Five years ago, Comcast NBCUniversal announced that the company would open a new Technology Center in City Center, Philadelphia. The announcement included one line that said the facility would also “offer space for local technology startups.”
Danielle Cohn, the Executive Director for Entrepreneurial Engagement for Comcast NBCUniversal, spent four years building that sentence into a comprehensive startup program known as LIFT Labs. “So we took that line with the press release and turned it into what LIFT Labs is today,” she said.
Cohn describes LIFT Labs as “many programs in one.” In a dedicated space at the Comcast Technology Center, select startups work side-by-side to innovate new products in the entertainment and media space. Other startups participate in a 13-week accelerator program, run by Techstars. And some, according to Cohn, participate in LIFT Off, a program where startups run proof of concept tests within the business.
The center also hosts educational events open to Philadelphia’s community of entrepreneurs.
“All of the programs we have that are running out of LIFT Labs were inspired by entrepreneurs,” Cohn said. “So we met over the last four years with 1,500-plus startup founders and asked them what would make a great corporate startup partnership. And everything we designed was made with their input.”
During a conversation with InnoLead, Cohn shared advice on how companies can design an engaging startup strategy, the best ways to measure success, and the importance of learning from other companies.
Defining the Right Focus Areas
At the beginning of every year we meet with all the mentors and the business unit leads across the whole company, and we ask them specific [questions]. … “What are your priorities? What are the things that you’ve seen too much of? What have you not seen enough of?” And, what’s the 11th thing that they’ve seen on their list that we might be able to help them with that they maybe don’t have the team to work on right now. Or it’s not necessarily a top priority, but something that could potentially really help the company.
And through that process we developed our core focus areas for the year. They all fit within connectivity, media, and entertainment in some way. … And these are focus areas that not just our team, but many parts of the whole company are focused on helping to solve for. So we use that strategy to help us define the types of startups and new technologies that could potentially have the most traction in the company.
What Startups Want from Big Companies
The number one thing we continue to hear is how important it is to show up. Be present.
You get a seat at the table by continuing to show up at the table. And we do that everyday. That takes a lot of time, but our team is really dedicated to doing that. And all the mentors and executives that we work with actively participate as subject matter experts in the community.
[Secondly,] give feedback and potentially be a good place to try pilots and proof of concepts. [I]n our first accelerator class…eight of the 10 companies were doing something by the end of the class with Comcast NBCUniversal business leads. So far two of the companies have master services agreements with our company. One got Comcast Ventures funding, and two are working on agreements with other parts of the company.
The third area that they told us that they really were interested in…was storytelling. … We have a really robust social presence [and] regular blogging. And we also have regular content that has been captured through video as well as a podcast.
You can actually say “LIFT Labs” into your voice remote and watch all our content that’s been developed in the last four years. … And that platform is something that we were asked for by startups. [They said,] “Help us to amplify our stories. Tell our stories. Get the word out about [us].” We’re regularly doing workshops on how to tell a great story to the press, how to tell a great story to investors, how to hone in on your elevator pitch even better.
So those are the three things they told us they wanted from us. And we have done everything we can to deliver on what they asked us for most.
The Challenges of Working with Startups
This is not easy work. … I think that what we’ve done is try to educate the startups in our network about what they need to do to prepare to work with large companies. Whether that’s Comcast NBCU or any other company. … [At the end] they’ve all learned that process, so now when they go to the next company and need to go through that process again, they’ve gone through all the details with us already. …
I think one of the challenges is every startup thinks that what they’re creating is very unique. And in some cases we’ve seen the same thing three, four, five, or six times. … We want to be able to help everyone. But the fact is that we’re not necessarily going to be able to help everyone. But what we are able to do is connect them to other resources outside of the company or to be able to provide that feedback. That solid feedback is really important to any founder. …
We also just have a lot of interest in our program, so we’ve had to really stay focused on the startups that focus on media, entertainment, and connectivity. Because it’s easy to want to be all things to all people. So I think our teams has really tried to stay as focused as we can on the three areas where our company can add the most value to the startup’s life cycle.
How LIFT Labs Measures Success
For us, it really comes down to have we gotten proofs of concepts and pilots off the ground? That’s definitely what we look at. That’s also what startups look at. They want to make sure that there’s an opportunity to try things. …
It’s also about how many stories we’ve helped to amplify and the traction that we get from some of the companies just through storytelling. That’s definitely something that we look at all the time.
And the third component is about employee engagement. So that was actually something that surprised me through this process is how many people from throughout our company want to be a part of LIFT Labs in some way — not just through the accelerator but they want to participate in [educational programming]. They’re happy to be a subject matter expert on a panel, and share their time, and share their expertise, so many people take the time to give feedback…
Learn from Your Ecosystem (and Beyond)
The most important thing is to do the research, and like any good product owner, anyone should ask their customers some feedback. In the beginning, that has benefited us a lot. We’ve listened to a lot of feedback from founders. We listened and toured a lot of other programs, not just in the corporate space, but in the nonprofit space and international space.
We’ve gone to dozens of other programs, dozens of other accelerators. And you learn by going, and seeing, and doing. And I think that, to me, is one of the most important things. Get it started, don’t just work on a piece of paper. It’s really important to be out there, and talk to people, and listen to what they already have gone through. There’s a lot of lessons that we as corporates can learn from each other without having to start from scratch.
The reason why we’re talking to other corporations…is [that’s] how the startup ecosystem will continue to grow. Because if a startup isn’t the right partner with us, they might be the right partner with another company.
And it’s in our best interest, and in the startup’s best interest, that we help them no matter what to grow and thrive. … We want to make sure there are other outlets where they can get business — that we’re not their only customer, that we’re not their only strategy. [W]e can really benefit them by sharing our network and extending them to the rest of our expansive network. So that’s my advice — partner before you think you need to do it yourself.