Start-up & Corporate Relationships: Going beyond the perceptions

As the Chief Operating Officer for Research Triangle Park I have the privileged opportunity to engage with both the vibrant and creative entrepreneurial community of the Triangle as well as the large corporations located in RTP. For me, some days it is suit, tie and marble toped conference rooms.  Other days are T-shirt, jeans and a co-working space. Both are valuable in their own right and often remarkably similar when you remove the environment and focus on the people.

Frequently, there’s a certain curiosity expressed and frustration shared on both sides of the table. However, the differences, and misperceptions, shared between corporates and start-ups is often not as significant as originally thought.

Over the years I have found several misperceptions that are often shared between these two important parts of our communities and economies. By sharing these observations, I hope to clear away some of the stumbling blocks that could keep us from exploring valuable partnerships where both sides are able to learn and grow together.

Credibility & Transparency: Corporations and start-ups both desire honest dialogue that is transparent about their motivations and agenda. For the most part, large companies struggle to find the bandwidth to be pitched on new products services and ideas. Not because they don’t care but because they often do not have a process or filter to know whether a conversation with a start-up is going to be valuable and produce any business opportunities for relationships that would enhance their own function. Likewise, start-ups have little patience or time to be invited into overly structured “innovation centers” with large companies that are purely interested in selling services with no consideration of a real partnership.

A solution to this challenge is to bring in a bridge partner that can act as a translator of value to make the connection. This translator could be an entrepreneurial hub or a trusted nonprofit that can assist in making connections the company and start-up can count on bringing value. Being honest about your intentions and keeping in mind what others would find valuable is always a winning approach.

Here are a few examples of how these relationships can come to life:

IBM and The Frontier have partnered around a new space called the IBM Cloud Foundry Dojo. The Dojo space serves as a meetup destination for developers to work together exploring open code projects accessible to start-ups and corporates alike.

A second example is the partnership between American Underground and Fidelity Investments. This partnership offers Fidelity’s industry leading innovation insights and resources in an effort to help enrich and learn from the American Underground’s entrepreneurial community.

A final, more organic example, is the relationship between the Research Triangle Park (RTP) and the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED). With a base of 200+ life science, data analytics, development and biotechnology companies located in RTP, CED provides a valuable network of relationships to start-ups throughout North Carolina as well as critically needed resources connecting venture capital to companies scaling up.

Talent: Talent is king! Whether a start-up seeking out the select few to continue their development, or the Fortune 500 needing the most innovative and creative employees to guide their future, both share the same concern when interfacing with each other… they are going to steal my people! But here is the secret, if employees are not happy, they are already looking to leave! Great people stay where they are doing great work. The goal for a start-up and a private sector company should be have innovative and inspiring places to engage their people, keep them excited about their goals, and reward them accordingly. Additionally, it is mutually beneficial to mix and mingle the two types of companies. Often it is the differences in approach, experience and resources that can spark a new idea innovation, or product. While the issue of talent should not be underplayed or ignored, it should also never prevent meaningful interactions between large corporations and start-ups in their efforts to explore business opportunities and new relationships.

Prejudice:  An especially unfortunate experience, I have occasionally heard both executives at companies and founders of start-ups discredit and essentially write off the other for a variety of reasons. From the company’s perspective, it is easy to toss out sarcastic comments such as, “most startups fail within the first year and I don’t have time for a half-baked idea from some over caffeinated hipster trying to make a quick buck.” On the other side, from some start-ups I hear similarly positive assessments: “large corporations are a bunch of buttoned up suits that only know how to talk down to people, slow progress, steal your ideas and make as much money as possible.”  The reality is that both start-ups and companies are extremely different. They have different processes for making decisions, different perspectives on budgets and operations, and many others. But none of these differences makes the other inherently less valuable and certainly does not validate a prejudice. Rather than throwing stones or being dismissive of the other, both should recognize these differences and find ways to work together leveraging each other’s strengths and learning from the other. But how? Many large companies know that they must be more entrepreneurial in order to survive and attract the talent necessary to secure their future. They therefore seek out new ways of doing business and approaches that will shift their culture and operational structure. They can learn a lot from start-ups about being nimble, embracing change and lifting up their employees. Likewise start-ups, as they evolve, benefit from structure and at some point require a Board of Directors and operational leadership. This is not always a smooth transition as they grow but is an inevitable step for a start-up looking to scale up. Trusted relationships with corporate leaders can greatly benefit founders as they seek to remain true to their culture and vision while also expanding their network and resources.

Personally, I love both the global corporate world and the entrepreneurial start-up spirit. I believe that they need each other and can multiply their collective successes. Startups and corporations alike need to move beyond their comfort zone, seek transparency and trust and find new ways to collaborate. As we often find in life, it is our differences that can make us stronger and I am confident that the more these two worlds successfully come together the better they will both be because of it.