5 Common Threads You’ll Find in a Successful Startup Pilot

Recently, I wrote about what motivates a corporation to partner with a startup for a pilot and the ins and outs of testing a new product, exploring the potential for a working relationship and understanding your market better.

This time, I’ll go one step further and lay out some of the key factors to actually running a successful pilot with a corporation. I’ve watched a bunch of different portfolio companies run them, and the best pilots all have these factors in common.

Find Your Champion

Quickly identify your champion within the organization and make sure they are along for every step of this ride. You want someone who’s experienced, open-minded, and cool under pressure; you’ll need that when roadblocks come up. Believe me, they come up.

Your champ also needs to be someone with the power and influence to keep the project moving forward. Maybe they’re a skilled navigator of your corporate culture. Maybe they know the key allies in your industry who can help grease the wheels. Regardless, this person should have the power needed to move things along throughout the process. 

Start with the End in Mind

That doesn’t always mean cash immediately changing hands. A pilot can be free, but make sure you have a defined time frame for how long it will be free. More importantly, make sure you have discussed your exit criteria and agreed upon eventual pricing before starting the free phase of the pilot. Especially when it comes to budgeting, setting prices early on allows your corporate partner to plan accordingly.

The Road Map to a Corporate Accelerator

And don’t forget to plan for success too. If you have winning results, will you phase in the pilot in stages, or will you go for 100 percent implementation right off the bat? Setting these parameters early prevents a snap judgement down the line.

Define Learning Objectives

Never set up a pilot with a binary mindset of, “If this works then the corporation will buy it. If it doesn’t then they won’t.” This is a recipe for disaster. Instead, set up learning objectives for the pilot, and make sure they’re flexible enough to adapt to the situation once things get going on the ground.

That way, if things don’t go as planned, you can learn, iterate, and, most importantly, continue piloting.

Track Every Metric Possible

Speaking of learning, measure as much as you can. If you don’t, you’re willingly ignoring the potential for new, maybe crucial insights about your business. In addition, share every valuable metric to enable your champions to sell internally.

You’ll be grateful you did later on when it comes time to prove your learnings. Feelings are great, but data is more persuasive and more translatable to new contexts—and hopefully deeper partnerships down the line.

Over-Communicate with Everyone

Even amongst all the data, don’t forget about the humans in your pilot. Weekly check-ins with your employees and partners let you do all kinds of things: get up-to-date info on how things are going; build trust and morale; and keep you nimble in the face of new challenges and opportunities. If possible, make as many of these check-ins in person. Jump on a plane, if needed, and make it happen!

Don’t forget to communicate back to your employees, mentors, and investors. That said, don’t oversell your pilot to investors. Corporations have all sorts of motivations for piloting, and until you have a signed, paid contract, a pilot doesn’t mean a lot.

In the end, be responsive to everything the customer asks for in real time. Remember that it is equally, if not more, important to sell your team’s ability to execute than your technology.  Showing your attentiveness and expertise is oftentimes the deciding factor.


Big thanks to Chris Smith, CEO of Kipsu, for helping contribute to this post. 

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Written by:
Ryan is an entrepreneur at heart who has been working in and with startups for his entire career. He's interested in turning huge ideas into reality. He's the managing director at Techstars.
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