As a business student and now a consultant, I’ve had the distinct pleasure to work with more than a dozen companies over the past few years. In that time, I’ve seen incredibly different working styles and corporate cultures. There has been a constant trait shared by executives at every company I’ve worked at, though. The reality is: the parking lot determines success
If you’re working at a start up, that trait can give you insight into whether or not a startup will succeed. VC’s, take note!
Before we talk about that one trait and what it means, first let me tell a quick story about what I remember from my first job in corporate.
My First Corporate Job
My first corporate experience was as a sophomore in college. I had a few business courses under my belt, knew how to use Outlook like a pro, and was an avid coffee drinker. I was perfect for low paid work office work that required little thinking!
Who am I kidding…..I was thrilled for the experience. It was a summer internship and paid money; I couldn’t have been happier when I got the call. I actually didn’t get a single person coffee that entire summer. Even better, I got to meet some consultants who convinced me to enter the industry.
So every day, I drove ~40 minutes from my place to the office park where the company was located. My car was 10 years old at the time, and a gas guzzler (there goes all the money I made), but I looked forward to the quiet time in the car to think. Most of the drive didn’t face traffic, so it was time to wind through back roads and contemplate my first corporate experience.
I don’t remember much about the day-to-day at that internship. The drive there and back is one thing I do remember. My coworkers are another. Being convinced to enter consulting was a third.
My most vivid memory though is this car!
Someone in the building drove this car to work every single day and parked it in the exact same spot next to the building. I walked past it single day while walking into the building, and every single day when walking out of the building.
As a 19 year old, there was a piece of me that marveled at how fast that car must have been. I absolutely wanted to drive it-who wouldn’t? A speeding ticket seemed like a fair trade off here
As a new corporate entrant, there was an even bigger piece of me that marveled at how someone would be willing to drive a car like that to work.
Can you imagine the balls (in a gender neutral sense) on that guy or girl to drive a sports car like that to work? Shit, most of the cars in the lot were under $20K and this dude is bringing in a Porsche race car every day and parking it where everyone could see it.
As a result, I was determined to figure out who was the owner of the car! How could I not know?
Unfortunately, I didn’t sit near a window in the office. As a result, that meant I needed to run into the owner in the parking lot when they arrived for the day or left.
So the next day, I came in 10 minutes earlier to hopefully catch a glimpse of the driver. No luck: the car was parked in the lot by the time I arrived. So I stayed later than normal, but still no dice.
Every day, I came in earlier and earlier to try and find the driver. Same thing at night: I stayed later and later, by a few minutes each day, trying to figure out who owned the car. I really wanted to know!
In my vain attempt to become Scooby Doo, I learned a lot by studying the parking lot. No, this wasn’t Bill Gates memorizing license plates to track his employees or Warren Buffett deciding to invest in companies based on their employee’s traffic patterns. But you’d be surprised at how much you can learn from studying a corporate parking lot.
What I learned from studying the Parking lot
I’m sure both Bill Gates & Warren Buffett were on to something when they made their observations on parking lots. To be honest, I’d believe most of their statements have merit. That being said, I think there’s a third lesson to be learned by looking at the composition of the parking lot.
During the middle of the day, thousands of cars were parked on this corporate campus. There were no assigned parking spots, even for senior executives, so most cars moved around the lot to wherever there was an open spot
In terms of parking lots, it was rather unremarkable during the day. It was no different than the crowded lot you see at a grocery store: a sea of red, silver, white, and black cars. The car brands were what you would expect, an even distribution of cars across brands like:
- My ‘friend’ and his damn Porsche
Here’s where things get interesting: after 6pm, the lot would start emptying pretty dramatically. At that point, a shift would begin to take place as the type of car in the lot would change pretty dramatically. Suddenly, the most common car brands in the parking lot would change:
- My ‘friend’ and his damn Porsche
Earlier in this essay, I wrote about how I walked past that Porsche every morning and night. That means, no matter how early I arrived or how late I left, the car was there. It means the owner of that car never worked less hours than I did.
