5 Keys to Success in a Corporate Startup Accelerator
Founders, stay true to your vision
Photo by Maria Leonardi
Originally published in The Startup on Medium.com
It’s the start of another sticky summer day in North Carolina. The sun is blazing and the air is thick. I make my way from the garage to the office building that will hit me with a wave of frigid air cold enough to give me hypothermia. But none of this matters.
Today is the day the founders arrive.
Incredible, smart, passionate, and a little bit crazy. All with visions to change the world.
I’ve worked with 29 startups in the last 3 years within the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars. Starting as an Associate for Techstars, I was brought onto the MetLife team to help run the program on the corporate side.
Techstars accelerators are not for the faint of heart. The grueling 3-month programs test founder relationships and resolve, challenge visions and business models, and pack 18 months of work into 13 weeks.
For 3 months each year, I coexisted with 10–20 founders, living vicariously through their emotional rollercoasters, resolve, and passion.
It is amazing. I’m unapologetically an accelerator nerd.
A corporate accelerator is its own beast. There are a lot of pluses, especially with Techstars as your partner to drive results and manage the program:
- Access to an immense network of experts, mentors, and investors
- Resources to supercharge your growth and development as a company
- Potential to test and validate your product with a real client
- Brand recognition through the selection into a prestigious program
An accelerator can jumpstart your company. However, there is still plenty that can go wrong. Distribution is tantalizing bait that can drive founders to do things that may not be in their best interest. Working on the corporate side of an accelerator taught me a lot about the challenges of working with and selling to enterprises.
Distribution is tantalizing bait that can drive founders to do things that may not be in their best interest.
Despite the challenges, my opinion stands strong — accelerators are incredible. Walk into the experience with eyes-wide-open.
Founders, here are 5 tips to prepare you for selling to an enterprise and the intense life within a corporate accelerator.
1. Remember, you’re the entrepreneur with a vision
One of the biggest advantages of corporate accelerators is access to immense industry expertise. Take advantage of this expertise, build relationships, and value their wisdom. Be humble and listen.
But, don’t let this advice overtake your vision without thorough consideration. As Steve Blank wrote, “a startup is not a smaller version of a large company.”
You are the entrepreneur and you were chosen for a reason. You’ll receive a lot of input from many angles, but don’t be discouraged when an industry expert tells you all the reasons why your idea won’t work.
Take it in, digest it, consider it. Check the advice across the industry and with your founder mentors before you take it at face value.
Be aware that some advice may be grounded in the way things have always been done. You are there to change that. To be bold and buck the status quo.
2. Find a sponsor with clout
Find a business sponsor that has the clout and enthusiasm necessary to spur traction and land a pilot or a contract. Be thoughtful and authentic as you do this. A heavy-hitting sales approach will quickly hurt your reputation.
A sponsor should be someone in a position of power that can remove obstacles and red tape. For those of you not well-versed in corporate-speak, this means finding someone VP-level and above.
If you’re working with an R&D or innovation team, make sure you’re getting connected to people within the business. No one can authorize testing or implementation except the people that own the P&L. Don’t be fooled by enthusiasm and promises from those without power.
The difference between having a sponsor and not is 12–18 months of too much time invested gone to waste vs. landing a successful pilot-turned-contract.
3. It’s OK to pivot, but don’t do it for a single enterprise
Don’t make monumental changes to your product or vision just because you‘re trying to make it work with the accelerator partner and desperately want to land a pilot. In fact, don’t join the accelerator if landing a pilot is your main goal. Chances are, you’ll be disappointed.
It’s easy to see the pilot light at the end of the tunnel and start to tweak a bit here and tweak a bit there. Before you know it, you’ve added an entirely new vertical to your business, just for a single enterprise that may or may not bring you on as a vendor.
You should, however, consider pivoting based on sound feedback from industry experts, mentors, investors, and customers. This is part of startup life and one of the great values of participating in an accelerator. Successful founders are built to adapt to turn their visions into reality.
In my experience, corporations are quick to give advice and make promises and even quicker to lose interest.
Stay true to your vision. Prioritize advice from your most valued mentors and consider market results before you pivot.
4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
It is so easy to dive headfirst into the work you’d like to do with your corporate partner. You should. Make the most of the time you have, the advice, the knowledge, the potential to validate your product with REAL customers.
But don’t forget about the rest of your market. Unless you have an exclusive agreement (please don’t do this), don’t feel obligated to only work with the corporate accelerator partner.
Your corporate partner won’t be excited and may communicate disappointment at seeing you working with competitors.
Don’t fall for this trap. Don’t feel bad. This is business. Test your product and your market with several strategic players. See what works, what doesn’t, and find a partner that aligns with your vision. Put some rigor around selecting your first corporate partners.
The beginnings of an enterprise relationship can be rocky and a long slog that takes work on both sides. Find the partner that will work alongside you to pull you through the mud and have the patience to work out the kinks.
5. Know when to walk away
It’s disappointing when you don’t gain traction. If you don’t gain traction anywhere, maybe you need to rethink your approach. But if you are putting a boatload of effort into your corporate accelerator partner and nothing has happened, you have to be okay with just letting go and walking away.
Working with a corporation, within an accelerator or not, represents an immense opportunity to hone your product and grow your company.
I hope that you’ll find the perfect fit, walk in with open eyes, and not get caught up in the hubbub. Remember why you’re there, why the problem you’re solving matters, and stay focused on your vision.
Corporations have power — but so do you. Your power is changing the future with a vision that others did not have or an opportunity that they did not see. Stay true to your vision.