Hackathon. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg.

by • 29 Apr, 2014 • Organisation, StrategyComments (2)18774

Building a culture, not a building: What museums can learn from startups

FMT Workforce is a new platform that delivers innovation on demand (in Dutch, but Google Translate is your friend). A community of innovators, strategists, entrepreneurs and others who use the internet for more than selfies answer and debate tricky questions posted by organisations. The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (and other stuff) for instance wishes to know what museums, libraries and archives can learn from startups?

With their permission, here are some of the ideas generated (in English):

  1. The process is the product. Publicly share the ambitions, ideas and experiences of your museum. They are a kind of marketing, help build an audience and generate feedback, more ideas and energy. (At the Waterline Museum, the first thing I did for 0 euros and in 15 minutes was launch a Tumblr blog for the construction period, which is already paying off.)
  2. Keep products exclusive for a while to stimulate loyalty (closed beta)
  3. Premium subscriptions. Membership schemes are one option, but helicopter tours should also be considered.
  4. Free beta product. The first visitors pay no entry fee, in return for their word-of-mouth.
  5. Use crowdfunding for validation (as opposed to or in addition to funding).
  6. Work with and among your audience as much as possible
  7. Release early, release often. Don’t work for years on perfectly polished products, but put them in market early, build on successes and correct (or kill) things that didn’t go well (loyal readers will remember the gazillion iterations the National Vending Machine went through, for instance.)

(In all, you can find 15 lessons on FMT workforce. Some of them are already in wide use, at least among the readers of this blog, so I’ve left them out.)

Most of the advice is focused on the audience and marketing-side of running a museum. How to get more people to pay more? I believe we can look at startups for more than just advice on how to reach and engage our audiences. Work ethic, for instance, or their approach to finding and hiring new employees.

An article in the New York Times earlier this year stated that start-up success isn’t enough to found a museum. (It uses ‘start-up’ to mean ‘early stage’ not ‘hip tech business’ as in the lessons above.) Among it’s many memorable quotes, the one that stands out most for me is “For startups to flourish, museum founders must think big but start small.” An interviewee adds, “You are building a culture — not a building.”

Startups are about ideas people believe in so much they want to take extraordinary risks to make them happen. Museums are about ideas we consider so valuable and important they need to be preserved and presented forever. When we manage to combine these two cultures, I guess there’s little that can stop us from being successful.

Header photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg on

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