Startups to Large Corporations…Take me to your Leaders!

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the value large corporations could excerpt from partnering with startups.  Here, I discuss the converse, the value in partnering with large corporations from the startups perspective.

Startups are rightly pursuing relationships with large corporations, usually knocking on the corporate venture capital (CVC) or open innovation office (OIO) doors.   That’s the easy part – a foot in the door to getting money and ‘off the cuff’ advice.   The hard part comes next, once startups get through the door – getting ‘VALUE’ from what both parties soon realize it’s an alien encounter of the strangest kind.

The road to VALUE starts but by no means ends with the Corporate VC or Open Innovation point of contact.   Once that cordial relationship has been established (and gratitude expressed for the investment, office space and/or ‘strategic advice’), it’s time for the startup’s founder(s) to look their point of contact’s in the eye and say: “Take me to your leaders!” (you can add a ‘Please’, but it will lose your dramatic effect… and it’s less ballsy and funny. And yes, here it’s ‘leaders’ (plural), not ‘leader’, since we all know every corporate employee has multiple, intricatilly matrixed bosses).

Here then are the Five Leaders you want to meet in your heavenly corporate partner’s HQ if you are really serious about extracting VALUE from your abnormal relationship.     You should ask to be taken to these leaders in the exact order.

1. CEO (and/or GM of ginormous business unit)

You may think I suggest this so that you can ask for business advice or knowledge about the corporations particular industry – none of that nonsense!   Don’t bother thanking him/her for the corporate investment neither (it’s peanuts and they’ve forgotten about it by the time you get there).   Your dialogue should open with something like this… “Hi, I’m founder CEO of Startup X, you’ve invested in us, it’s time to add VALUE!   Here’s what I had in mind…Teach me how to ‘win friends and influence people’ and I’ll teach you about innovation, taking risks and dressing casual, yet cool”.   The mega leader of your new corporate partner got to where they are through their people skills – those will be INVALUABLE as you scale your startup (and in the following conversations at the swanky HQ).

2. Head of Business Development

Next on the list is the head of business development. Since you’re in a startup and have no need for one of those (you really don’t, cause that’s you!), I’ll briefly explain what that is. The head of business development is in charge of external partnerships and his or her chief skill is negotiating.   You look him/her in the eye and say “I’ve come from the CEO/GM’s office. He/she said you need to teach me how to negotiate so I get the best possible terms out of my future vendor and partner relations, including this one. In return, I’ll help you come up with a more creative title than ‘head of business development’”.   Corporations are very, very experienced at negotiating – another VALUABLE skill as you grow your own ecosystem, and useful indeed in continuing to mine your corporate partner for value.

3. Chief Patent Officer

Next on the list is the Chief Patent Officer (CPO). Time you might as well face it – Startup patents suck! You either got a poorly written patent license from you Alma mater or you’ve been poorly writing your own on the cheap. It’s not the invention part that’s usually flawed; it’s what really matters, the claims (the boundaries you set to keep others off your turf, while not stepping on prior art yourself). You want to look the CPO in the eye and say “Hi, how are you?” (you’ve learned to deal with people by this third conversation and can throw in polite openings to your requests now). “Please teach me how to write decent patents, come up with an IP strategy, avoid getting sued for a couple more years, etc., etc. In return, we can talk licensing of my cool, alien technology.”   Corporations are very, very good at writing patents, using a combination of battle tested in-house attorneys and the best money can buy IP law firms.   Knowing how to protect your IP and use your patents as swords, not shields, will be yet another VALUABLE skill to growing your company while sleeping more restfully.

4. Chief Technology Officer

Next on the list is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Now that you know how to deal with people, negotiate and protect IP, it’s time you talk shop with the corporations CTO (hopefully an R&D type of guy/gal eager to show off).   Look the CTO in the eye, flash a Vulcan hand gesture salute and say “You’re the coolest, smartest person I’ve met here! Can you show me your brilliant creations to date? I promise I won’t ask stupid design thinking or business questions as you’re doing so”. Corporations have tons of technology lying around and little imagination or courage of what to do with it compared to what you may conjure & be willing to try.   You’ve got to stay LEAN and ship MVP’s… but if they can be enhanced with technology from your partners, ‘LEAN in’ and take some stuff! – see which pieces of your puzzle are already invented there and accelerate your roadmap. Don’t forget to say “Live long and prosper” when you leave, pockets full of free VALUE.

5. Head of Purchasing

Next and final stop on your list is the head of purchasing.   It’s a pain and shame for you to be buying a ton of stuff for your startup without the benefit of volume discounts.   A nice corporate partner will allow you to benefit from the deals they get from their vast network of vendors (for parts, supplies, services, you name it). Look the head of purchasing in the eye and say “Hi. I don’t think your job is unimportant, even though you’re a ‘buyer’ while just about everyone else in the world has to make a much tougher living as sycophantic salespeople. Do you really get unbeatable prices for all your stuff.. hum, prove it to me.” Corporations have a ton of VALUABLE, high-scale ‘corporate’ stuff you can leverage, leverage it (and don’t stop at advantaged supplier contracts, get access to their real estate, shop floor machinery, expensive test equipment, etc.).


So there you have it. The five Leaders you want to meet from your new corporate partner that can bring you the promised VALUE of your relationship are:

  1. CEO or GM of large business unit for learning how to deal with people
  2. Head of Business Development for learning how to negotiate
  3. Chief Patent Officer to learn how to write better patents and protect IP
  4. Chief Technology Officer to ‘borrow’ some technology for your use, &
  5. Head of Purchasing to leverage a corporations scale advantages

You should be gracious for investments and kitchen table advice you may get from corporations, but remember, THEY NEED YOU MORE THAN YOU NEED THEM (in order to innovate) – So seek a more equitable position. Reach for additional VALUE you can surely derive from spending quality time with seasoned corporate Leaders, who should be only too happy to have a refreshing positive conversation with people in your shoes – if only for a vicarious moment of living ‘on another planet’, if eternity should fail their current orbit.Marvin the Martian

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