Big, small business can learn together

Anne Marsan

There’s a lot of research that shows gender and race diversity make an economy stronger. The same holds true for business; diversity in terms of the types and size of businesses make the economy stronger.

Large business is an anchor for the economy, no matter your location. In Ann Arbor, Toyota and the University of Michigan, for example, create the foundation on which the region’s innovation and startup economy are founded on. At the same time, small businesses fuel economic growth by filling in the gaps left by these large businesses — startups attract talent who want to work for nimble, innovative businesses and investors who seek those specific opportunities.

These companies need to work together to make our economy stronger. One of the most missed opportunities for collaboration, and building better businesses of all sizes, is for large companies and startups to simply learn from one another.

The lean, agile methodology that software firm Atomic Object uses for project management has been adopted by several of our larger clients. And we’ve been inspired to take a “big business” skeptical look at ideas that, if adopted too quickly or in the wrong way, would take our team down the wrong path.

Small businesses, especially in the tech industry, forge change and improvement. These companies often have the flexibility to try things out; there’s more of a “nothing to lose” mentality. Startups are incubators for ideas.

Mountain Labs’ work with the University of Michigan is a great example of a small company incubating an idea and having a large business adopt it. Mountain Labs was founded by Alex Vanderkolk, a former data analyst for University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In his job at the Cancer Center, Vanderkolk spent a lot of time helping researchers aggregate, clean and re-format data sets for their projects; multi-site projects within the center involved collaborators entering data into their own Excel spreadsheets, then emailing those back and forth every time they were updated.

Hardly an efficient process, but one that a multi-billion dollar research organization wasn’t addressing in any way. Researchers knew that Excel data was a problem, but no one was willing to admit it, and no one wanted to do anything about it — the classic “it’s worked in the past, why change now?” mentality.

Vanderkolk was inspired to create Symport, Mountain Labs’ signature software, to collect and manage data for various projects. Symport offered researchers the opportunity create the software they’ve always wanted to manage their data.

The University of Michigan is using Symport technology to advance scientific knowledge and improve healthcare.

If businesses of all shapes and sizes are to thrive in our economy, learning from one another’s successes and mistakes ensures that we’re moving forward as efficiently as possible. In doing so, our economy will continue to grow on a solid foundation that is not only sustainable, but strong.

Anne Marsan is a managing partner at Atomic Object, an Ann Arbor software company.