The Startup-Corporate Partnership: Tips From A Global Scouting Director
About 10 years ago, I was a young entrepreneur living in Tel Aviv: the heart of innovation in the Middle East. I learned so much from living within Tel Aviv’s thriving startup ecosystem, and eventually, from joining a founding team myself. Tel Aviv’s tech ecosystem is like mushrooms after the rain: once one promising new company emerges on the market, countless others follow. What is unique about this innovation oasis is its inherent combination of creativity, ambition, open mindedness, and talent. These local entrepreneurs never take ‘NO’ for an answer; if something does not work, they pivot and reinvent themselves day after day until something sticks. This environment encourages entrepreneurs to be fearless - and flexible - in pursuit of bringing their ideas to life.
This is how I first became familiar with innovation: innovation with no limits, no bad ideas, no one-size-fits-all mentality. It’s a deeply embedded mindset in Tel Aviv. This mindset primes startup founders and their teams for success at scale.
But Tel Aviv is only one example of a place that attracts and enables great minds with big dreams. Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of meeting with diverse groups of innovators from around the world. Their feedback is nearly always the same: they yearn to bring their technologies to the U.S. market, and scale alongside the industry’s biggest names operating on American soil. It’s the American Dream 2.0. While many of these founders hail from some of the most advanced startup ecosystems in the world - Hong Kong, France, The Netherlands, Japan, to name a few - they have been awaiting a breakthrough scaling opportunity that is almost impossible to come by on their home turf.
The Formula: Where Innovation Meets Opportunity
The ideal startup ecosystem combines entrepreneurial ambition and finesse with powerful partnership opportunities. Corporations in the U.S. are slowly - but surely - embracing an innovation mindset. As these legacy companies begin to look for new ways to solve organizational or industry challenges, often the last option to come to mind is working with a startup. Working with a small or new company can be risky: potentially siphoning precious time and resources from daily operations in support of a product that may still need to prove its viability on the market. The desire to lead the market with the newest technologies does not overshadow a corporation’s need to avert risk. It is understandable that vast, Fortune-ranked companies cannot operate as nimbly - or fearlessly - as startup teams. However, great risks can bring great rewards for both the corporation and their startup counterparts.
As a Scouting Director, I have had the unique opportunity to learn from both components of this innovation equation. My job is to learn about our corporate partners’ greatest challenges or areas of opportunity, and then find the right startup to meet these defined needs.
Finding The Right Fit
Identifying the “right” startup involves so much more than simply understanding their product or service. Each startup represents a whole new world that requires careful observation: from their foundation and vision, to their successes and challenges, and future trajectories. Many startup founders with whom I have met come from a different mentality - some are not yet familiar with the U.S. market and its associated formalities. While the majority are open to learn and conform, others have proven unready to pivot to meet specific needs and challenges.
Understanding the entire “package” that is a startup is indeed a journey. While initial conversations provide a good baseline about a company’s products or services, it often takes a month - or more - to fully vet their credentials and gauge their aptitude for scale. Some of the most ambitious startups tend to over-promise and under-deliver, which is a nail in the coffin for those wishing to partner with corporations.
While “being first” is always a plus, corporations that work from a multi-year roadmap understand that quality solutions take time; therefore, they are more likely to invest in a startup with a promising product and motivated team in an advising or co-development capacity. I have witnessed incredible partnerships between industry leaders and startups that shape ready-for-market solutions in ways that one company could not have achieved without the intrinsic strengths of the other.
Priming Your Startup For A Successful Partnership
@Startups - when you think about forming solid relationships with corporate clients, keep these tried-and-true tips at the forefront of your mind:
First, be honest: honest about your abilities, your technology, your team, and your successes. There is no point to draw an overly optimistic picture if you want to have an authentic and fruitful relationship with your corporate partner or client.
Learn to listen. The fact that you developed a product for the healthcare industry is impressive, but does not automatically make you an expert, which is why it’s critical to listen to those who ARE experts in the field. Put your ego aside and be open-minded to new ways of thinking. At the end of the day, if you have a conversation with someone you want to work with, you need to gather as much of their insight as possible for a successful partnership. Most importantly: never argue with your client!
Take your time. When you start a relationship with a potential partner, don’t sell them right away. Use the initial conversation time to learn as much as possible about their needs and challenges so that you can return the most customized proposal for their review. Don’t assume you know their business, because there is always more to be learned from the inside.
Accuracy is everything. With many stakeholders within a complex organization, setting an accurate timeline and expectation is critical. Corporate clients appreciate as-promised delivery, so it’s often better to slightly overestimate your deliverable timelines rather than overpromising a quick turnaround and then experiencing delays.
Respect the process. Decision-making in corporate America takes time - admittedly, a longer-than-ideal time in many cases - but you must respect these processes. There is no need to overwhelm your partner with calls and emails as you await an answer or follow up. As you give them the time they need to review and process new information, continue to work on different leads and gently keep them posted with updates and developments. Essentially, act like a respected colleague with whom they want to work, not someone they want to avoid.
Be flexible. Anyone who knows you understands that you have put your heart and soul into your company, and for this reason, it’s understandable that you would be protective of what you have built. However, it’s important to not be stubborn and sensitive to changes. If your end goal is for a large organization to use your product, you must leave a gap for flexibility. You may find that you learn something new that helps your product or future partnerships as a result.
Like any partnership, the startup-corporate relationship starts with a strong connection. A good match in this arena involves not only a startup’s technological capabilities, but their team’s professional demeanor and personability. Organic, authentic communication is the key to endless possibilities: from piloting products to commercialization or acquisition.
Startups: reach out if you have any questions about preparing for scale here in the U.S.
Corporate innovators: get in touch for more information on formalizing the best external technology partnerships for your business.
It’s only UP from here.
About Rachel Dantess
Rachel Dantess is an experienced, senior-level special projects manager with a strong technical background in product deployment and implementation. Currently, Rachel serves as Upward's Director of Scouting, spearheading global startup scouting efforts and identifying critical technologies and innovations to serve multiple industries. Rachel is a lifelong creative with an entrepreneurial spirit, always harnessing her skills to help grow startups for/with whom she works. An Israeli native, Rachel currently lives in New York City.
Upward is determined to reinvigorate our nation's second and third tier cities by transforming them into thriving hubs of innovation, community, and co-creation. America's most critical industries are in need of mature innovation and our multi-city network connects unique and viable resources with local industry titans and progressive educational institutions in vibrant downtown areas. Our goal is to stimulate regional development, strengthen native talent, foster opportunities, and create economic prosperity and Upward movement for all. Join us at www.moveupward.city.