It won’t come as a surprise to anyone in the tech industry, large or small, that startups and corporations have a lot in common. But to everyone else that might seem a bit odd. Afterall, young and nimble doesn’t seem a natural bedfellow to old and big. But generally our motivations are the same: they revolve around attracting top talent and a desire to innovate. If a startup can provide speed and fresh thinking in exchange for access to scale and capital from a corporate, that’s a good deal.
A partnership can take a range of different forms. Startups give access to new tech infrastructure and skills for proving concepts quickly by developing and testing prototypes while the corporate can provide reach to a large customer base and the opportunity to improve well funded existing platforms. The question is no longer if startups and large multinationals should partner, but how.
Having worked for and with both large corporations (Google, Facebook), and smaller startups (my current gig), I know that in both worlds it is not uncommon for one party or the other feel let down by the partnership. Interestingly, this dysfunctionality often can’t be directly attributed to a single action, but to multiple small misfires akin to a clumsy toddler bashing round pegs into a square holes – innocent, but ultimately frustrating. Today, we count numerous Fortune 500 companies amongst our happy clients, so hopefully this best practice list on how to forge positive relationships in the tech world will spare you some pain.
Have a (senior) product owner on both sides
Startups often tear their hair out over slow corporate decision cycles. Changing points of contact and ambiguity on who has authority can hamper agile development processes (which is one of the reasons corporates chose an external partner in the first place). In an ideal world (which isn’t always possible), to prevent the startup’s wings being clipped there should be one point of contact, ideally the CMO or CTO, depending on the nature of the project. This person owns the project and should have full decision making power, enabling the startup to be flexible to the corporate’s needs.
Reduce the cultural gap through education and facetime
To bridge the gap between the two organisations, face time is essential. I mean actual face time: Hipchat, Slack, and email only can take you so far. This is especially true when a startup tech team is collaborating with the IT team of their corporate partner rather than just delivering a product. The role of each team should be defined and clear. An example is our relationship with a large multinational bank; we regularly schedule onsite coding sessions at their headquarters, blending our teams. Talking frequently can reduce missed deadlines, help identify potential bottlenecks more quickly, and encourage both teams to share best practice.
The startup submits to a hygiene check
Startups sometimes seem to forget that corporations need buy-in and sign-off from a large number of internal stakeholders. Even if you have an internal champion that fully supports your project or product, a skeptic is bound to say ‘…but working with a startup is risky’. No IBM or GE will want to work with a company that may or may not exist in a year’s time. Relevant industry track-record, proper NDAs, and founder backgrounds are key to convincing would-be partners you’re not just a bunch of chancers.
Agile development needs firm milestones
The benefits of developing in agile sprints include being quick to market, improving iterations, and a focus on business value. During this process it might turn out that new features need to be prioritised, conflicting with previously agreed milestones. A culture of flexibility must be fostered to avoid frustration– an understanding on the corporate side that milestones need some give with an appreciation from the startup that the rigour of corporate structure rewards timely delivery.
Acknowledge unspoken aims
This last one is simply about good account handling and emotional intelligence. However obvious it sounds, always be aware that each party will have different aims and goals entering a relationship, which may or not may not be spoken. Beyond the commercial motivations, it’s perilous to leave these aims unaddressed. Startups tend to select their projects based on parameters such as ‘is this project interesting to work on’ or ‘what can we learn from this’, whereas corporations might consider ‘how does this fit into our long-term strategic plan’ or, on a personal level, ‘could this impact my performance review’.
Ultimately, as with all relationships, a successful partnership between startups and corporations needs to be based on mutual understanding and compromise. If you can build a partnership with an ability to resolve conflict, your opportunity to lever the best out of your two worlds can be huge!