Pitching Innovation to the C-Suite: A CSL Tool


The Corporate Startup Lab began by asking a simple question: how are corporate startups similar to, and different from, traditional startups? We wanted to know what was the same and what was different. The ultimate goal was to figure out what should be the same, what should be different, and what new tools and processes were required for corporate entrepreneurs.

Across hundreds of conversations with corporate innovators and their leadership, one difference became very clear: compared to traditional entrepreneurs, corporate entrepreneurs have a much higher communications burden placed on them in the early days of a startup.

The worst a venture capitalist (VC) can do to a traditional entrepreneur is pass on an idea. Corporate entrepreneurs, on the other hand, might be pitching their ideas to people who could kill the entire startup if they don’t like it. This dynamic increases the communications challenges faced by a corporate entrepreneur in three key ways.

First Challenge: Defending Ideas Early

Traditional entrepreneurs, when starting out, usually have the freedom to work on their idea as much as they want (or can afford to), regardless of what skeptics might say. Corporate entrepreneurs who are “on the clock” have to start defending their ideas early to people with the ability to kill the startup, sometimes as soon as Day 1.

Second Challenge: Lower Tolerance for Error

Traditional entrepreneurs suffer less from giving a bad answer to a question or having some gaps in their knowledge early on. A bad meeting with a venture capitalist is a learning opportunity, and they’ll be better prepared for the next one. If they get stumped by a question in one meeting, they’ll have an answer the next time it gets asked. But corporate entrepreneurs don’t have dozens of VCs to pitch. They almost always have a single-digit number of budgets they can pull from (usually 5 or fewer, based on the conversations we’ve had with corporate entrepreneurs and their managers).

Third Challenge: More Breadth Required

Traditional entrepreneurs sometimes have a greater ability to defer answering questions from one discipline or another. If an engineer has a brilliant product idea that she can prove solves a problem, she can sometimes respond to a marketing question she hasn’t yet considered by saying, “I’ll worry about that later.” But a corporate entrepreneur talking to the company’s Chief Marketing Officer doesn’t have that option. If the CMO wants to talk to a corporate entrepreneur about his marketing strategy, the entrepreneur has to be ready. When asking about corporate entrepreneurs’ first attempts, one of the most common themes we heard was “I was blindsided by a question from outside of my area of expertise.”

Given these differences, we found it unsurprising that the traditional entrepreneur’s toolbox didn’t have anything to help a corporate innovator with these early-stage communication problems. So we made one.

The Solution

The corporate entrepreneurs were great at helping us identify the problem. To craft a solution, we consulted both them and their superiors. We wanted to know what kinds of questions were most important and most common when corporate leaders were evaluating startups. And we wanted to know what kinds of questions stood out the most to corporate entrepreneurs.

We combined the most common and valuable responses into a canvas, which presents a corporate entrepreneur with six hypothetical executives, each with a different perspective and mission. These hypothetical executives are as generalized as possible, and the questions are based on real conversations between executives and corporate entrepreneurs.

We call the tool “Pitching Innovation to the C-Suite” (or sometimes the C-Suite Canvas for short). You can download the canvas, along with other CSL tools, for free on our website. It’s two-sided, with the back containing an explanation and instructions.

By taking a startup idea through each executive’s box on the canvas and answering the questions (as they pertain to the business), entrepreneurs can start thinking from different perspectives and be better prepared for the types of conversations they’ll be having. Some users have told us they add questions popular with their own companies, groups, or even a specific person who needs to be convinced. A few people have told us they add an extra box for a particular person, often a direct superior. We like to think of the canvas as a starting point, a checklist to make sure you’ve covered your bases before walking into a high-stakes meeting, or even high-stakes water cooler discussion. Adaptation is encouraged (and if you come up with something clever or useful, we’d love to hear about it!).

The canvas has a spot for version numbers at the top. As ideas and startups grow and evolve — and as entrepreneurs learn more about their business and its customers — entrepreneurs will develop better, more confident, and different answers to these questions. Some companies even have explicit requirements for corporate entrepreneurs to regularly pitch to management in order to move forward (e.g., in a Stage-Gate process), and the C-Suite Canvas can help prepare for those meetings as well as track the progression of thinking on an idea. The canvas can also help entrepreneurs realize earlier where they may have a hole in their plan that needs to be addressed.

What’s Next

Like all of our CSL tools, Pitching Innovation to the C-Suite is under a Creative Commons license, so you can use it free of charge, with attribution, for any business or educational applications where you think it can help.

We’re always on the lookout for ways to improve the tools, so if you have any feedback, we’d love to hear from you.