Events / Startups

5 tips for startups seeking to partner with larger firms

Do your homework. Move fast. Don't work for free. Highlights from a Techweek DC panel on connecting small and large firms.

Bob Ghafouri (with mic) of Accenture Interactive speaks on a panel at Techweek DC. (Photo by James Cullum)

Want to take your startup to the next level? Partnering with big, corporate players might seem like hitting the jackpot, and while such success is a possibility there are a few things you can do to boost your chances, according to a panel held at last week’s Techweek DC 2017 conference at the Newseum.

Large companies partner with startups because they can bring a fresh perspective, move fast without being dragged down by red tape and operate with a relatively low cost of failure. The U.S. is experiencing a record number of tech startups climbing three years consecutively, according to Bloomberg.

“I think there is something incredibly refreshing about getting to go out and work with teams that are just every day obsessively, minutely focused on how do they invent something new that is going to change the industry they’re operating in,” said Evan Burfield, cofounder and CEO of 1776, an incubator for startups that is helping to connect big companies with early-stage companies through programs like a travel experience incubator.

Here are a handful of takeaways from the event:

Don’t rely on cold calls. Go deep in your network and understand where you can make the right connections.

“Don’t do it. Don’t waste your time. I’ve never picked up a cold call situation and advanced it forward,” said Jennifer Hseih, the vice president for client experience innovation for Marriott International. “I literally got a call from a colleague of a friend who said they had a neighbor who had an invention where he could push a pedal on the floor and the bed would lift, thereby saving time, workers comp, backaches for our housekeeping staff… That would never have made it through the door if they had just sent an email or tried to send product.”

The company’s work in the travel incubator with Accenture and 1776 is another way to bring forward opportunities with innovative startups to improve the guest experience, she said. Large companies, she said, “are smart enough to know where and how to find talent.”

Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of CX innovation for Marriott International, speaks at the TechWeek DC 2017 panel "Startups As The new R&D" on Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo by James Cullum)

Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of CX innovation for Marriott International, speaks at the TechWeek DC 2017. (Photo by James Cullum)

Know your potential partner.

“You’ve got to do your homework with these organizations. You have to really know their business,” said Burfield. “For some companies, if you can find that right connection point, the synergies are tremendous. Your ability to experiment rapidly – combine that with a large organization may have in terms of market knowledge, understanding the core economics in that industry, access to customers, obviously capital and the potential to drive revenue for your startup is huge.”

Identify the company that you want to work with.

Bob Ghafouri started his customer data and analytics company, CadenceQuest, Inc., in his basement. Accenture acquired it in 2010, and Ghafouri, who said he was two-to-four weeks away from bankruptcy before the deal was struck, is now the managing director at Accenture Interactive.

“When you’re working with large companies, especially big system integrators, software partners, the one thing to think about is who are you talking to, and when are you actually going to get a client deal on the table,” he said. “Make sure that you have a target customer identified… Take Steve Jobs’ advice and always think about the customer, in terms of the functionality that you build and in terms of the conversations that you have.”

The TechWeek DC 2017 panel "Startups As The new R&D" was moderated by Techweek CEO Amanda Signorelli (right), and featured Evan Burfield, co-founder and CEO of 1776, Bob Ghafouri, digital transformation lead at Accenture Digital and Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of CX innovation for Marriott International. (Photo by James Cullum)

The TechWeek DC 2017 panel ‘Startups as the new R&D’ was moderated by Techweek CEO Amanda Signorelli (right), and featured Evan Burfield, CEO of 1776. (Photo by James Cullum)

Move fast.

“You’ve got to force people to move people, make things happen or these things can drag on forever,” Burfield said. “Ninety percent of startups have two weeks to 18 months of runway in front of them, so they have to move incredibly quickly, and that’s so different from the time perspective a big organization has. The really successful programs tend to figure out ways to drive that same sense of: experiment, reach a conclusion, refine.”

Don’t work for free.

Ghafouri said he repeatedly made the mistake of providing free services to large firms in exchange for good favor.

“Don’t be teased. If you go in and meet with a prospective client… and then you see an email – can we do a 3-4 week pilot, etcetera, you start adding that up, and its six-to-eight months later, you can be teased by a really good meeting, and if there’s no budget behind that, it will never go anywhere.”

Burfield agreed. 

“If you’re testing your business model, the test that says, ‘Hey, I got a large organization to let me do something for free for them,’ is not a valid test on whether your business model works,” he said. 

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