How Innovation Tourism Is Holding Back Corporate America

Forging genuine connections with startups doesn’t have to be a massive or costly commitment


Most corporate leaders seem to be pretty comfortable with the status quo. You’ve got a lot of responsibility and structure around you, so sticking to the tried and true minimizes risk. If you’re hitting your quarterly goals, why rock the boat by seeking innovative partnerships with up-and-coming startups?

But this safety-seeking behavior creates a dense, inward-looking culture. While your corporation is safe and warm within its office walls, startups are creating technology and products that represent the future of corporate America.

Many corporations have already recognized this need to look outside and connect with startups, but they often go about it in the wrong way, engaging in innovation tourism rather than meaningful partnerships.

What Is Innovation Tourism?

When corporations feel the need to interact with startups but don’t want to shake up their routines too much, they’ll often participate in innovation tourism. This can involve allotting a reward for the best new idea to donning T-shirts and jeans and heading down to a local incubator. It could even mean dedicating a small corner of the main corporate campus as an 'innovation lab' — fully outfitted with at least one brightly colored wall and a whiteboard.

Just showing up and watching outside innovation isn’t enough, though — especially if you’re looking to engage with young, creative people. These individuals won’t look twice at your organization unless you’re actively involved in the startup community.

Innovation tourism lacks authenticity and effectiveness. Without fostering meaningful and lasting relationships with startups, you’re missing out on all that dynamic technology and talent developing beyond your walls, becoming ripe for competitors to find.

Today's unstable startup is tomorrow's major competitor — and eventually the market leader. Hello, Netflix. Goodbye, Blockbuster Video. Hello, Instagram. Goodbye, Kodak.

3 Ways to Spark Real Engagement With Startups

Forging genuine connections with startups can bring value to your company in countless ways. It doesn’t have to be a massive or costly commitment; if you just show some genuine interest, you'll discover what mutual value you can create together.

1. Define locally, and solve globally.
It’s important to not cling to the startups in your own backyard out of convenience. Instead, start by defining your problem. What kind of innovation makes sense for your organization's involvement?

Once you know what you’re looking for, find startups in multiple markets and locations that can help solve that problem. Create a shortlist of promising companies that you’d love to start a joint venture with, and then reach out. This introduction could turn into a strategic investment, a collaborative project, or simply a new valuable contact.

2. Bring purpose instead of pizza.
A pizza party might help you win over an entrepreneur's stomach, but it won't help you earn a productive partnership with his or her company. A more effective way to connect with startups is to actually provide an exchange of resources and insights.

What if you invited your list of relevant startups to an evening event celebrating failure? You could share what it means to fail on a corporate scale, and attendees could express what they’ve learned about launching new products and growing quickly. Exchanging stories of triumph and tribulation will help all parties realize that, at the end of the day, they can learn from one another and grow together.

3. Hack for talent, not just for technology.
Many big companies like to host hackathons to solve problems and spark innovation. They invite members of different departments to collaborate, cross-pollinating expertise and ideas. Why not go a step further and invite members of the startup community to join in on the fun?

Not only is this type of event great for idea sharing, but it also works wonders for spotting talent. You interact with startup leaders in an informal but interesting setting where they can feel free to be themselves.

A word to the wise, though: Be mindful of intellectual property at these events. When all is said and done, always reward participants accordingly for their ideas, whether it’s with money, shares, rights, or inclusion on a patent.

Innovation tourism makes startups feel like zoo animals. Avoid this unwanted, awkward interaction by recognizing how much you have to learn from one another. Then, begin engaging with startups in a meaningful way — through the spirit of providing mentorship and sharing expertise.

The benefits for your corporation will be abundant. Not only will it keep your business model and offering relevant, but it'll also introduce you to amazing talent. Whether a startup fails next month or goes the distance, it can be a great source of top technical talent — and not to mention, courage, which is something corporations need a little more of to challenge their comfortable status quo.

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