Lightweight Engagement & Connecting with the Outside World

By Scott Kirsner |  October 29, 2015

Lots of companies are trying to figure out how to engage with the ecosystem around them, whether promising start-ups, emerging designers or inventors, academic research labs, or a new generation of more flexible suppliers, contractors and service providers.

But many of them get caught up in their shoelaces: it can feel like there’s excessive process inside the company to figure out what the right moves are, and there can be excessive negotiations with outside parties to put agreements in place.

So inspired by conversations at our Boston Field Study earlier this month, we began developing this list of lightweight ways of engaging with the world beyond your walls.

What constitutes heavyweight? Starting a corporate venture capital group, working with the general counsel’s office on major licensing deals, funding a new research initiative at your local Ivy League university.

What’s lightweight? Things that can generate results within six months, with a minimum of funding, internal debate, and approvals. Lightweight is a kayak you can carry to the beach yourself; heavyweight is a cruise liner.

Here are some suggested approaches.

1. Develop a hypothesis: What are you looking for? What benefits are you hoping to gain? This hypothesis can be adjusted over time; it doesn’t need to be perfect to start.

2. Who is the point-of-contact for people outside the company that want to start up a relationship? Corporate development and business development executives are often overwhelmed by inbound contacts, and their agendas may not be your agenda. Make it clear on your company’s website who your “ambassador” to the startup world is. And make it clear on that person’s LinkedIn profile.

3. Do startup scouting on the cheap. Be a mentor for local accelerator programs or entrepreneurship competitions at local colleges. Attend “demo days” put on by organizations like Y Combinator, Techstars, or the new XRC Labs retail accelerator. Visit incubators and co-working spaces and hold “office hours” where you offer industry insight and guidance to the tenants. (We have a list of corporate-supported accelerator programs — and often even when these are sponsored by one company, they will allow competitive firms to attend their demo days, so don’t be afraid to ask.)

4. Request meetings with the venture capitalists who work in your industry, whether in your city or elsewhere. Their interest is in helping find early customers and distribution partners for the startups in which they invest. Let them know what your objectives are, and use them as a “matchmaker” to ensure that you’re aware of the startups doing pioneering work in sectors of interest to you. (A few venture firms, like Andreessen Horowitz, even offer “industry briefings” to large companies, giving them a picture of the startups active in their markets.)

5. If your objective entails doing experiments, collaborations, and proof-of-concepts with outside entities, work with the general counsel’s office to create the simplest and shortest possible contract for that kind of relationship. Work with your lawyers to create the lightest-weight possible document that will protect your interests while letting you move fast — and not scare off the startups who fear working with big companies (often with good reasons.)

6. While it can be complicated to work with universities through licensing offices or academic departments, many of them have student-organized groups that invite speakers in, hold job fairs, or would be happy to co-host a hackathon. Many universities also have recently-installed Chief Innovation Officers that are interested in new ways to engage with large companies — and will be open to new, lightweight models. A growing number also have makerspaces for student design and engineering projects, some of which can benefit from corporate-sponsored challenges focused on addressing a particular problem.

7. On the topic of challenges: What area would your company like to see students, designers, or entrepreneurs explore? What problem would you like tackled? Set out a challenge that anyone can participate in, and watch the creative solutions roll in. Use as a model the challenge GE set out to redesign a jet engine bracket, or Amazon’s challenge earlier this year for teams that wanted to build more dextrous robots to work in its warehouses. Both set out relatively small prize pools — about $30,000 — and got high-quality participation from around the world. And how’s this for lightweight: Amazon’s actual competition took place at a robotics industry conference held near its Seattle headquarters, not at an event that the company organized.

8. Bring the community to you. What “pizza and beer” get-together should you be hosting after work in a spare conference room in your building? If there’s a topic that your company should be leading on — wearable fitness devices, for instance, or next-wave food trends — why wouldn’t you invite local startups in on a regular basis to do demos? There may already be local meetup groups that would be happy to have a free venue. Professors would be willing to give talks over lunchtime. Any of these initiatives could help put your company at the center of the dialogue in your city, on a subject that matters to you. (Here’s a community event model that GE Appliances has used in Louisville, Ky.)

9. Have you already set up a blog, web page, Tumblr, Twitter account, or YouTube channel where your group can showcase its work, its people, and the topics it is interested in? This is a way to broadcast what you’re focusing on, even if you’re only curating other articles, posts, and videos, as opposed to publishing your own. And it creates another way for outside parties to communicate with you, by posting comments or sending you messages.

10. Track who you’ve been engaging with and what events and relationships have proved most fruitful. At some regular milestone — perhaps quarterly, or twice yearly — assess whether these activities have been delivering the benefits you anticipated in your original hypothesis. What should you stop doing? Where should you invest more time and resources? Is anything delivering enough results that it should move from a lightweight approach to something more heavyweight and high-profile?

We recommend these kinds of lightweight approaches as a way to engage with the outside innovation ecosystem, either as a prelude to more heavyweight strategies, or if you’ve gotten bogged down in process and approvals. Any of these approaches can begin positioning your company as the “partner of choice” for startups, inventors, designers, and emerging players in your industry — which is crucial for companies that want to be leaders in industries undergoing rapid change. But all of them should be pursued with a farmer’s mindset, as opposed to a miner’s. How are you helping others in your ecosystem plant seeds that will pay off in a big way in the seasons ahead, versus simply extracting value for your company in the short-term.