On Corporate Startup Programs

A rather appropriate picture I took this weekend overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, as the ship is guided into the SF Bay by the sound of fog horns.

Lately I’ve found myself in caffeinated conversations with large corporates and bankers alike, inquiring about the lessons and recommendations I could offer those crafting a corporate startup engagement program.

Now before you say “not another corporate innovation guide [insert face plant]” I’d like to redirect you to CB Insights’ recent humorous take on this very topic, because we’ve all been there. But real strategies behind corporate change are needed as many great disruptions begin chipping away at more established companies and industries. The focus should be how to harness external innovation sustainably.

Having crossed my 9th anniversary in corporate innovation and following an equally long stint across startups, I thought I would take a moment, however informally, to express the joys and pains of challenging and disrupting organizations from within (with the hindsight of having been on both sides of the trenches).

Many benefits make working in a larger corporate environment exciting, including:

  • Availability of resources, however difficult to prioritize at times (particularly CAPEX vs OPEX)
  • Scale, the opportunity to test and deploy on a mass scale and broad geography
  • Variety, the ability to engage across different business units, technologies and use cases
  • Execution, seeing results and benefits blossom both internally and externally

The above typically manages to outweigh the downsides that will inherently and constantly appear. Because should you choose to accept this mission, it is all a dance, a balance of right now and not yet, if ever, of frustration and inability to convince internal stakeholders, but equally of immense satisfaction when finally aligning the right opportunities.

Luckily a few common suggestions for success come to mind — some that you’ll have undoubtedly encountered when educating less startup savvy areas of any large business.

Here’s my non-exhaustive list of pointers. I hope much will sound true to those already familiar and trust this candid admission will help those in need as you explore participating in this exciting space.

Many thanks for reading and please feel free to share your own experiences.

Set yourself up for success…

  • Think big, think positive, always be on the lookout for what could disrupt your business next as well as the adjacent opportunities you have a right to play in
  • Have a clear plan, know your business needs, get the right internal stakeholders involved, build your external network (VCs, entrepreneurs, incubators, other corporates), focus on creating and executing win-win relationship
  • Agree on target strategic themes and trends to focus on and monitor, updated annually, with sponsorship from key executives and P&L owners
  • If strategically aligned have an investment thesis — not everything is about ownership, much of what we do is commercial and business development, know the difference and where it makes sense to take a stake

Working with internal stakeholders…

  • Act as a filter, be a match maker for your company, its challenges and the market
  • Work directly with senior stakeholders as well as internal specialists to quickly determine value and priority of new discoveries
  • Use investments and board positions as tools for insights and roadmap alignment
  • Influence stakeholders in their desire to build everything in house. Politics, resources and prioritization will naturally divert internal attentions — external solutions can help speed progress independently
  • Get the business to commit to proof of concepts (POCs) and measure their success — not entirely up to you, manage expectations well
  • Bottom up engagement seldom works unless engrained in the culture, supported by the top and rewarded by objectives
  • Top down works well with key executive sponsors and appointed engagements within their teams, supporting strategic objectives, especially short term needs
  • Education is important, don’t skip on relationship building internally and on sharing, keep people engaged and on a journey, get people to come to you
  • Some individuals will be difficult to engage or get on board, politics and priorities will always play a role, others will be your best allies and supporters. Find your dependable sponsors and help solve their pains

Working with startups…

  • Don’t treat startups as suppliers
  • Avoid Silicon Valley tourism, look to have a pragmatic impact without wasting time (yours and that of entrepreneurs, startups and investors)
  • Create matchmaking opportunities for corporate-startup deals, get to a quick no if need be
  • Hand hold until there is internal ownership — have internal relationship managers own the startup program and help guide internal stakeholders
  • Track progress, measure success and be able to show the value being delivered
  • You can’t win them all, pick your battles, focus on opportunities in the “right now” corporate bucket while keeping an eye on upcoming trends and relevant technologies
  • Be firm but don’t beat up your colleagues internally because they can’t support a startup engagement, help them overcome difficulties and challenges
  • Be persistent, if not now hopefully there will be a better fit at a later stage — you’re bound to see things early on, don’t be surprised when some engagements take years to mature
  • Understand the reality and practicality of a market today as well as its shortcomings, not everything is ready for primetime or testing or a relationship with a larger company, as much as they (you) may want it
  • Believe in the art of the possible, until tested across target use cases you won’t realize a solution’s value, so try things out, run POCs and possibly have a budget, centralized or not, to facilitate value creation
  • And ultimately help create an ever improving, forward looking company


As recently published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/corporate-startup-programs-luca-franchi/