Preparing for your company’s first meeting with a startup employee
Both companies and startups can generate tremendous value when they collaborate with each other. Startups can provide companies with new ideas and process flexibility, while companies can provide significant resources and process efficiency.
But it is often difficult to initiate these collaborations due to uncertainty about which organizations to contact, how to contact them and who are the right people to contact. When that elusive first encounter occurs, both parties are often ill-prepared and unable to make the most of the opportunity.
For companies, finding the right startup to work with can be expensive and assessing potential co-collaborators can be difficult. Initiatives such as internal business accelerators and networking events aim to address this issue, but their success is often limited. Such initiatives are costly and limited in scope, leaving little room for surprises. Additionally, business processes are often not suited for the fast-paced environments that startups require.
Managers on both sides of the startup-corporate spectrum have several options to help increase 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 to large corporations and businesses. 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, research and development managers, product managers, and specialists with varying technical skills. Sometimes there is only one company representative, while other companies bring teams together to participate in meetings.
Most companies have explicit goals: to solve their current problems, bring new perspectives to 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 go beyond the first meeting share three characteristics: clarity of purpose, openness to surprises, and building 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 those needs.
Such clarity of purpose is achieved by understanding and communicating their current and future needs. This may stem from their strategic agenda. For example, Céline Farcet, head of technology scouting in Europe at L’Oréal, noted that the company was looking for startups that matched “L’Oréal’s priorities and strategies of bringing new, different and better products to market. “. Similarly, Scania, a Swedish commercial car manufacturer, had a clear objective: the team was looking for a range of autonomous solutions for their trucks and buses. The task for both companies was to identify startups to work with in specific areas.
Randon, a Brazilian conglomerate, came to its first meeting with potential startup collaborators with the clear goal of automating and digitizing their operations using AI and machine learning. We observed that multiple possibilities emerged during his meeting with the startups, primarily because the startups pivoted the focus of their offerings to address Randon’s specific problems.
Business reps should prepare ahead of time by knowing their managers’ pain points and understanding their needs so they can determine the suitability of startups. This helps them assess whether the startup’s solutions can be tailored to their needs and aligned with the appropriate parts of their organization.
Open to surprises
Even when companies come with the clear objective of solving a problem, focusing only on immediate needs can be overwhelming, as it can mean losing unforeseen opportunities. In addition to clarity of purpose, those who are open to new ideas from startups benefit from such interactions. However, this requires the skill to understand new technologies, as well as how these technologies can meet current and future business needs. For this purpose, the right team must be assembled.
Build the right team
The right team should include a balanced presence of technologists, business developers, and decision makers who can engage with the current and future opportunities that startups present. For example, the Scania team researched opportunities in data processing for mobile platforms, autonomous mobile vehicles, and image and radar technology. The team members present at the first meeting had expertise on the types of technologies presented by the different startups and discussed how they could use these technologies.
The first meeting can be fruitful if the right team is there, and we’ve watched business representatives co-create and help startups bring their ideas to life, with slight pivots and tweaks based on their needs. From our observations, tech players asked specific questions about their current needs, while innovation managers or business developers could see the future/long-term perspective regarding collaboration.
Thermal imaging camera and sensor maker Teledyne FLIR invited specific product engineers, customer knowledge managers and innovation managers to its first meeting with startups. Having the engineers present helped the team ask the appropriate questions and understand the suitability, compatibility and usability of the proposed solution during the meeting itself.
In addition to innovation managers and technology professionals, the participation of key decision makers in the meeting is essential. Having people who can make decisions in the first meeting drives collaboration forward because most startups aim for either a business partnership, pilot, or proof of concept, and they work at a fast pace. So, knowing who the startups are and what their goals are can be used to the advantage of companies if people with the power to make decisions and commit resources are present.
Questions to ask before the first meeting
To better prepare for meeting startups, business leaders should consider asking themselves the following questions:
- What are our areas of interest and strategic agendas?
- What are the current challenges that 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 be integrated into our business?
- What are the potential areas in which we can work together?
- Do we have the right team composition?
- What can we offer?
When first meetings fall short of expectations
Meetings fall short of expectations for many reasons. The top three reasons we identified from our observations include lack of preparation, sending off the wrong team and expecting a perfect game.
We observed unrealized potential when companies showed up to meetings without a clear objective. They were only there to be surprised, which was not enough for startups. Having conducted no preparation (e.g. researching the technologies of the startup), the companies ended up only scratching the surface of the proposal and did not get anything worthwhile from the meeting, and did not conducted meaningful discussions with startups.
send the wrong people
Sending in people without mandates to make decisions, or those unable to see the potential of a proposal because their experience is irrelevant, also renders early meetings inconsequential.
For example, given how new a startup’s technologies are, sending sales reps without an understanding of current technology trajectories and no way to envision how new technologies can be integrated into company operations limits discussion of ” what is”, to the detriment of “what could be.”
Also, there’s no value in sending unprepared company representatives to participate just to “see what happens” because they often end up directing startups to their websites or an admissions opportunity for their business accelerators. The absence of needs owners (those who have problems to solve or who are looking for new possibilities) in 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 the startups offerings; however, this rarely happens. What has worked is for companies to present their current and future needs (and priority areas) and encourage startups to pivot and see opportunities for them to integrate their solutions. With the right team and a spirit of co-creation, we’ve seen companies creating a creative space for startups.
Key points to remember
Preparation is essential, but business leaders must leave room for surprises because the offers of startups are often original. Therefore, companies should be prepared to be productively surprised. To move forward with new ideas, they need to send the right team, made up of people who can understand the offer (e.g. experts in the field of new materials and robotics), consider possibilities and make decisions. (for example, innovation managers and people with a holistic understanding of current and future business needs). L’Oréal led its engagement using organized teams who were able to see where the new technologies presented by the startups could be used. They had teams ready to see what was possible based on different offerings from multiple startups. We observed that they made the most of the opportunities because of the way they structured their approach.
When there is a clear goal aligned with the business agenda, companies hold early meetings creating a space for startups to fill in order to potentially solve their current and future problems. Even if nothing concrete comes out of the first meeting, at least the company representatives will receive new information on current trends and new technologies. That alone makes these meetings interesting.