For startups, even securing an initial meeting with a company can be challenging—let alone creating a partnership. To understand what works, the authors attended 150 one-on-one meetings between startups and corporations such as IBM, Sony, SAAB, L’Oréal, Scania, Toyota, and AstraZeneca. Our feedback helped identify five best practices for helping startups generate corporate interest in collaborating after the meeting: 1) Have clear but flexible goals; 2) address existing problems and needs; 3) address ease of integration and collaboration; 4) present new use cases and value propositions; and 5) assembling the right team.
in Linkedin post Last year, PepsiCo Laboratories general manager Anna Farberoff shared her frustration with strategic mistakes startups make when pitching to companies. Having attended 3,500 of these meetings, she felt she had the experience to detail their mistakes. However, the backlash to her post was intense, with employees and startup founders keen to highlight issues they encountered when approaching the companies. It is clear that both sides want to cooperate. But they struggled to find ways to engage in successful and lasting engagements.
For startups, even securing an initial meeting with a company can be challenging—let alone creating a partnership. Cold calls are the lottery. Companies are the “black box” of outside entrepreneurs, and it can be difficult to initiate contact with decision makers. As one (and very successful) serial entrepreneur told us, “I wouldn’t even be able to walk into their office, let alone start a collaboration.” If even seasoned entrepreneurs struggle to secure the opportunity of collaboration, one can only imagine how difficult it must be for beginners and early stage startups.
Initiatives such as “speed dating” events, where various startups introduce themselves to corporate representatives, can ease the process. At such events, often organized by intermediaries, companies’ “spotting teams” look to generate an influx of ideas, technologies, and solutions for the company. Despite these efforts, startups are still unlikely to benefit from this crucial first encounter.
At the first meeting, early-stage startups should get enough attention to secure a follow-up meeting. Performing well during this first interaction is essential. There are usually no second chances. But how can startups win that all-important second meeting?
To answer this question, we attended 150 one-on-one meetings between startups and companies including IBM, Sony, SAAB, L’Oréal, Scania, Toyota and AstraZeneca. Meetings have been organized by Ignite Sweden—a non-profit initiative aimed at fostering innovation by connecting tech startups with large corporations. Our feedback helped generate insights into the best ways for startups to generate corporate interest in the collaboration after the meeting. The following best practices helped the startups we observed secure the all-important second meeting.
Set clear and flexible goals.
Depending on its stage of development, a startup’s goals might include collaborating on a proof-of-concept, working on a pilot, making a sale, or co-creating products. A startup with clearly defined goals helps the company see potential for engagement. This can lead the company to offer alternatives that a resilient startup can use to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.
For example, a gaming startup, Attractive Interactive, has adapted its technology for SAAB to help pilots land in extreme weather conditions. “It was exciting to apply our game development knowledge to completely new issues,” said the company’s COO. Such a collaboration was unimaginable for Attractive Interactive prior to its meeting with SAAB. Not all startups need to pivot in this way, but those who do may see potential they never imagined before. Thus, clarity with flexibility is a virtue.
Address existing problems and needs.
Startup team members must understand the company’s needs in sufficient detail before the first meeting. This preparation might simply include viewing the company’s website and industry-related documents prior to the presentation. This aligns solutions with the organization’s existing efforts to create value for customers by improving existing processes, products and services.
In one example, Toyota Material Handling has teamed up with IPercept Solutions, a deep-tech startup that provides AI services for industrial machine tracking. In the initial meeting, IPercept was able to show how their solutions fit Toyota’s material handling needs and ambitions. The application of these tools has radically improved the process of the latter, according to Matthias DahlgrenMaintenance Manager at Toyota Material Handling.
This example shows how startups that tackle existing problems and provide innovative solutions can make themselves indispensable to companies.
Address ease of integration and collaboration.
Startups must know how to integrate their products into the company’s existing operations. The startup should make it easier for the company to deal with them by first understanding the current workflow of the latter.
A startup has created a machine learning algorithm to help Alfa Laval — a global leader in heat transfer, separation and fluid processing — accurately assess when a heat exchanger requires flushing. Thanks to this collaboration, the company, founded in 1883, could deploy intelligent heat exchangers despite its lack of experience in the field.
Existing use cases and new value propositions.
During the meeting, the startup should explain how it will create new value for the company and its customers. One approach might be to talk through a company-specific mock use case. Instead, actual use cases can be viewed based on the startup’s engagement with other companies.
These opportunities for value creation should be communicated through simple presentations that emphasize the ease of integration of proposed solutions with existing channels. Pilot collaborative ventures with companies are particularly beneficial for early-stage startups as they enhance the latter’s legitimacy and help expand their customer base.
association right team.
Beyond the startup founder(s), it is helpful to engage business development experts and technologists who can engage corporate representatives in a productive dialogue. Teams made up of technically qualified members (eg, CTOs) and those with business development backgrounds are better able to understand how a startup’s technology benefits the company. With the right team, possibilities can emerge outside of a startup’s technology and company challenges. Founders whose technical background was solid but who were unable to explain their technology or its applications usually fail to capture the interest of the public. So teams should have members who can explain possible uses for their services along with those who can answer technical questions.
The list of do’s and don’ts below summarizes our observations on how startups ensure successful first meetings that lead to follow-up and collaboration.
What do you do at the first meeting.
- Address the company’s current problems and needs, and those of its industry.
- Design presentations for individual companies and show how your new startup can help them.
- Focus on ease of integration rather than your technology.
- Submit mock/use cases to demonstrate new value propositions.
- Be flexible and willing to rotate and co-create when the opportunity presents itself.
- Bringing a team with experience in technology and business development.
What not to do at the first meeting.
- Don’t just offer ideas: listen to their current and future needs.
- Don’t use the same ballpark for different companies: customize.
- Don’t just focus on your technology but show how it will help the company.
- Don’t just send out technical personnel in a high-tech presentation.
Startups can achieve a desirable level of engagement by first engaging with what they know about their corporate partners. Only then should they focus on co-creating products and services. Startups with clients who can demonstrate how their technology will help the company are practically guaranteed to win the latter’s interest in follow-up meetings. Therefore their efforts must be directed towards understanding the value streams of the company and its customers and the potential ways to create more value.
In this way, startups can overcome the challenges of navigating the often complex internal functioning of the company. They can learn about the company and its ways of working. They can build on this knowledge to receive an invitation to a second meeting where the two teams can focus on innovation.