Startup Partnerships: 4 Lessons from Partnering with the Enterprise

One of the biggest moments for Branch was taking the plunge and joining the inaugural TechStars Retail Class last year in Minneapolis. Not only did it open up our fledgling startup to the amazing people in the Upper Midwest, but it also connected us to the ingrained and established players in the thriving Minneapolis enterprise verticals our customers exist in -- healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and more.

The seeds for our future product development and pilot programs were planted early. According to Ryan Broshar, Managing Director of Techstars Retail Accelerator, one of the biggest keys to the wild success of their program has been connecting early-stage startups and founders with the long-standing enterprise organizations that dominate Minneapolis across a variety of verticals from banking and finance to healthcare and retail.

“When we look through the companies during the application process, we always try to project the potential of that team in their ability to work with the enterprise level companies. Just because they don’t know how to speak that language right now doesn’t mean we can’t work with that and hopefully get them to a level where they’d be able to actually interact with a 10,000 person company or 300,000 person company. That’s a big thing for us,” Ryan wrote.

The challenge is working beyond the generational gaps and cultural differences that exist between a small startup and a larger organization. Here are four lessons we learned by being able to partner with Target compiled from a conversation during Twin Cities Startup Week from Taylor Pack, Branch Messenger’s VP of Customer Development. Before Taylor joined our Branch team, he served as a lead business partner at Target, responsible for process development and in-store development.

1. Find Your Champion

When you work with large enterprises, knowing who the key decision makers are is critical. Your first contact or entry point might not be the one who makes the decision in the end. Find your champion and do it fast.

“When we started our relationship with Target we had great partnerships in place, but it was when we found our champions and decision makers within the organization is when we started to gain some progress. It’s finding a way to understand who the decision-makers are and using them to help drive the business forward,” Taylor recalls.

Sometimes, it helps to know more than the key stakeholders. While it’s helpful to know who the key decision makers are, it’s what you do after that matters -- find ways to make an impact in the business in a larger way.

“Understanding the large enterprise is like trying to navigate a large spider web,” Taylor says, “If you get caught up in the wrong part of the web you will get stuck and making progress will be difficult.”

During his time at Target, Taylor personally was involved with some startups doing the same thing Branch was in their earliest and most pivotal moments. The biggest mistakes they made were not understanding the enterprise decision-making processes. Many early startup founders were just so happy to be working with a large organization that they forgot to use their champion to help them navigate the spider web.

Get to the decision makers in the process as quickly as you can.

“Get in anyway that you can,” Taylor says. “Then use your champion to help you make a web of contacts and resources.”

2. Define Key Success Metrics

Too often startups are so excited to get a meeting with an enterprise client that they dive directly into the problem they are trying to solve.

When speaking with your contacts, closely and strategically survey the scene. Let them talk until they’ve stopped talking about the problems. Listening to the full scope of the conversation will allow you to be strategic with how to solve and measure them, which is valuable data points to help move your pilot forward. Do your due diligence and study the business beforehand and ask good questions.

3. Soft Savings vs. Hard Savings

Another common mistake startups run into is understanding the impact and importance of soft vs hard savings. Hard savings will have a direct, measurable impact on the company's bottom line either from a revenue standpoint or expense saving standpoint.

Soft savings is a something that is much harder for the enterprise to quantify. Although it is important for the organization to communicate more efficiently, it is often difficult to claim those dollars saved when presenting a business case like reducing workload for salaried staff.

“Make sure you’re hitting on key metrics. Make sure you understand with is a soft savings vs a hard saving for the enterprise. If you don’t have a hard ROI, it will be tougher. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, you will just have a business case that could be under more scrutiny,” Taylor says.

4. Over-Communicate

Don’t promise the world. Communicate to everyone involved, often.

“In the past at Target, I worked with a startup that didn’t make it a priority to give updates on the pilot. At the time, it seemed like an oversight. You earned a pilot with Target, and refuse to give updates and information.” Taylor remembers.

Avoid that by having a determined cadence with your partner -- whomever that is, no matter what size. Report on things that matter. Here’s some of the information you can include in your report:

  • Report the news. Give key metrics that matter each and every week.

  • Don’t surprise people. When you determine the things you’ll be measuring for a decision, make sure it’s not the first time they’ve seen these metrics or the first time you’ve talked about them.

  • Shine a light. Visibility is super important. Being transparent about all facets of your pilot will impact the future of the relationship.

  • Keep your team updated. It’s equally important to update your team as well. Share the news and the product with them on a regular cadence.

  • Give kudos. During a time that is rife with challenges, it’s good to give thanks to the people who are working their tail off. Give credit to the proper people and teams and share what they’re doing. And, give credit to what your startup is doing. There’s never a moment when you’ll feel as small as you are now. Savor the success and don’t be afraid to tell anyone about the accomplishments along the way.

Got startup pilot stories and tips to share with us? We’d love to hear them. Share your favorites in the comments below.