Landing a Superstar

When courting the best entrepreneurs, corporate VCs should focus on how they can provide unique value

If you want a LeBron, a KD, or a hot startup to pick your team, you better have something to offer

The NBA season is finally underway, after an off-season filled with drama. The biggest news was free agent LeBron James signing with the LA Lakers, where he improved the prospects of a team that didn’t make the playoffs last year to having the second best odds to make the Finals this year.

Free agency for top NBA players is unique among sports leagues, in that all suitors are limited to offering a player the same maximum salary. Teams must compete on the quality of their organization, their existing players, their coach, or something compelling about their location. The Texas and Florida teams offer no state income taxes. Golden State has Silicon Valley opportunities, which helped them land Kevin Durant. And LA has Hollywood, which ultimately won over LeBron.

Landing the Best Venture Deals

There is a similar dynamic for VCs trying to get into hot deals. Like an NBA general manager who needs to sign star players to win titles, much of a VC’s success is based on her ability to invest in the best entrepreneurs. And getting onto those entrepreneurs’ cap tables is becoming as challenging as landing top NBA free agents.

Founders can afford to be more selective as the tides of capital sloshing around the industry today are funneled into fewer, larger deals. Venture capital investment in the first half of 2018 exceeded that of any six-month period in recent history (this year’s first half was higher than many previous full years).¹

Investors are also writing larger checks for early-stage companies.² With all this money chasing a relatively similar number of companies, getting into the best deals is extremely competitive.

The Entrepreneurs’ Perspective

Strong entrepreneurs are therefore in a favorable position to choose whose money to take. Everybody’s money is green, so founders should pick investors who can positively impact their startup’s trajectory.

The best investors shepherd startups through future fund raises, assist with company building through operational expertise and talent recruiting, and offer insights to help founders navigate challenges.³ What else can they bring to the table? Can VCs help remove barriers, reduce risks, or turbo-charge the plan?

More and more, we see entrepreneurs taking strategic investments from corporate VCs⁴. As companies take more time between VC rounds and wait longer to exit (average time to exit in 2018 is 6.1 years from the first VC financing the company has raised), founders increasingly look to non-traditional investors for more than just money.⁵ Corporate participation exceeded a fifth of global venture deals in the second quarter of 2018 — an all-time high.⁶

What Corporate VCs Can Bring

Corporate VCs are often in a unique position to bring distinct value to the companies that they fund. Portfolio company executives of GE Ventures and Intel Capital have described these CVCs as providing full-service relationships that offer support throughout entire company life cycles. This can mean access to the corporation’s R&D capabilities, distribution channels, global network, regulatory expertise, and more.⁷

The best corporate-startup partnerships pay off for both sides. Social & Beyond is a marketing software startup whose product turns free Wi-Fi at the point-of-sale into a customer feedback tool. Telefonica participated in Social & Beyond’s seed round and included its software in its broadband deals with retailers. The distribution relationship created an incentive for retail stores to upgrade to larger Telefonica packages, and simultaneously opened up access to customers and new revenue streams for Social & Beyond.⁸

As the table below shows, there are many ways that corporate investors can help startups:

At Touchdown, we spend time upfront with our corporate partners assessing what they can uniquely do to help an entrepreneur. This unique value can be essential when trying to get into competitive deals, similar to how NBA teams pitch a LeBron or a Kevin Durant.

While selling these benefits is key to landing hot companies, delivering on promises is equally important. All VCs rely on their reputations, built upon examples of having helped portfolio companies.

Fruitful CVC-startup relationships should be mutually beneficial. This can mean assisting the portfolio company grow faster, or helping revitalize a promising business unit at a large corporation, for example. Publicizing these successes can cause other startups to want to work with the CVC (I have previously written about how CVCs can create a virtuous cycle in The Harbaugh Effect). Good entrepreneurs often look for these success stories and stay attuned for instances where promises went unfulfilled.

A reputation based on the value your CVC brings is crucial to accessing the best investments. The Lakers were able to woo LeBron with the many benefits of Los Angeles and the Lakers’ storied history. Corporate VCs should ask themselves what unique differentiator can help land the best venture deals.



Eric never received an NBA max contract offer but did declare early for the NBA draft coming out of the University of Michigan in 1989 (he went undrafted, as he had not played competitive basketball past middle school). Olga Belyanina, who helped with research and writing, is more of a tennis fan and had to Google who LeBron James was for purposes of this article.

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