I never did find out who owned that car.
Where were only the nicest cars left after 6pm?
It’s a good question: why were only the nicest cars left after 6pm?
It took a few weeks of observation, learning of names, and Googling those names to find Linkedin pages. The answer became clear pretty quickly: the owner’s of those nice cars were senior executives and could afford to drive luxury German cars.
And as for why the parking lot became mostly expensive cars after 6pm: the executives and their BMW’s were always still at work after their employees and their Toyota’s went home for the day.
Correlation or Causation?
Now here’s where you might protest: Of course executives work longer hours, they have more responsibilities to handle on the average workday!
One thing I can’t answer is whether these people always worked a lot, or if they started working more because they became an executive.
The only way to know for sure is a multi-year study where you track average numbers of hours worked and how that changes as someone gets promoted. Organizational scientists: go for it!!
In a climate where it’s common though to refer to executives as ‘lazy’ who ‘profit off their employees’ and ‘sit at the golf course’, it was incredibly valuable for me that my first corporate experience featured executives who were at the building and not the golf course.
I did wonder, though, whether or not this pattern would hold true at other companies.
Testing with other companies
As mentioned earlier and within the bio of Ten Minute MBA, I’m a consultant. As part of my job, I do 3–16 week projects for companies. These projects typically involve traveling to visit each company’s corporate HQ.
Yes, I spend a lot of time in hotels. I’m writing this essay right now from my Sheraton hotel room. No, it’s not nearly as glamorous as people think. Yes, I eat a ton of vitamins to not get sick all the time (shout out to Care/Of for saving my ass)
One huge benefit to this job is getting to work with incredible, smart people at many different companies. As mentioned in the intro, I’ve worked out of the offices of a roughly a dozen companies and seen the gamut of corporate culture.
There are a lot of differences between corporate cultures, but almost every company has something really interesting. If I were to ever start a company, I’d borrow concepts from most of the dozen companies.
At my second corporate experience, I kept track of the parking lot to see what would happen at the end of the day. I half-expected to see a similar pattern as before. I didn’t expect to see another Porsche parked so brazenly!
I checked again at the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh……
The constant trait
Despite all the obvious differences in culture between companies, one thing is constant. The percentage of luxury cars in the parking lot always grows at the end of the day.
No matter what, I guarantee that the average price of a car in your company’s parking lot is higher at 6pm than it is at 5pm. The executives will be there later in the day.
What does this have to do with entrepreneurship?
At Ten Minute MBA, we’re all about personal development, success, and entrepreneurship. It’s why we’ve shared stories about how whether you talk with Uber drives determines your success, how to develop confidence, how to read more, and more!
We also write about entrepreneurship, and something I’ve heard a lot from you guys is that you want to see more essays that tie into entrepreneurship.
So here we go!
As a start up, you are competing against a big company to capture part of the market place. Said another way, a big company is always better positioned, on paper, to win a new market.
Think about it this way, when AirBnb was first started, they had:
- No customers
- No money
- No brand name
On the other hand, Marriott had:
- Millions of customers
- Billions of dollars
- Extreme name recognition
Marriott theoretically should have won that race, but then again, we all know they didn’t. The AirBnb team worked harder and faster than Marriott did.
Yet, I just told you that executives are always working later at the office than the average employee is.
For a startup to succeed, you need to outwork the CEO of the incumbent
A big company already has so many advantages over a startup. If you truly want to succeed, you need to work harder.
That is so generic though-how many times have you heard ‘work harder’ in your life? Rather, try personifying it.
Rather, I’d suggest you reframe the message to: “for a startup to succeed, you need to work harder than the big company’s CEO”
In the Airbnb example, the Marriott CEO is Arne Sorenson. If I was Brian Chesky during Airbnb’s days in Y Combinator, I’d ask myself every morning what I would do that day to outwork Arne.
Because I know Arne’s car was in the parking lot late at night. The question is: how late was Brian Chesky’s?
The answer: Arne was there late, but Brian’s was there later