Over the years as I have operated or worked at early stage ventures, I have built relationships with many Fortune 500 companies as customers, investors, and distribution partners for my products. Most of the time their relationships grew with us over the years, became our friends, and these relationships had a huge impact on a successful outcome. As I have spent more time with larger organizations “on the other side” working within corporations I’ve gotten new perspective. While these larger companies are leaning heavily into innovation they also have different requirements to move things forward in their organizations. With the right approach you can move faster to your goals and create a winning partnership that moves the relationship forward.
Here’s a few thoughts to tune your approach and avoid some common pitfalls:
1) First, find out how much they know. The corporate innovation or ventures team sees a lot. Everyone wants to use time efficiently and focus energy on the differentiation of your company not the basics of the opportunity if there is already buy in on that. You as a startup want to sell your vision but you don’t know what your potential partner already knows. Ask questions about their knowledge in your specific area before going too far, and find out how much buy in they have or don’t have. That will help you get context and also build trust.
2) Focus on a specific value proposition for the corporate partner. Quickly get to how what you do is relevant to your current business. Corporates have key objectives and those are top priority. If you can help them with the core business, that’s gold. If not then state that early with conviction too. Overall you want to make sure you get to consensus on how you can create value and impact metrics that matter for your partner.
3) Have empathy for the corporate bureaucracy. Find out about the contact’s role, their process in working with companies and what is the path to successfully scale the opportunity. Who are key influencers you will need to meet and how can they help you set up for those meetings? How long is the contracting process likely to take? Have they done a lot of pilots or startup deals or is this a new thing for them? Getting answers early will help you set your timetables and priorities. Oh, and don’t assume new people who are entering the conversation are fully briefed either, ask if they need the quick background first so you make sure they are brought up to speed.
4) Be ready to make your ask. What is the first step you think you could take to get the relationship started. Is it a face to face demo, or a technical discussion to get more specifics on implementation difficulty? Do you want to get a pilot going to test your product, what’s the structure to move that ahead that has the fewest barriers?
Lastly, remember that you may not be the first person to show up with your idea, so it is your knowledge, willingness to be flexible, and positive energy will help them choose your company. You are seeking advocates in every meeting, not always a deal you can close right away. Trust is built over time and many interactions. If you create trust you will get advocates who will help you succeed.
Good luck out there! Comments and questions welcome.