Corporates, Startups and Much Needed Candour

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It was month three of talking to the corporate. We’d already delivered the trial service and it went really well, so why was this part so hard? It seemed that their procurement department didn’t understand what they were buying from us (we flew under the procurement radar for the first deal), but the innovation department weren’t able to help (and were also frustrated). Procurement were just doing their job, there’s no blame here, but what they were required to do was not aligned to the corporate’s purpose in engaging us in the first place.

That’s the reality for a lot of startup-corporate interactions: misunderstanding, frustration, misalignment and lots of time wasted on both sides.

On the 7th June, I launched Touchpaper.org, a not for profit to help startups and corporates work together better. I’ve been working on it for 18 months and it’s now live (that’s pretty exciting for me and the awesome people and companies that helped us get here, but probably less so for you). We’ve interviewed, researched, collated and condensed a lot of good practice and information in this area that will help you scale your startup or boost your big business, and fast track a lot of important learning.

Working with a great group of Founding Members, Touchpaper has created a free toolkit from our research that helps you identify and navigate the challenges that may lie ahead. We can’t solve them for you as every situation and engagement will be different, there’s no silver bullet here, but we can help you solve it for yourselves. You can sign up to access and download the toolkit at touchpaper.org.

The candour in the title comes from the launch event (we hosted a number of discussions on the topics that arose during our research), the recurring themes across the morning were empathy, trust, candour, and clear communications. So in that spirit, here’s some candour from me:

Startups — there’s a bunch of stuff that you probably don’t know about when it comes to working with corporates, you need to spend some time learning and you need to work out what you want (and what you don’t want) so you don’t waste time courting corporate partners that aren’t going to work out for you (or them). It’s alien to your nature to prepare, you’re usually fighting fires or doing the next most urgent thing, but in this case it will really pay dividends. Unfortunately, some startup’s naivety and lack of preparation is giving working with startups a bad reputation, don’t be one of those. Be prepared, be on time and know what you want and what you can offer.

Corporates — there’s a bunch of stuff that you probably don’t know about when it comes to working with startups, you need to spend some time working out what you want from startups and learning and thinking about how to optimise your procedures to get the results you want, in a way that doesn’t hamstring the startup. Unfortunately, some corporates are busy chasing shiny things (like AI and Drones) and performing innovation theatre, which often has the downside of damaging startups and wasting their time and yours, don’t be one of those. Know what you want, why you want it and don’t let your policies and procedures hold you back unnecessarily, if you want to be innovative, then start with positioning your organisation to be able to move as quickly as you need to in order to deliver your innovation strategy.

We had some great speakers at the launch event and I’m glad to say the themes really resonated with the findings that we’ve built into the Touchpaper Toolkit. Here’s some quotes from the speakers to give you a flavour:

Sarah Drinkwater, Head of Campus, Google

“The best things happen at the point of convergence”

Paul Scales, Senior Vice President, Capgemini

“Working with startups used to be a desirable, or a nice to have, now I think it is absolutely essential”

Taylor Wescoatt, Concrete VC & Entrepreneur in Residence, Seedcamp

“Startups need to recognise, corporates have a need to be seen to be innovating”

Rohan Silva, Co-Founder Second Home, Former Senior Policy Adviser to David Cameron

“When corporates do innovate, the impact can shake the world”

and

“It’s that trust on both sides that I think is very important”

Magdalena Krön, Head of Rise London and VP Open Innovation, Barclays

“Do your due diligence on the corporates”

Richie Barter - CEO, Altviz

“When we do the first negotiation (for a trial/POC), we will negotiate the whole contract (post POC)”

Daniel Hatton — Innovation Director, Diageo Futures

“Be honest about your strengths and limitations as a corporate…be really clear up front on what both parties want to get from the deal”

Simon Moran — VP Commercial, Yoyo

“Don’t be afraid to be demanding of your corporate partner”

Louise Eldridge, Partner, Bristows

“Is everybody on the same page? What do we want to achieve here? Have we got the right stakeholders in the corporate buying into what it might mean to contract with a startup compared to another big corporate?”

Andrew White, Founder & CEO, FundApps

“You see so many CEOs that are on TV talking about innovation, yet speak to the second row of managers and they’re all afraid of their lives of making changes.”

Iain Hagger, Founder & CEO, CampaignAmp

“It’s all about trying to uncover what the real value of the partnership is for the startup and for the corporate”

Mariam Asmar — Innovation Director, McCann London

“As someone that works with a lot of clients, I really encourage them to have a lot more flexibility in their thinking.”

What happened to my three months in procurement purgatory? Well, I pulled the pin, dropped an ultimatum and lost. We didn’t get the deal. In retrospect, there were unfair demands being made of us, but we didn’t handle it the best way we could either, by a long shot. Lessons learnt on both sides I hope, ones that Touchpaper can help you learn without the negative experience and without using up a lot of your time. For example, I definitely would have asked more questions on who has the sign off authority and worked harder to understand their structure more.

At Touchpaper.org, we truly believe that startups and corporates can generate huge value working together, they just need to have a little more empathy for each other, and more of a win win approach and we should see some great results.

Sign up for the free toolkit at touchpaper.org

Many thanks to the Touchpaper Founding Members for their work and guidance over the last 18 months:

Touchpaper Founding Members

and also the Touchpaper Launch Partners for their support and input:

Touchpaper Launch Partners