David meets Goliath: lessons for startups working with big brands

tech startup

Seth Jackson, CEO of Landmrk, on how technology entrepreneurs should approach co-innovation. 

On paper, it’s a win-win situation. One has the bright ideas, the technical capability, the agility and expertise, the other has scale, a loyal customer base, credibility and, importantly, money.

Startups and corporates should be able to work together for mutual benefit, and in fact, over recent years we’ve seen global firms flocking to set up incubator programmes, and collaborate with small companies.

According to NESTA, corporate-funded startup programmes now make up 51% of all accelerators and incubators in the UK. These programmes can provide huge value, as long as you know what you want to get out of the process – are you looking for connections, sales, growth support, or ultimately to be acquired?

Unilever recently launched a report which claims that “corporates and startups will form the ultimate partnership” in the future with Aline Santos, Unilever EVP Global Marketing, claiming that: “collaboration can no longer be viewed as an optional extra, it’s a strategic imperative.”

So, corporates are talking the talk, but not all of them are walking the walk. Getting the attention of the big guys is still a challenge and once you’re in the room, it can still be frustratingly difficult to navigate the corporate world of procurement and internal politics.

We came to be in 2016 and since then we’ve worked on global campaigns with some major industry players. We’ve had a brilliant experience with our corporate partners, but we’ve also learned  some useful lessons along the way.

Smart networking

Take a blended approach in how you tackle getting in-front of big brands. Most of it is pretty low-tech and comes down to who you know and who you can get to know.

Look first at your network. Scour LinkedIn and Twitter and connect with people. Do your research as to who the real decision makers are. For us, ad agencies were an important link to big brands, so work out who can make connections for you and get close to them too.

Every startup needs an effective networker. It might not be you, but if it’s not, employ one. If you meet someone at a conference, don’t just follow up with a generic pitch, research their strategy and articulate why you can help them. Show how your technology could work for them – we’ve even prototyped and developed products for brands to bring it to life.

Be credible

One major hurdle for big brands is the inherently risky nature of startups – they’re terrified of failing. They want to know your tech is going to deliver and that you can scale to meet their demands.

Build credibility by developing your client case studies, invest in getting some media coverage to add to the story and make sure you can talk effectively about your previous successes.

Don’t assume that they’ll believe in your product alone – they’re buying you, your team, your ideas and your business as much as a piece of technology.

Be true to your product

One big mistake many startups make is adapting their product to fit what a corporate wants it to be. Have faith in your technology and your ideas – remember you’re the expert.

If we changed our product every time a brand asked us to, we’d be a marketing agency, not a tech company.  You might need to balance what they want with what you can deliver but stay true to the core of your product. It’s far too easy to get your head turned by every demand but in the end, you’re diluting your USP.

Price it right

Pricing is never easy, but it is especially difficult when you’re dealing with big brands who you know have cash in the bank but who you desperately want to win the work from.

You don’t want to discount so heavily you’re making a loss – no brand is going to be worth you killing yourself for no pay off, but you also shouldn’t get excited and put in such a big number that they can’t say yes. Remember, it’s most likely that the decision is not entirely theirs.

The simplest answer to this conundrum is to ask the question. For us, most of the people buying our product have a set budget – ask them what it is, ask them about the procurement process and what range of pricing is going to work for them. Yes, it’s about the value of your product but also the buying process of the brand.

Ignore the power play

There can be an interesting power dynamic between a startup and big brand. Walking into a board room with 10 faces staring down at you can be an intimidating experience but remember, it’s likely that only one person is going to be making the decision and everyone else will be nodding along. Make sure you know who that person is and get them on side.

Walk in and be confident in why your idea works and think less about the power imbalance and more about the bravery imbalance – you’re the one who has the idea, who created a business from scratch, who gave up their job and has skin in the game.

No such thing as a game changer

Finally, remember that there is no magic formula and it’s unlikely that one big brand will make or break your business. Yes, any big client you win is going to give you amazing marketing collateral and case studies, giving other brands confidence in what you do. In that respect, it does change something.

But this is a cumulative process, you need to use that one customer to win more customers and over time, build a reputation for your business. It’s just as easy to work with a big brand and end up with a case study that sits on your website because you haven’t won any again.

Keep pushing doors open, keep networking and keep having faith in your product.