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A Public Look At the Skunk Works 

Company tours are a great way to foster the transparency start-ups thrive on.

A Public Look At the Skunk Works 

“Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” This quote is often mis-attributed to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Its unknown source notwithstanding, if we take this sentiment literally that makes sausage makers one of the few businesses that wouldn’t benefit from conducting tours of their facilities.

A well-planned and executed tour that offers a public view of manufacturing processes is a great way to accomplish a number of company goals. And that’s equally true for start-ups as it is for well-established firms with smoothly running operations.

(It probably also includes sausage makers, but we won’t get into that debate here.)

Especially during the early stages of a start-up’s production process, giving the public an ongoing organized peek behind the curtain may be the last thing on an entrepreneur’s mind.

There may be a sense that, while the seeds of great things are being nurtured, there’s a not-ready-for-prime-time feel to the operation. After all, Lockheed Martin had good reason to give the name “Skunk works” to the start-up company-within-a-company it created in the 1940s.

The anticipated results were profound, but expectations for the process were messy.

Yet programs like company tours are arguably even more aligned with the vision and values of start-ups than with those of an established company. Headlines in business publications or on business blogs often declare the benefits of “thinking like a start-up” for large corporations.

But what does thinking like a start-up really mean? What values does it entail? When one sorts through all these articles, one of the common themes that emerge is transparency – even if it’s warts-and-all transparency.

(Spoiler alert: if you have or start a tour program, the odds are that you won’t be exposing any warts to public view.)

This is all true for multiple reasons, some more obvious than others.

First, the Millennial Generation – now ages 25-40 – greatly admires entrepreneurs. Over six in ten say they’ve considered starting their own business (although most also say they’re held back from doing so by their poor financial situation since so many have massive amounts of college debt).

Roughly three in four believe start-ups and entrepreneurs are essential for the economy.

Consumers often address unmet needs by living vicariously through the brands they buy; this frustrated entrepreneurial spirit may well be a large part of the reason that seven in ten Millennials (more than any other adult generation) say they’re committed to supporting small businesses.

And so fostering transparency will create a strong sense of identification with your brand among Millennials and others who identify with entrepreneurism. And that brings us back to creating and executing a tour in a start-up culture.

Some advice to consider in developing or evolving your tour plan and script:

Incorporate Your Reasoning for Starting up Your Start-up in the First Place

Great brands all have a clear reason why they exist, and that reason is as much about intangible values as it is about making a better product.

Established firms often seem to have forgotten their reason for being; a start-up must never reach the stage where that happens to them. Maintaining (or regaining) the start-up mentality is what made Apple great.

In 1997, when Steve Jobs announced the launch of Think Different, one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history, he said “What we’re about isn’t making boxes for people to get their jobs done. Apple’s core value is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better.”

Embrace That Warts-and-All View

Incorporate stories of the temporary failures and even downright silly blunders that dotted your path to where you are today. Perseverance, after all, is an entrepreneurial value; think of Thomas Edison’s observation that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

A classic Nike commercial from the early 2000s gives us a peek into the thoughts of a reflective Michael Jordan, who offers some statistics like “Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed.” He concludes “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Take Every Step Possible to Ensure Clear Communication on the Tour

In plants or other operations where ambient noise can run at loud levels, or groups on tour gravitate toward spreading themselves out, it can be hard to know if everyone hears everything the tour guide has to offer.

Seeing the “boxes” being made may have a memorable impact but without the context of the reason why or the story’s warts the tour won’t really accomplish what it’s designed to do. Wireless audio is the best and really only solution, connecting the tour guide with all the participants through a system of headsets and receiver/transceiver combinations. The best of these are comfortable, convenient, and free of concerns like static.


There’s a powerful story behind every start-up, and communicating that story to an audience of Millennials and others is a critical way to forge powerful, long-lasting brand relationships. But the communication channel a firm chooses is every bit as important as the content it conveys.


Some other articles you might find of interest:

Make your business rock with these business plan writing skills:

Startup’s Guide to Write a Business Plan

Would you like to know how investors value a startup?

How Do Investors Value a Startup?








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