Preparing for your company’s first meeting with a startup collaborator

Corporations and startups can create tremendous value when they collaborate with each other. Startups can offer corporations novel ideas and process flexibility, while corporations can provide significant resources and process efficiencies.

But it is often a challenge to initiate these collaborations due to uncertainty about which organizations to contact, how to contact them, and who are the right people to contact. When that elusive first encounter occurs, both sides are often unprepared and unable to make the most of the opportunity.

For corporations, finding the right startup to work for can be expensive and screening potential collaborators can be difficult. Initiatives such as internal corporate accelerators and networking events aim to address this problem, but their success is often limited. Such initiatives are expensive and limited in scope, leaving little room for surprises. In addition, corporate processes are often not adapted to the fast-paced environments that new businesses require.

Managers on both sides of the startup spectrum have several options to help increase the success of collaborations. Below, we share insights based on our observation of 150 meetings between 108 deep tech startups and 34 corporations organized by Ignite Sweden, a nonprofit initiative that aims to foster innovation by connecting startups with large companies and public organizations.

The first meeting

During the first meeting, managers typically present their companies, their priority areas, and what they’re looking for in a collaboration. The management group typically includes innovation managers, association managers, research and development managers, product managers, and specialists with a variety of technical skills. Sometimes there is only one corporate representative, while other corporations put together teams to participate in meetings.

Most corporations have explicit goals: solve their current problems, bring new perspectives to their existing challenges, access innovative technologies and equipment, test emerging technologies to transform their organizations, and create new value for their customers.

Most collaborations that make it past the first meeting share three characteristics: clarity of purpose, openness to surprises, and building the right team.

Clarity of goal

For corporations, this means knowing up front what they want to get out of the first meeting. When corporate representatives present their needs and priorities, startups tend to adapt to those needs.

Such clarity of purpose is achieved by understanding and communicating your current and future needs. It can flow from your strategic agenda. For example, Céline Farcet, L’Oréal’s head of technology exploration in Europe, noted that the company was looking for startups that matched L’Oréal’s “priorities and strategies of bringing new, different and better products to market.” Similarly, Scania, a Swedish commercial car manufacturer, had a clear goal: the team was looking for a range of autonomous solutions for its trucks and buses. The task of both companies was to identify the startups with which to work in specific areas.

Randon, a Brazilian conglomerate, came to its first meeting with potential startup collaborators with a well-defined goal of automating and digitizing their operations using AI and machine learning. We observed that multiple possibilities arose during their meeting with the startups, mainly because the startups pivoted the focus of their offerings to solve Randon’s specific problems.

Corporate representatives need to prepare in advance by knowing their managers’ pain points and understanding their needs so they can determine the suitability of new businesses. This helps them assess whether the startup’s solutions can match their needs and align with the appropriate parts of their organization.

open to surprises

Even when corporations come with the clear goal of solving a problem, focusing only on immediate needs can be limiting, as it can mean missing out on unforeseen opportunities. In addition to clarity of purpose, those who are open-minded to new business ideas benefit from such interactions. This, however, requires the competence to understand new technologies, as well as how those technologies can address the current and future needs of the corporation. To do this, the right team must be assembled.

Assembling the right team

The right team should comprise a balanced presence of technologists, business developers, and decision makers who can participate in current and future opportunities that startups present. For example, the Scania team looked at opportunities related to data processing for mobile platforms, autonomous mobile vehicles, and radar and imaging technology. Team members present at the first meeting had experience with the types of technology that different startups were presenting and discussed how they might use those technologies.

The first meeting can be fruitful if the right team is present, and we see corporate representatives co-creating and helping startups realize their ideas, with slight twists and turns to suit their needs. From our observations, technicians asked specific questions about their current needs, while innovation managers or business developers were able to see the long-term/future perspective regarding collaboration.

Thermal imaging camera and sensor manufacturer Teledyne FLIR brought product-specific engineers, knowledge managers and innovation managers to their first meeting with startups. The presence of the engineers helped the team to ask the right questions and understand the suitability, compatibility and usability of the proposed solution during the meeting.

In addition to innovation managers and technology professionals, the participation of key decision makers in the meeting is essential. Having people who can make decisions during the first meeting drives collaboration because most startups aim for a business partnership, pilot, or proof of concept, and work at a fast pace. Thus, knowing who the startups are and what their goals are can be used to the benefit of corporations if people with decision-making power and commitment of resources are present.

Questions to ask before the first meeting

To better prepare for the startup meeting, corporate managers should consider asking the following questions:

  • What are our areas of interest and strategic agendas?
  • What are the current challenges that we must solve?
  • Who do we meet? Why are they interested in us?
  • What do we want to get out of the meeting?
  • How can your solutions be integrated with our company?
  • What are the potential areas where we can work together?
  • Do we have the right team composition?
  • What can we offer?

When the first meetings do not meet expectations

Meetings fall short of expectations for many reasons. The top three reasons we identified from our observations include lack of preparation, sending in the wrong team, and hoping for a perfect match.

lack of preparation

We saw unrealized potential when corporations came to meetings without a clear goal. They were only there to be surprised, and this was not enough for the new companies. Having done no preparation (e.g., researching the startup’s technologies), the corporations ended up merely scratching the surface of the proposal and getting nothing of value out of the meeting, and failing to conduct a meaningful discussion with the companies. startups.

Send to the wrong people

Sending people without a mandate to make decisions, or those who cannot see the potential of a proposal because their background is not relevant, also makes the first meetings inconsequential.

For example, given the novelty of a startup’s technologies, sending vendors with no understanding of current technology trajectories and no way of envisioning how the new technology can be integrated into company operations limits the discussion to “what it is,” at the expense of about what”. could be.”

Also, there is no value in sending unprepared corporate representatives who participate just to “see what’s up,” as they often end up directing startups to their websites or an admission opportunity for their corporate accelerators. The absence of needs owners (those who have problems to solve or are looking for new possibilities) in the first meetings results in lost time and opportunities for both parties.

Waiting for a perfect match

When corporations meet startups, they often hope to find a perfect match between their current needs and the startups’ offerings; however, this rarely happens. What worked was corporations presenting their current and future needs (and priority areas) and engaging startups to pivot and see opportunities for them to integrate their solutions. With the right team and a spirit of co-creation, we see corporations creating spaces for new businesses to create.

key takeaways

Preparation is essential, but corporate managers must leave room for surprises because new company offerings are often original. Therefore, corporations must prepare to be productively surprised. To move forward with new ideas, they need to send the right team, made up of people who can understand the offering (eg, new materials and robotics experts), envision possibilities, and make decisions (eg, product managers). innovation and people with a holistic understanding of the current and future needs of the corporation). L’Oréal carried out its commitment using selected teams that were able to see where the new technologies presented by the startups could be used. They had teams ready to see what was possible based on the various offerings from multiple startups. We saw that they made the most of opportunities because of the way they structured their approach.

When there is a clear goal aligned with the corporate agenda, corporations lead the first meetings creating a space for startups to fill in order to potentially solve their current and future problems. Even if nothing concrete comes out of the first meeting, at least corporate representatives will receive new insights into current trends and new technologies. This alone makes these meetings worthwhile.

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