How big and small can leap forward together

Creative start-ups and established brands can mutually benefit by capitalising on each other's strengths, Dylan Williams and Charles Armstrong believe.

Williams (left) and Armstrong: ‘the little guys are discovering they need more than finance; they need guidance’
Williams (left) and Armstrong: ‘the little guys are discovering they need more than finance; they need guidance’

Digital technology has empowered people to see through the emotional spin that became the marketing norm at the fag end of the "broadcast age". A consumer culture predicated on infantilisation is giving way to a new horizon as we all "wise up" and return to making decisions based on more tangible benefits.

To meet this, businesses have started to shift energy and money out of the soft sell and back into hard product and service design. However, after years spent sugar-coating marginal improvements, they need help in rededicating themselves to genuinely radical innovation.

To this end, these companies are now seeking to collaborate with the new breed of young enterprises we have seen bloom in the rich soil of open-source code. It makes a lot of sense. For these lean, nimble and ambitious younglings, rapid and transformational innovation is their very lifeblood.

Better still, it stacks up that such relationships should be mutually beneficial. While tax efficiencies such as the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo have encouraged plenty of seed money, the little guys are discovering they need more than finance; they need guidance. As Sherry Coutu, one of the country’s top angel investors, said recently, the UK now starts as many companies as the US, but scales less than half as many. This is down to a short supply of advice on how to best manage growth – exactly the kind of counsel that large corporates, as scale experts, are best placed to provide.

Efforts to bridge the worlds of large and small business are increasingly varied – from attendance at tech meet-ups such as MiniBar, through branded desk spaces such as Google Campus, to accelerators such as Telefónica’s Wayra and Techstars collaborations with Nike and Barclays. We have also seen new intermediary platforms such as The Bakery and Collider help brands engage with start-ups on fast-prototyping cycles. All are enjoying successes, rolling with blows, refining offers and improving deal flow.

The Trampery has witnessed this nascent scene at close quarters since opening the first shared working space in Shoreditch in 2009. It occurs to us that there are three good habits to live by.

1. Maintain a start-up philosophy

At their worst, corporate forays into the start-up community display the same arrogance and insensitivity that we have come to associate with bad advertising campaigns. The relationship always begins with the big guys’ self interest. "Here’s our brief – try to crack it", or "Here’s our API – you have eight weeks". In effect, corporates are simply treating early-stage companies as outsourced creative departments. This doesn’t tend to work.

First, the objectives set by risk-averse executives are usually less audacious than the dreams of young entrepreneurs. This generation live by Sean Parker’s dictum: "If you’re not in litigation, you’re not doing anything interesting." They want to change the world, not just "maintain purchase frequency after Christmas".

Second, you get lower-quality applicants. Most A-grade entrepreneurs already have an idea and are singularly focused on developing it. They have neither the bandwidth nor the volition to brainstorm someone else’s problem unless it directly helps them with theirs. And, even then, they are not going to simply hand over equity or IP rights for the chance to win a cash prize.

Instead, orientate around the ambitions of the start-up. Then establish how these might shed light on a brand’s problems and opportunities. In this way, the strengths of the corporate can then be best deployed – nurturing fragile ideas to their full potential – for the end benefit of both parties.

2. Think strategically about space

The boom in the world’s tech clusters is proof enough that there is no substitute for physical proximity when growing a collaborative ecology. But while the number of co-working facilities has mushroomed over the past few years, many are as bland and uninspiring as student halls.

Thinking strategically about the design and management of a workspace can materially improve the performance of teams. Use lighting, furniture, sound and fragrance to change mood and mindset; encouraging congregation and traffic flow are all important in creating an environment where serendipitous idea exchanges can start something beautiful.

3. Don’t rely on one methodology

Previous initiatives have tended to propose a singular approach to relationship building. But, in practice, collaborations shape and develop continuously. Better, then, to have recourse to a whole suite of initiatives that look to facilitate and enrich a partnership through time, from "first-date" events such as supper clubs and maker events through deeper engagements on hackathons and open innovation programmes to longer-term strategic packages such as managed incubators.

Productising in this way also ensures a facility doesn’t suffer the "gym syndrome" of a membership model, where everyone pays the subscription but then never gets round to attending.

But, all in all, it is still early days for the big-meets-small proposition. Everyone is still experimenting with new ways of working. This month, we open Publicis Drugstore at The Trampery’s new Old Street headquarters, and London will also see the launch of at least two further facilities in Second Home and WeWork – all signs of a vibrant ecosystem that will hopefully bring about a better future for all.

Dylan Williams is the global chief strategy and innovation officer of Publicis Worldwide and Charles Armstrong is the founder of The Trampery

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