. The following statements specify what thinking smart and moving fast should mean to the Spreadshirt employee

    * behave as if you were the owner
    * apply common sense, not rules
    * structure is the servant not the master

Spreadshirt wants its employees to think out of the box. They shall not simply follow procedures and given tasks. They shall question, dare to do differently and improve the given. The employees are not only responsible for the output, they provide input to the organisation.
The rationale behind is the learning organisation. Spreadshirt operates in a fast-changing (web-) environment, where the ability to adapt to new circumstances is the crucial factor that decides about success and failure: “Be quick or dead” was the concluding phrase in the general assembly.
The practice: Entrepreneurship among employees at Spreadshirt

The employees can be regarded as the working hands of their department manager. Employees are quite self-dependant in working-style, work location and the way tasks are carried out. Nonetheless, if problems and questions occur, the informal culture allows it to let the employees give feedback (and proposals) to their managers. Employees thereby avoid a risk of failure and let their managers know where change and innovation is needed. Possible solutions are then discussed (complicated process) and eventually taken into practice (a long list of proposals still wait for implementation at Spreadshirt’s IT). Nowadays it’s more of an innovation process, than it is entrepreneurial spirit that changes Spreadshirt or that determines its future actions.

The above-mentioned explaining statements for think smart, move fast show the natural trade-off: More structure means less entrepreneurial spirit. The more employees an organisation has to coordinate, the more necessary structures become. If employees change the structures of their working environment by “being entrepreneurial” they endanger the proper functioning of the whole organisation.

Thinking smart and moving fast shall in fact encourage employees to generate ideas on how to do things better. The big difference between a young start-up and an adolescent company is how these ideas are taken into practice. The individuals of a start-up necessarily implement their ideas more or less straight away. Often no best practice exists and nobody can be asked. As structures, processes and hierarchies are set up, employees (can) rely on their managers and profit from the organisation’s past experiences.

In my opinion the adolescent Spreadshirt can’t be called “entrepreneurial” anymore. I consider “controlled innovation” a much more appropriate description.

An additional note: As more employees enter a growing company, the likeliness to employ only individuals with an entrepreneurial attitude diminishes. Creating (!) an entrepreneurial spirit can’t be achieved through something that will often only remain a phrase: think smart, move fast.

by Christian Emigholz. After studying general business administration at the University of St. Gallen (HSG), Christian is took an internship at Spreadshirt in Leipzig. Before eventually running his own business in the future, he wanted to learn from others who have overcome the peaks and problems an own venture faces.

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