At Silicon Road, we are a venture capital fund investing in early stage, high growth potential startups. But we go beyond the capital. A core tenet of Silicon Road is our Corporate Connect program. Through this platform, we connect our portfolio companies with large enterprise organizations that are looking for solutions to some of their biggest challenges in the spaces of retail, e-commerce, CPG, and FMCG.
Even though our Corporate Connect partners have vast resources and expertise, the innovation from a nimble startup can create massive value. Startups are built outside the confines of an existing company, which allows them to have almost limitless flexibility and affords our corporate partners reduced risk. The benefit for entrepreneurs, of course, is if they can help solve one of these challenges, they can land a significant customer early on – with the added ability to scale their new business.
However, if you’re an entrepreneur trying to partner with a large enterprise, you will greatly increase your chances for success if you have an inside advisor – often a VP level or above – who can show you how to get results inside of that organization. A good enterprise advisor like this understands what value the entrepreneur brings to the organization and then helps them make connections with key decision-makers across the company’s different business units. In many cases, these advisors help the entrepreneur look for opportunities to pilot the solution in the business unit, in a pseudo-business development role.
But entrepreneurs also need to understand what questions they should be asking of their advisors to get the maximum value out of that relationship, and then shift the dialogue from selling to co-creation. Most entrepreneurs only see big enterprises as bears to hunt, not opportunities to refine their product market fit. Here are three questions we suggest every entrepreneur ask their enterprise advisor:
1. Ask what key words or phrases to use – or avoid.
Every organization develops its own unique language over time, and an advisor can help an entrepreneur understand those nuances. One startup I was advising had a minimum viable product designed with a major home improvement retailer in Arizona, and they called the experiment a “pilot.” But inside of the corporation, this set off alarms and triggered a set of meetings with HR, risk management, and lawyers. That’s because in the enterprise’s language, a “pilot” meant that research had been done and small tests had been completed in a small region. All the startup wanted to do was test their concept in a single store. Fortunately, the startup’s advisors stepped up to speak with all the relevant groups inside the enterprise to explain that what the startup was actually doing was just a small test. Nothing more. This simple vernacular change made a big difference and they were able to use the results of this test to win more work.
2. Find out if there are internal teams working on the same problem. If so, what can you learn from their approach?
Corporations often make lots of bets to solve some of their biggest challenges. These bets are often presented to internal and external teams, including startups. At Coca-Cola, one of these opportunities was called “out-of-stocks.” This is when a retailer doesn’t have one of Coca-Cola’s products on the shelf when a consumer wants one. If a consumer cannot purchase the product, value doesn’t flow up the value chain — to the retailer or to Coca-Cola.
To address this problem, Coca-Cola spun up hundreds of projects around the world. One solution was to work with non Coca-Cola employees to solve the problem. Wonolo, a startup, was tapped to solve the problem by providing access gig workers to stock the shelves with Coca-Cola products. The project was a great success and was one way Coca-Cola North America solved the out-of-stock challenge. The value that an advisor brought was to help Wonolo connect and learn from what those teams are doing to solve that challenge.
3. Identify how the problem originated.
The best entrepreneurs are curious and know how to get to the root of a big problem. But it also helps to have some guidance about how that problem originated. Early stage entrepreneurs ask good questions. When meeting with your advisor, ask lots of questions about the problem: how it started, why it is identified as a big problem, and how people have had success in addressing it in the past. Entrepreneurs who deeply understand why a corporation is trying to solve a problem will be best positioned to solve it.
When you add these lessons up, it’s clear that finding an internal champion is key for any entrepreneur interested in collaborating with a corporation. And asking the right questions of your enterprise advisor will both help you build your solution inside their business and avoid common traps. Finally, leveraging your advisor to understand the root of the challenge the company is trying to solve in the first place will help ensure that you are able to best communicate how your solution fits into the big picture.