Building a Startup Accelerator at a Large Company: Lessons from Target

December 29, 2016

8:30 pm

An accelerator is a great way to give innovative startups the chance to really grow in a supporting environment. And while they’re typically used by smaller companies, big corporations are starting to see the value in investing in new ideas.

Recently, Target and Techstars launched a retail accelerator in hopes of developing a few revolutionary ideas in the always-growing sector. Today, I want to share some lessons we learned about building an accelerator that is attached to a company as big as Target.

Recruit Companies With a Strategic Fit

We started with the hypothesis that we should be recruiting retail tech companies. We knew that Techstars had a spectacular ability to select the startups most likely to succeed, but we didn’t know which ones would excite Target’s team members, and thus foster the most productive collaborations. Luckily, we selected a few companies that not only aligned strategically with our company, but that also are seeking to do the right thing for humanity.

For example, Revolar combines an app with a wearable safety device designed to help protect women from abuse and assault. Inspectorio helps to guide overseas factory inspectors throughout the supplier compliance verification process; their work focuses not only on quality but also on detecting socially damaging practices with regards to factory workers.

Our CEO, Brian Cornell, found both of these endeavors compelling and his passion helped to ignite engagement among so many of our Team Members and other mentors.

Create a Broad Mentor Pool

Top-down support from leadership is critical, yet some of the strongest mentors will be the on-the-ground specialists.

Startups are often in need of fundamental tactics, as in “here’s how you get little things done.” These are often simple business mechanisms that seem unremarkable to the people who understand them best. But when, for example, an engineer is trying to figure out the best way to package a product and make it look pretty, such tips may be lifesavers.

Thus, bringing in mentors with numerous perspectives and from many different levels across your company will do wonders. Then, maximize interactions between startups and team members. Do not try to force business partnerships; enable team members and startups to spend time together – in both informal and formal mentoring settings – and partnerships will emerge organically.

Remember: if you build an emotional connection between the people, mentorship works much better.

Watch out for Cultural Differences

At Target, people might not get back to each other for a week after a meeting, as they explore possibilities and work out necessary details. But the startup mentality is far different, and after a day with no response, entrepreneurs start to wonder what went wrong.

The better your ability to identify and understand such differences, the easier it will be for you to diffuse them.

Look for Winning Teams, Not Just Ideas

Ideas will evolve and pivot throughout the program, but teams are the reason a startup succeeds or fails. Focusing on companies that are eager to learn will yield positive results in the future for you and the startup in question.

Startups that entered Target with the sole goal of learning – and weren’t just focused on selling – emerged with the strongest relationships and partnerships.

The Ability to Scale Matters

Let’s face it, entrepreneurs can talk big. “Sure, we can easily scale.” But it’s a sobering challenge to sell to – and serve – a large enterprise. When a founder tells a Target Team Member that they can handle scale, that Team Member is likely to respond with something like, “OK, let’s run a test today of your ability to handle 200,000 transactions per hour for two hours.”

(Gulp)

There are good ideas, and then there are good ideas that scale. You want to find startups whose teams have the ability to scale.

The next Target + Techstars accelerator will be next summer, and we’ll start taking applications in January. But, in the meantime, we built a website that allows startups to introduce themselves to Target.

West Stringfellow is the VP of Internal Innovation and Operations at Target Corporation as well as the Entrepreneur in Residence. He is a mentor for Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target. This is the first post in a series on corporate innovation, originally published on LinkedIn

This article is courtesy of Techstars, the best global ecosystem for entrepreneurs to bring new technologies to market. From inspiration to IPO, Techstars empowers the world’s most promising entrepreneurs throughout their lifelong journey by providing a global ecosystem made up of tens of thousands of community leaders, founders, mentors, investors, and corporate partners.

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