Inside large, Fortune 500 companies, there are early adopters of technology and late adopters. Some IT executives and groups inside big banks, retail companies, telecom providers and even government agencies rushed headlong into outsourced cloud computing and DevOps, for example—while others took more time to be convinced these technologies represented the future.
Start-ups providing technology to big companies operate along a somewhat similar spectrum. There are those that are on the raw, cutting edge of innovation—they may be five women or men working out of a garage—and those that are more mature and developed, staffed by experienced executives and operating with a full complement of sales, support and engineering.
Often, it’s difficult for large IT buyers to sort this out and figure out what kind of start-up is best-suited to fulfill their technology needs. One afternoon a few years ago, I had lunch with a leading pharmaceutical-company IT executive. A few minutes into the conversation, he shrugged and said to me, referring to the company’s partnerships with start-ups, “our process is designed to suck”. What he really meant, I think, is that his organization had aspirations to engage with hot, new, stealthy early-stage companies to create a new culture of innovation. But his company lacked the culture, processes or capabilities to successfully engage with these very young, garage-based start-ups. It had antibodies capable of stopping innovation in its tracks.
That story to me highlights that Fortune 500 companies need to focus on evaluating the specific stage of a potential start-up technology provider, in addition to the company’s technology itself, when considering partnerships. In addition to product roadmaps, a large corporate buyer should understand a start-up’s internal capabilities and ability to work across functional areas (procurement, legal, engineering, operations) at a large corporation, before singing any deal. These factors can vary broadly depending on whether a company is at the seed stage, or it is more mature and has received a large Series C or D infusion of capital. Evaluating these factors successfully can significantly increase the odds of these partnerships succeeding.
At Battery Ventures, we invest in companies across stages, often defined by funding rounds. The companies’ capabilities and processes follow a relatively common path to maturity through each stage. This roadmap can also be used by large-company IT buyers as a filter when evaluating start-ups as vendors or for partnerships.
A company in the seed stage, as I’ve mentioned, is probably just an idea and a couple of people hacking away in a garage. That may be over-stating it, but no company looks like Microsoft or H-P in its earliest stages. At a seed-stage company, the idea for a product and company are raw. The founders are still working out the product-market fit. The first line support is likely the CEO or CTO, and they have a capacity to work with only a handful of high-potential customers.
Most large corporations don’t understand or have experience with companies at this stage—and they should probably steer clear of them until the start-ups mature. Seed-stage companies pose all sorts of challenges for large partners. They often struggle to generate the reams of documentation necessary for procurement. They cannot dedicate months to slow-moving, “proof-of-concept” processes. They will not have deep integration with any, or all, of your current vendors. If issues like these are deal-killers for you, wait a while before engaging with these companies.
A company at this stage, which has generally raised one, significant round of institutional financing (hence the “A”), holds the greatest untapped potential for large companies, in my view. A Series A company has relevant domain expertise, large aspirations and a small, agile team of technical all-stars. Still, the company is small. Many Series A start-ups don’t have a single sales person. Practically none in this phase offer 24×7, 3-tiered customer support, extensive documentation, or the broader knowledge base found at a large enterprise vendor.
The tradeoff for an enterprise seeking to engage with this company—and its potentially valuable, untapped potential—is higher “soft cost”. By this I mean that providing feedback on the start-up’s product roadmap and the enterprise requirements—and getting your feedback incorporated into the start-up’s product–will take time. Helping entrepreneurs navigate across your organization and processes is often required. For a discussion on organizational models that can help with these types of engagements, read my piece here about the specific ways companies can structure partnerships with small start-ups.
This is an exciting stage where a company has figured out product-market fit. It likely has a short list of recognizable enterprise customers that have cleared security, procurement and other hurdles. The company is starting to evaluate adding product features once considered nice-to-have, not just essential. It is growing its support capabilities, so overall, the implementation risk is now lower for enterprise customers. Depending on the specific situation, this stage can represent the perfect balance of innovation and risk for an enterprise customer.
In my group at Battery, we recently introduced a multi-national electronics retailer to Reflektion*, a Series B Battery portfolio company that is applying artificial intelligence to retail. Having engaged with emerging-tech companies previously, the electronics retailer had explicit goals for improving its online conversion rate. By engaging with Reflektion, the company gained valuable insight, and a potential partner, to help it implement next-generation, real-time individualized site search.
At this stage, a company is in full growth mode, scaling its business and team to become a true, enterprise-ready product company. Expect to find a relatively full-featured product from a company at this stage and a team capable of managing enterprise sales and offering the support you expect from major IT vendors.
For executives and technologists new to the innovation ecosystem, a Series C/D company is a comfortable place to start. Another example from the Battery portfolio: We recently hosted the executive team from a quick-service restaurant chain looking for new technologies to help it build more direct and personal relationships with its customers. Historically the restaurant chain had had avoided start-ups. But the CEO recognized that times change, and technology does, too. So Sprinklr*, a late-stage Battery Ventures portfolio company, was a natural fit for an introduction. Sprinklr, which helps large companies manage their brands and engage customers on social media, raised $105 million in late-stage funding this past July and has guided many F500 companies on the social-media journey.
This discussion of start-up stages is intended to be part of a broader “rough guide” for larger companies beginning their tour of the innovation ecosystem. My first blog on the topic is here, and I referenced earlier the piece outlining specific structures for big-company, innovation programs. I’ll also be speaking about this topic at the Intrapreneurship Conference in San Francisco Nov. 17. The bottom line is that all companies should select start-up partners carefully and set realistic expectations when working with them. Hopefully, success will follow.
*Denotes a Battery portfolio company. For a full list of all Battery investments and exits, please click here.