How to Approach Corporate-Startup Partnerships

By William Ross

Getting your solutions adopted by corporates

Sun-dried startups, hung on the corporate procurement vine. 

Despite the best efforts of many, procurement has all too often been the result of attempts to foster corporate-startup partnerships. But why is it still the case when ‘digital transformation’ returns 555 million results on Google? 

It’s clear that customers are looking for new solutions that will allow them to live more smartly, and organizations are trying to meet their demands. Unfortunately, organizations, especially large ones, struggle with friction and inertia. Friction in a heavily-regulated industry like banking is due to the numerous stakeholders beyond a product’s users–like legal and compliance teams–whose concerns must be addressed. Inertia, on the other hand, characterizes a time when all software solutions were developed in-house.

The combination of these two factors results in roadblocks on the aforementioned procurement vine, making working with large corporations a tedious and challenging process. Nevertheless, just like counting cards, there are ways to incrementally increase your chances of success even when playing by house rules.

First, learn how to say ‘hello.’ There is no shortage of advice for founders on how to pitch, but in my experience, large organizations tend to make decisions out of insecurity rather than conviction. To galvanize your audience’s attention, do not flatter their strengths. Instead, demonstrate that you truly understand the specifics of their perceived weaknesses and how you are the best readily deployable solution.

Without tapping into an organization’s insecurities, you will likely struggle to create any internal urgency to push for your product. Consider this the ‘dark side’ of product-market fit. Remember that this should be institution-specific–be sure not to pitch the same conclusion to other organizations in the industry.

Second, focus on the magic words: readily deployable solution. In the banking sector, third-party solutions are increasingly accepted under the aegis of APIs, which have been easier for banks to embrace than solutions that still need development. In the same way that the Internet protocol suite standardization allowed for the scale-out of the web, APIs have eased the pathway to the adoption of third-party solutions.

Resource allocation at any large institution is a brutally pragmatic process–liberally sprinkled with politics–that seeks to maximize the impact of every decision. APIs are a good fit within this process, as they can be quickly integrated and standardized into the company framework. Anchor any timeline presented in your pitch to quick deployment via a bank’s API infrastructure.

Incorporating these two strategies into a pitch enhances a corporate partner’s willingness and ability to play. It moves your solution out of the ‘nice to have’ bucket and transforms it into something that could impact this quarter’s business.

The general lesson here is that quarter-on-quarter performance is at the core of any public company’s thinking. Capturing a dollar that they could be leaving on the table today is infinitely more actionable than an indefinite risk of disruption. The ultimate goal during your pitch is to make a successful result seem both credible and plausible.

Let me end with a call for action to my fellow bankers. Success in startup partnerships is not about smiles set in social media stone at the end of a hackathon. It is 2020: we’re beyond that, and capable of so much more. There is only one measure of success that matters: deployment. Anything else is innovation theater. 

Will is the Head of Digital Channels and Experience for Citibank Hong Kong.

About the Author

Will is the Head of Digital Channels and Experience for Citibank Hong Kong, overseeing digital channels and their integration with customer experience for the consumer banking franchise in Hong Kong. Will has 20 years of diverse experience in research, venture capital, corporate and investment banking, as well as digital business development.

citibank.com

This story was originally published in Jumpstart Issue 29: Back to Basics as A Fresh Approach to Corporate-Startup Partnerships.

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