How To Make a Corporate Pilot Program Successful

More corporate accelerators are partnering up with startups for pilot programs. But what do founders need to know going into it?

We asked Cory Hooyman, lead innovation manager at Target, about corporate innovation and how to bring new practices and methods into your team and company. We kicked off the talk with this question:

What blind spots do startups have in pursuing a pilot, and how should they make a pilot successful and convert that to a larger rollout?

Corey: First and foremost, a blind spot is not understanding what their partners are thinking about and what they’re concerned about.

We have a lot of people that come into Target not truly knowing what the team they’re working with is trying to accomplish. I’m not just saying with the partnership, but as whole. What are their goals? What are their current resources? Do they even have money?

If you understand as a startup what the person across from you is concerned about, you can make your pilot work for you in showcasing the numbers or successes that matter to that person.

Another huge blind spot is usually based upon traction. So, those companies that are able to hand hold the corporation, if you will, and there’s a lot of work up front. It’s going to be a lot of work because you feel like you have to baby somebody. But these people – when I say these people I mean corporate teams – are used to working with people like Bain or McKinsey or, again, IBM or P&G.

They aren’t used to somebody who can pivot as quickly as a startup can. They aren’t used to somebody who’s as smart as people who are driving startups. You, as a startup, can utilize that to your advantage – showcase how you incorporated their feedback. “By the way, we pushed a product yesterday. Look at that. It’s good to go.” We can partner with you to collaborate and build together. That’s a good thing.

As I mentioned, the number one thing would be to understand what they care about, and then also the advantages that you bring to the table that others don’t.

Ryan: The other thing that startups have a problem with is going into these relationships with happy ears of saying, “I talked with the VP of my product category. He says that this is cool.”

Corey: Basically, what that person was saying is that they think it was great, or your idea is interesting. It has nothing to do with the fact that they actually want to partner with you, that they actually have the budget, or that this is actually aligned with something that they want.

You have to go to that next level. What are your priorities? What are your priorities this year and next year? What are your bonuses tied to? What are those things that are motivating you? Try to get your startup aligned with that. That might take some tweaking of the product. It might be finding the business unit that your product actually helps them with. The sooner you can find out what is motivating them and turn off your happy ears and actually get into the real commitments of timelines, piloting phases, and budgeting, then the more likely it is to happen.

The last thing we want – many startups have been killed this way and it’s dual fault from corporations – the startups get happy ears. They go fundraise, build out a product for the next six months, and then go back to that same person who said that their product was cool and they are still saying that’s cool. That doesn’t actually go to that next level of a partnership or full scale blowout.

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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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