Architect the World, Part 1 — Business Architecture For Startups & Small Business


04 December 2017


07 September 2021

Learning Pathway


Published In

In this installment of StraightTalk, we’re going to look at using business architecture for startups and small businesses. Let’s go.

In this installment of StraightTalk, we’re going to look at using business architecture for startups and small businesses.* Let’s go.

* What’s the diff? A startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable and scalable business model. They aspire to build. Per the United States Small Business Administration, a small business is independently owned and operated, organized for profit, and not dominant in its field.

Does business architecture really apply to a startup or small business?

Business architecture is beneficial to any size of organization—from a sole proprietor to a large global organization. It is also beneficial to any type of organization—including for-profit, non-profit and governmental organizations.

No matter what an organization’s type or size, it has the best chance of success with:

  • A viable and competitive business model
  • An intentionally designed organization
  • A way to set and execute direction

Business architecture can help with all of these.

So yes, business architecture does indeed apply to startups and small businesses.

How exactly does it apply then?

Startups and small businesses care about things like getting started and scaling up—especially when their owners have taken big risks and need to prove themselves and continue to make ends meet along the way. They care about designing an organization that can compete, scale and be sustainable. They need to be really good at telling their story to attract customers, investors/donors and partners. Once their business model has been proven successful, they need to scale quickly and effectively. And no matter what the phase, they always need to be good at turning ideas into action.

(By the way, while the organizations may have different focuses, a small non-profit organization has similar needs.)

Give me some examples.

Here are a couple real ones:

  • A free newspaper aimed at activating citizens in a developing country wanted to scale up its distribution ten times to meet the nation’s needs. Business architecture was used to identify the changes necessary to scale (e.g. creation of new revenue streams, procuring a printing press, relocating headquarters, hiring new types of staff, etc.) as well as develop a roadmap to make it happen.
  • A non-profit organization that provides holistic health solutions to communities in a developing country wanted to spin off a new for-profit company to sell a unique electronic medical records solution for remote areas, with the profits feeding back into the non-profit organization. Business architecture was used to help the owner envision and design the new company (including interactions with the non-profit), share a clear vision with partners (which resulted in significant commitments such as one partner writing the software at no cost), and create a roadmap to rollout the solution across all regions in the country.

Is architecting for a small organization any different than architecting for a larger one?

Let’s start with what is the same. The scope and principles of business architecture are the same. In other words, those business architecture domains like capabilities, value streams, organization, information, products, stakeholders, etc. all still apply. As do the principles behind how we create them. Of course, the content of the architecture is different for every organization.

PS: If you’re looking for a refresher on these, you will find StraightTalk Posts No. 1No. 12 and No. 13 to be handy for that.

Okay, what’s different when architecting for a small organization then?

There are three things that tend to be different with a smaller organization.

  • One. There tends to be a focus on value streams and capabilities (though any domain may be used)—and they may be created at various levels of completeness—with just enough to fit the purpose. They may also be created and/or presented within the context of other things like a business plan or presentation.
  • Two. A small organization needs to draw upon a variety of models and techniques to help them start and scale (e.g. experience design, business model canvas, design thinking, etc.) and business architecture is just one part that should not be overemphasized in this context.
  • Three. Related to number two, in a small organization, there is likely not a dedicated business architect. Creating and using business architecture is just one focus among many for the team member who is responsible. (Unless the organization gets outside help.)

Remember the reality here in this situation—it’s just enough, just in time to help the small organization. It’s not about creating a full-blown architecture until it’s needed. In the beginning, every minute counts, especially when the entrepreneur is focused on being able to pay next month’s rent and achieve their dreams. The business architecture can be expanded later on when the time is right.

Below is a handy diagram to summarize all of that and draw a few comparison points to business architecture in larger organizations.

Business Architecture Differences Based on Size of Organization

pictogram of a small organization

Smaller Organizations

Common Areas To Apply Business Architecture for Value

  • Designing new organization with a competitive business model
  • Telling the story to attract investors/donors and partners
  • Scaling up organization
  • Continually improving

Business Architecture Focus

  • High level with a focus on value streams and capabilities
  • Likely created and/or presented within the context of other things like a business plan or presentation
  • Other models and techniques are also emphasized (e.g. business model canvas)

Business Architect Focus

  •  Broad – No dedicated architects; business architecture is one skill set among many

pictogram of a big organization

Larger Organizations

Common Areas To Apply Business Architecture for Value

  • Merging with or acquiring an organization
  • Creating a spinoff organization
  • Transforming
  • Expanding
  • Executing new strategies
  • Innovating
  • Simplifying
  • Digitalizing
  • Continually improving

Business Architecture Focus

  • Full set of business architecture domains are used to the level of depth needed

Business Architect Focus

  •  Specialized – Named business architects focus only on business architecture

So why doesn’t every startup and small business use business architecture today?

That’s one of those million dollar questions. We think that it’s just not on the radar or in the psyche. It’s not embedded in the playbook of how things are usually done when you start an organization. BUT, our very connected world is starting to illuminate a new importance for the big picture, systemic, architectural thinking. And we have a lot more evidence for what happens when a company grows without it, leading to tremendous inefficiency (e.g. from the redundant processes and systems that were built) and an inability to react to the market and execute strategies later on.

Here’s where we can ask ourselves, what if?

What if we architected our organizations with intention from the very beginning?

What if investors required a more rigorous view of an organization’s business model, architecture (business and technology) and plans as part of their selection process?

How much better and quicker could organizations scale—and how much more successful could they be—if we architected them as we go instead of using architecture to fix the problems that inevitably arise later? 

What if we as architects could help to shift the paradigm?

Architecting For Good

At this point in time, startups and small businesses do not necessarily have the resources or expertise to do their own architecting. However, we know architects to be some of the most passionate people on the planet, who love to architect, solve problems, and make a difference to their organizations and the world.

What if our architecture community applied our talents and passion for architecting organizations to help the startups and small businesses we care about? Or the non-profits, social enterprises and other types of organizations we care about?

How much more impactful could these organizations be with our help? And how much better might we learn our craft and experience our own personal transformation during the process?

Are you in?—If sharing your architecture (or other) talents to help a startup, small business, non-profit, social enterprise or other social initiative is of interest to you, we’d love to hear from you! Here is a short 2-minute survey to help us understand more about you—what talents you possess, what you’re passionate about contributing, and what aspirations you have to get involved.


More Good Stuff

Social Enterprise: The Evolution of Business, Sustainability, Starting Up and Scaling Up (Metanoia Global): A short presentation on how business is evolving and how intentionally architecting organizations can help them to start and scale successfully, including a case study.

Architecting for Good (S2E Transformation, Inc.): Learn more about the idea of leveraging business architecture and other techniques to help non-profit organizations, startups, social enterprises and cross-sector social initiatives to achieve their missions.

Discover Your True North (Book by Bill George): On becoming a leader who serves a greater purpose.

Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (Book by Pamela Slim): More and more people are blending big company jobs, startup gigs, freelance work and volunteer side projects. This book provides a great perspective on finding and leveraging the connections among your diverse accomplishments, selling your story, and continually reinventing yourself.

How To Know Your Life Purpose in 5 Minutes (TED Talk by Adam Leipzig): Now that is a StraightTalk approach. And it’s spot on.