Companies and startups can both deliver tremendous value when they work together. Startups can provide businesses with new ideas and process flexibility, while businesses can provide significant resources and process efficiency.
But it is often challenging to engage in these partnerships due to the uncertainty of which organizations to contact, how to contact them, and who to contact. When that elusive first meeting occurs, both sides are often under-prepared and unable to make the most of the opportunity.
For companies, finding the right startup to partner with can be costly and evaluating potential employees 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, business processes are often not suitable for the fast-paced environments that startups need.
Managers on both sides of the startup spectrum have different options for increasing the success of collaborations. Below, we share insights based on our observation of 150 meetings between 108 deep tech startups and 34 companies, organized by Ignite Sweden, a non-profit initiative that aims to foster innovation by connecting startups with large companies and public organizations.
The first meeting
During the first meeting, managers usually present their companies, their priority areas and what they are looking for in a collaboration. The management group typically includes innovation managers, partnership managers, R&D managers, product managers and specialists with a range of technical skills. Sometimes there is only one representative of the company, while other companies put together teams to participate in the meetings.
Most companies have explicit goals: solve their current problems, provide new perspectives on their existing challenges, access innovative technologies and teams, test emerging technologies to transform their organizations and create new value for their customers.
Most collaborations that get past the first meeting have three characteristics: a clear goal, being open to surprises, and putting together the right team.
Clarity of purpose
For companies, this means knowing from the start what they want to get out of the first meeting. When company representatives present their needs and priorities, startups tend to adapt to such needs.
Such clarity of purpose is achieved by understanding and communicating their current and future needs. It may stem from their strategic agenda. For example, Céline Farcet, head of technology scouting Europe at L’Oréal, noted that the company was looking for startups that matched “L’Oréal’s priorities and strategies to bring new, different and better products to the market”. Likewise, 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 for both companies was to identify the startups to collaborate with in specific areas.
Randon, a Brazilian conglomerate, came to his first meeting with potential startup employees with the stated goal of automating and digitizing their operations using AI and machine learning. We noticed several possibilities emerged during the startup encounter, especially as the startups shifted the focus of their offerings to solve Randon’s specific problems.
Company representatives should prepare in advance by knowing the pain points of their managers and understanding their needs so that they can determine the suitability of the startups. This helps them assess whether the startup’s solutions can be tailored to their needs and aligned with the right parts of their organization.
Be open to surprises
Even when companies come up with the clear goal of solving a problem, narrowing down to focusing only on immediate needs can be a hindrance as it can mean missing out on unforeseen opportunities. Besides a clear purpose, those who are open to the new ideas of startups benefit from such interactions. However, this requires the competence to understand new technologies, as well as how such technologies can meet the company’s current and future needs. The right team must be put together for this.
Assemble the right team
The right team should consist of a balanced presence of technologists, business developers and decision makers who can capitalize on the current and future opportunities presented by the startups. For example, the Scania team looked for possibilities in the field of data processing for moving platforms, autonomous vehicles and image and radar technology. The team members who attended the first meeting had expertise about the types of technology that the different startups presented and discussed how to use such technologies.
The first meeting can be fruitful if the right team is in place, and we’ve seen corporate representatives co-create and help startups realize their ideas, with small pivots and tweaks to meet their needs. From our observations, the techs asked specific questions about their current needs, while innovation managers or business developers could see the future/long-term perspective regarding the collaboration.
Thermal imaging camera and sensor manufacturer Teledyne FLIR brought dedicated product engineers, customer insight managers and innovation managers to the initial meeting with startups. The presence of the engineers helped the team to ask the right questions during the meeting itself and to understand the suitability, compatibility and usability of the proposed solution.
In addition to innovation managers and tech professionals, the involvement of key decision-makers in the meeting is essential. Having people who can make decisions in the first meeting encourages collaboration because most startups strive for a commercial partnership, pilot, or proof of concept, and they work at a fast pace. Knowing who the startups are and what their objectives are can thus be used to the advantage of companies if there are people present with the power to make decisions and allocate resources.
Questions to ask before the first meeting
To better prepare for meeting startups, business managers should consider asking the following questions:What are our areas of interest and strategic agendas? What are the current challenges we need to solve? Who do we meet? Why are they interested in us? What do we want to get out of the meeting? How can their solutions integrate with our company? What are the possible areas in which we can work together? Do we have the right team composition? What can we offer?
When the first meetings don’t live up to expectations
Meetings don’t live up to expectations for many reasons. The three main reasons we identified from our observations include lack of preparation, sending the wrong team and expecting a perfect match.
Lack of preparation
We saw unrealized potential when companies came to meetings with no clear purpose. They were just there to be surprised, and that wasn’t enough for the startups. Because they had made no preparations (e.g. by researching the startup’s technologies), companies ended up just scratching the surface of the proposition and getting nothing of value from the meeting, failing to conduct a meaningful discussion with the startups.
Sending the wrong people
Sending people with no mandate to make decisions, or people who can’t see the potential of a proposition because their background is irrelevant, also makes first meetings unimportant.
For example, given the newness of a startup’s technologies, directing salespeople with no understanding of current technology trajectories and no way to envision how new technology might be integrated into the company’s operations limits the discussion to “what is”, at the expense of “what is”. could be.”
Plus, there’s no point in sending unprepared business reps to participate to “see what’s out there,” as they often direct startups to their websites or an intake opportunity for their business accelerators. The absence of need owners (those who have problems to solve or are looking for new opportunities) at the first meetings leads to wasted time and missed opportunities for both parties.
Expect a perfect match
When companies meet startups, they often expect to find a perfect match between their current needs and startup offerings; however, this rarely happens. What worked was that companies presented their current and future needs (and priority areas) and attracted startups to run and see opportunities for them to integrate their solutions. With the right team and a co-creation spirit, we saw how companies create space for startups to create.
Key learning points
Preparation is essential, but business managers must leave room for surprises because startups’ offerings are often original. Therefore, companies must prepare to be surprised in a productive way. To move forward with new ideas, they must send the right team, made up of those who can understand the offering (e.g., area experts in new materials and robotics), see opportunities, and make decisions (e.g., innovation managers and people with a holistic understanding of current and future needs of the company). L’Oréal executed its engagement with the help of curated teams that could see where the new technologies presented by startups could be used. They had crews on hand to see what was possible based on the various offers from multiple startups. We noticed that they made the most of the opportunities because of the way they had structured their approach.
When there is a clear goal aligned with the corporate agenda, companies lead the first meetings by creating a space for the startups to potentially solve their current and future problems. Even if nothing concrete comes out of the first meeting, at least the company representatives will gain new insights about current trends and new technologies. This alone makes these meetings worthwhile.
This post Prepare for your company’s first meeting with a new employee was original published at “https://hbr.org/2022/04/preparing-for-your-companys-first-meeting-with-a-startup-collaborator”