Millions of times a day across the African savanna, the red-billed oxpecker alights on the back of a friendly Cape buffalo, who hardly minds the company.
While the huge beast gorges on wild grass, the little bird rifles through his coarse fur, looking dutifully for one of the many ticks feasting on the back of its host. She lowers her beak to snatch the little bugger away, and in an instant both creatures get what they need—the oxpecker has her meal, and the buffalo is freed of parasitic vermin.
In a nod to the wisdom of Mother Nature, businesses are becoming shrewd to this kind of mutualism. More than ever, huge corporate behemoths are inviting little startups and small businesses to collaborate—David and Goliath now working together for a shared benefit.
In corporations, small companies can find clients, mentors, investors or—if their goal is such—buyers. Meanwhile, some of the business giants’ internal problems can be solved by inviting partnership from lean startups, driven by energy and creativity, which may even rub off inside the corporation and change its culture for the better.
Today many huge companies even employ individuals and teams specifically to coordinate symbiotic relationships with startups. At the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) V2V entrepreneurship conference in Las Vegas, three of these startup liaisons came together for a panel discussion, presented by UP Global and the Kauffman Foundation, to inform entrepreneurs about opportunities to partner with major multinationals. The discussion, adapted here, included Erik Wullschleger, manager of product marketing at Sprint; Carie Davis, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Coca-Cola; and Neel Madhvani, Staples’ senior manager of strategy and corporate development. It was led by Gregg Cochran of the TechStars accelerator program.
To begin a scratch-my-back relationship with a major company, each panelist encouraged entrepreneurs to press the flesh with influential figures inside a corporation, especially at industry conferences, or to inquire about accelerator programs directed by a huge company in their communities. Once a professional trust is formed, you may have a chance to pitch your product or service to more decision-makers and demonstrate how you can help the company leverage its assets.
Carie (Coca-Cola): There’s a huge opportunity, I think, for corporations to figure out a way to communicate more with the startup community.
Corporations are just like communities. We have the same challenges that a community has, where we need to be connected and need to share information and knowledge, and we also need to build our execution skills…. We have a lot of ideas, but how do we get people to actually build things and see things come to life faster?
Erik (Sprint): As I dig into the community, I see entrepreneurs—people who like to solve problems—they find people who do things they can’t, and they create a network of doers. They build things and they fail forward.
You need people inside corporations who don’t think so damned corporate. And how do you make that entrepreneurial mindset rise up all the way to the executive level? We obviously get why startups want to work with us, but we see a bigger benefit internally if we can change culturally how Sprint behaves, especially from a leadership perspective. Entrepreneurial thinking is not something just for startup leaders, it’s the way of doing business, and our leadership needs to recognize that and start behaving the same way to compete.
Neel (Staples): For us, not so long ago we were a startup, and one in three small businesses today shops with us. So we’re working with startups every day. What we’re trying to do is actually find a way to support them internally. If it makes sense, then we have to be the champions for it, and we’ll introduce them to one group inside the company, and if that group sees the benefit and if it falls into their budget and their abilities, great. If it doesn’t, we’re going to introduce them to another group, and another group, and another until we see a success or we run out of groups.
Carie: You hear that all the time about corporations: You have to give before you get…. It is easier for me to try to create that bridge for someone I know—we’re all engaged in the same way and we kind of have the same goals in mind, to build a community.
Our group is looking at how to do that on a grassroots level. In Atlanta, we’re really engaging startups that exist there so that we can learn from them and they can learn from us. We actually did a startup weekend at Coca-Cola.
Neel: At every one of these large companies, there’s a kernel. There’s a team of people, 40 or 50 people that kind of have the keys to the door. And if you can just find a couple of them and convince them that there’s an idea here, that’s all you need to break through the wall…. If you can figure out a way to create a short, small test that’s measurable [showing how your product or service can help the corporation]… that’s an amazing way to get in quick, do things on the cheap and not have to go through a series of approvals or complex negotiations.
Erik: If you don’t try, you’re never going to have a chance at it. It’s about developing those relationships. Consulting with people, understanding the problems that exist and making sure you’re solving the right problem—I’m here to help shepherd that.
Neel: We’re very open with startups, just direct: “This is what I don’t like about what we’re doing, and this is where we think you can help us. But tell us what you think, and we’re open to learning.” Back and forth, information is shared.
I think it’s a big change. The winds are shifting, and everybody recognizes where the innovation is, where the creativity is and where tomorrow is. It’s with startups.
Carie: Who knows, there may be a relationship formed as far as joint ventures, or partners or buying into a startup. Those are the types of things that we’re trying to foster.