Do gorillas own dancing shoes?
The new book Gorillas Can Dance got its title from the late Professor C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan, who quipped in a conversation with author Shameen Prashantham that “startups must learn to dance with the large gorillas” — meaning multi-national corporations.
And the same can be said of the gorillas — they need dancing skills of their own to benefit from startup collaborations. “Partnering with startups sounds like a great idea on paper for large corporations; making it work, however, is not so simple,” writes Prashantham, a professor at CEIBS, a business school based in Shanghai.
Prashantham’s book presents examples of effective startup engagement strategies from companies like Microsoft, Unilever, BMW, and Cisco.
This exclusive excerpt discusses the three types of internal corporate players who need to be on board in order to make these partnerships successful.
Managers who are effective in bridging the external startup ecosystem with their corporation need to get a range of internal actors on board. These intrapreneurs have to be effective at responding to external stimuli in the pursuit of new opportunities while at the same time coping with internal dealings (and politics) to ensure access to resources and approvals (or at least the avoidance of impediments).
A good illustration comes from the internal boundary-spanning efforts of Sheelpa Patel, co-founder of INFINITI LAB, one of Asia’s first automotive corporate accelerators established by Renault/Nissan/Mitsubishi Alliance’s premium brand, INFINITI Motor Company. This three-month Hong Kong-based accelerator program (combining a primarily pain point-based synergy with a cohort-based interface) was established in 2015, and evolved over time from its initial global branding focus to a much broader strategic role in terms of global cultural transformation. The experience of Patel, and that of other similarly effective startup interface managers, suggests that three types of actors are important to win over (see the illustration below):
- Internal champions (ideally senior managers)
- Opportunity generators (primarily business unit managers)
- Roving ambassadors (potentially including even more junior managers)
Internal champions. Patel worked hard to promote INFINITI LAB to the CEO and top management team. If they engaged with the process and made it a priority then that would be a valuable signal to other managers within the corporation. Patel diligently obtained their input on pain points that the startups could solve, persuaded them to become selectors and mentors of the startup participants, and take part in the demo day event that concluded the accelerator program. The demo day would of course not only be the culmination of the preceding three months but potentially the start of further engagement with the corporation to develop their ideas into a proof-of-concept or pilot project. What Patel and other startup partner interface leaders have found is that when senior executives explicitly support startup initiatives and back that up with their own participation then there is a valuable signal of legitimacy that cascades down within the organization. As Patel commented, “Such buy-in is important to connect the dots and provide the bigger picture of where the corporation is going.”
Opportunity generators. In addition to engaging with the CEO and his team, Patel also spent a lot of effort in making several presentations to the business unit leaders across the Renault/Nissan/Mitsubishi Alliance. She engaged regularly with the Alliance’s internal innovation steering committee comprising, for instance, leaders of the Connected Car team. This ensured that they became familiar with the startup initiative. Her efforts paid off and meaningful opportunities for startups to develop proofs-of-concept began to emanate and thereafter alumni startups were able to progress to larger-scale pilots and other forms of collaboration, with ongoing support from the startup interface team. And of course, this fed into a virtuous cycle of success stories being showcased, which in turn engendered further internal belief in the value of partnering with high-quality startups for mutual benefit. But none of this would have been possible had Patel not worked hard to convince business unit leaders of the potential benefits of working with startups and align the outcomes of startup engagement with the needs (and key performance indicators) of the business units.
The greater challenge that emerged was how to be taken seriously within the company and get access to resources to ensure that startup partnering wouldn’t be regarded merely as a fad, but actually get taken seriously.
Roving ambassadors. At a broader level of internal engagement, Patel’s team made sure that stories relating to the startup program were featured in the (already existing) periodic employee newsletters as well as the CEO’s presentations at employee town halls. Such efforts resulted in a large number of employees having a basic idea of the company’s startup partnering program in terms of its objectives and, over time, some success stories. Furthermore, employees who had an inclination to get involved in some way were invited to “speed-dating sessions” whenever a new intake of startups commenced to identify potential internal mentors and suitably match them with the startup partners. Subsequently, some of these mentors participated in a one-off program for intrapreneurs that was conducted under the auspices of INFINITI LAB. Patel’s experience suggests that by taking the trouble to reach out to a wider internal audience, there is a greater likelihood that people at least are aware of what’s going on – and that some of them will be willing to act as mentors and informal ambassadors for the startup initiative.
Corporate innovation professionals have an important yet challenging role to play in corporations as they span both external and internal boundaries. In the early days of my research it appeared that their primary challenge was to get startups to take them seriously. Before long, however, this seemed to be less of a problem – indeed, many of them were treated like rock stars in the startup ecosystem, often being featured as sought-after speakers on panels about partnering between established firms and startups. Rather, the greater challenge that emerged was how to be taken seriously within the company and get access to resources to ensure that startup partnering wouldn’t be regarded merely as a fad, but actually get taken seriously. Thus the skillset that any intrapreneur needs, which includes advocacy and diplomacy, can help greatly.
Of course, what this clearly implies is that startup partnering requires much more than external engagement in the startup ecosystem (important as that is), and highlights the importance of having genuinely interested intrapreneurs at the helm of startup partnering initiatives, who can adeptly deal with both external and internal audiences.
Learn more about Gorillas Can Dance on the book’s website. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Gorillas Can Dance by Shameen Prashantham. Copyright © 2022 by Shameen Prashantham. All rights reserved. Featured image by Jonas Wurster on Unsplash.