Corporate Innovation: When to Build and When to Buy

Should large, established companies innovate internally or just acquire successful startups?

This post is part of our continued series on Corporate Innovation, in preparation for a research report, on this topic. Last week, we published The Ten Types of Corporate Innovation Programs which looks at broad swath of options, and in this post, we’ll dive into two major choices that companies are often weighing out: building their own, or acquiring startups.

Build: Corporations invest in building innovation internally, but with risks to their success. The upside of companies building their own startups from within is that they can tailor them to their specific business strategy. I’ve spent time with Nestle, which successfully built out its home coffee line, Nespresso, to fit nicely into the company’s brand, operations, supply chain, and — most importantly — culture. The downside is that there’s incredible risk for large companies to build these, and executive support is required at all phases of the venture. Among the chief risks of internally led product programs is that they require immense resources and still can have a high rate of failure, as told to me by a CPG executive who thinks a success rate of internal led innovation programs will be about 10%. This compounds the risks to corporations when competing with agile startups that aren’t as mindful about regulations and don’t suffer from a culture resistant to change.

Buy: Corporations acquire startups at a hefty price tag and with potential for integration woes. Corporations often rely on acquiring successful startups. A case in point made the news two weeks ago when Unilever purchased proven subscription company Dollar Shave Club for a reported $1 billion price tag. While Unilever stands to gain in many ways by upselling its goods to existing loyal Dollar Shave Club customers, there are drawbacks: The cultures may never neatly fit together, and operations and supply chains are radically different. Fortunately for Unilever, it has a track record of successful acquisitions; for example, Ben & Jerry’s was bought in 2000 and still lives on as a power brand 16 years later, despite experts indicate that mergers and acquisitions fail up to 90% of the time. That’s a very expensive investment with a low rate of success. Often, corporations are considered the elephant graveyard of startups — the acquired founders often leave the company, after their contract is up –taking with them an entrepreneurial vibe.

In between: Corporations partner with startups. Of course, there’s also a middle ground where corporations partner with many different startups and place small bets on each in terms of direct investment, or they establish limited partnerships in venture funds. They also conduct direct partnerships through relationships with startups for the purpose of cross-selling or other forms of engagement. Often, this courtship is used to glean market intelligence, get in position to double down for future investment, block competitors from getting too close, or take the startup off the market for acquisition at a later date. The downside of these partnership models is that the corporation is never fully in the driver’s seat. It’s always vulnerable to the whims of the startup’s leaders, who can often change direction as they see fit.

Which to choose?
Companies are deploying these three strategies, and more. We’ve yet to see any single right way to do to it. But would love to hear your thoughts: What’s the best strategy for corporations? Should they act like startups and build technology? Or purchase it by acquiring startups?

(Photo from Unsplash)

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