Curious to know the entrepreneur's perspective of your corporate innovation center? So was I. So I turned to Israel’s most popular Facebook group for 'startup questions', and posted that question. Here are the results.
Within minutes my personal inbox was filled with messages from entrepreneurs and startup founders who practically asked to meet and share their experiences with corporate innovation centers. Even innovation center managers asked to meet. This topic seems to be a big pain for many, and I might have just opened Pandora’s box.
So I packed my notebook and pen, and went out to explore what startup founders really think about corporate innovation centers. I am sharing my (anonymized) insights here for the benefit of the community. If you are a corporate innovation manager, this post is for you.
#1 Do your homework
Almost every startup founder stated this as a problem, and most of them ranked it at the top. You just don’t do your homework.
Why is that important? Because startups have very limited time and money, and wasting either of these resources can easily kill them. Doing your homework is crucial for them, and can help them stay in focus.
'We worked 30 hours straight to learn about [the corporation — BK], to find the collaboration strategy they will want the most, and to present that in the most professional manner. We are bootstrapping [self-funded — BK] so we had to pay a freelance designer to make the presentation look professional, and within 2 days they received all the material [..] Their response was that they don’t work with startups without VC backing, a fact that could have saved us a significant deal of effort if they had just told us before that.'
When a startup is engaging with your corporation, they spend their most expensive time on that engagement: they study your corporation, they learn about your team, they read about how you innovate, and talk to startups that engaged with you in the past, they research your business history and strategy, and the work day and night on preparing for the meeting. Because for them you are a huge business opportunity.
'Instead of going through our slides, they wanted us to teach them about the subject for two and a half hours, and then they had to clear the meeting room. They never saw our deck, and they never called back.'
It is OK if you don’t see them as a huge business opportunity, a career boost, or even an interesting part of your day. But if you don’t take this engagement seriously and professionally, you will be wasting their limited oxygen.
#2 You need to have a committed BU
The commitment, or lack thereof, of the relevant BU (Business Unit) was ranked high among startups who had follow-ups within the corporation and were going through technology POC or even through business engagement.
This is more structural than behavioral. Most corporate innovation centers and startup acceleration programs are not capable of commercializing innovation by themselves. Commercialization is normally done by the Business, or at least with their support. The BU is what turns your innovation ideas into reality.
Without a BU leader that knows how to commercialize innovation, and without a BU mentor that helps preparing the innovation for commercialization, the innovation opportunity is practically doomed.
'2 months after we started the commercialization process with the business, [the innovation manager — BK] called and said that the business doesn’t have anyone to push us forward and that we may want to get in touch next year. This was just outrageous, since they did have someone who worked with us, but for her it was merely a side job, a gig. And now she just ddidn'thave the time anymore. [..] No, of course we did not get in touch after that'
Some of the founders I interviewed said that even when there was a BU mentor allocated, they did not have 'innovation' in their KPI’s, which ultimately made the startups chase them and not vice versa. An 'allocated' mentor BU and a committed BU are two different things.
#3 You really suck at following-up
After a startup presented to you, they are no longer a startup. They are that young boy and girl after the first date, waiting by the phone, fearing to miss your call, checking if the line is busy, not sure if it’s appropriate to call you back, and how many times, and what to write in that email, anxious to move forward.
If you think that giving attention to the startups that you are interested in is 'following up', you are very wrong. All the other startups that you met are also waiting for your call, and will keep waiting with hope as long as you haven’t called to say 'I don’t want a second date'.
'He had a bowl full of candy on his desk, and when he wanted he would reach for one candy, without giving it much attention. I am pretty sure that he treats his inbox like he treats that bowl of candy'
While it may seem redundant, those 95% of startups you are ditching with gracelessness hate that about you, because you are killing them. It means that you need a process of respectful and valuable communication with every engagement you have, even hundreds of dead-end engagements a year. That’s following up.
I detailed only the top three things that founders hate about your corporate innovation center, but there were more. The runner-ups were that you need a process of working with startups with clear goals, that you are not approachable enough, and several more.
But you know what? Why don’t you open up for feedback? Go and do what I did. Reach out. Explore. Listen. Take notes.
You get the idea
Startups won’t tell you this, but they told me. If you are running an open innovation center, a corporate accelerator, or a corporate venture arm, you want your corporation to collaborate with the entire ecosystem, and for that you need to fix a few things. Running an open innovation unit means understanding that you are not using startups for your innovation. You collaborate with them. And you need them no less than they need you.