Becoming ‘startup friendly’: Advice from entrepreneurs

At a 2016 gathering of entrepreneurs at the Venture Café in St. Louis, Innovation Leader editor Scott Kirsner led a session focused on the ways that big companies scout, negotiate with, and collaborate with startups. One thing that emerged from the conversation was a kind of “wish list” from the entrepreneurs — things they wish large companies would do to make it easier to collaborate with them in a range of ways.

Here are the illustrated highlights from that conversation, along with some explainers below. (You can click the image for a larger printable version.)

IdeasfromEntreps-Smaller

• CEO to CEO conversations. Startup CEOs want the chance for even a few minutes of face-time with CEOs of large companies, to explore whether there is real partnership potential. This can even take place in a “speed dating” format where multiple entrepreneurs are invited to sit down with the CEO in sequence. For the startup CEOs, it’s a way to eliminate months of conversations and “pass along” introductions to various people all around the organization before anything substantial happens.

• Stop the endless meetings. Entrepreneurs are very protective of their time. At a certain point, if they feel like they’re involved in a series of meetings with no visible “prize” at the end of the tunnel, they’re inclined to drop out of the process.

• A little investment goes a long way. Entrepreneurs said that “pro bono” partnerships can be very challenging, since they’re investing the time of a small team on something that may or may not pay off. Even a $25,000 or $50,000 investment or project payment can make a big difference in their decision-making about who to work with.

• Accelerator programs. Participating in accelerator programs that offer access to big company executives — including the chance to get mentorship, advice, and connections — was one way entrepreneurs said they found it easy and beneficial to work with established industry players.

• Spell out things you want help with and areas you’re interested in. Startups like it when they can figure out quickly if a big company is interested in what they’re working on — though big companies often make it difficult to figure out if there’s a match. Two examples of large companies “broadcasting” problems they’re trying to solve and areas of interest include an event GE Appliances ran in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013, and the Amazon Picking Challenge for warehouse robots, held last year.

• Simplified contracts. Entrepreneurs said that having to spend hours and hours reviewing contracts with their attorneys could be a major deterrent to entering into collaborations and conducting pilot tests. The simpler the contract, the better.

• Hackathons and competitions. Entrepreneurs said that in the early stages of their companies’ existence, they sometimes took part in hackathons and competitions organized by a large company as a way to get on that company’s radar screen and meet key executives. But the entrepreneurs said that it was helpful if there were “real” prizes — like cash, or a potential partnership or distribution arrangement — and if the sponsoring company didn’t attempt to “grab” all of the ideas and intellectual property generated by hackathon participants.

• Who is the point of contact for startups? Entrepreneurs said that many companies either didn’t have a “point person” responsible for engaging with the startup community, or it was tough to figure out who that person was.

• Open access to infrastructure, services, and distribution channels. The first choice for an entrepreneur who needs to buy data storage, transaction processing, or fulfillment services is to find a provider who will “rent” it to them on a monthly basis or let them “pay by the drink” — which has led to phenomenal growth for offerings like Amazon Web Services, Shipwire, and Stripe. Entrepreneurs suggested that one way to reduce friction would be for large companies to think about providing open access to their infrastructure or distribution channels in the same way — whether free or for a fee.

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