What working with start-ups might do for you
A view from Sue Unerman

What working with start-ups might do for you

There is great value in finding the right start-up for your business, but in order to do so, you need the right approach, says MediaCom's chief transformation officer.

In today’s business world, doing the same thing you always did is not an option. If you don’t innovate, you die. It could be a slow demise, or it might be fast, but thriving isn’t on the cards if you don’t change.

One of the fastest and most effective ways to drive digital innovation is to go directly to the source – to the start-ups that are reinventing your market right now (whether you know it, or not), and Start Up Europe Week, held in early March, created a fine opportunity to consider the role of a start-up in your business and your career.

Yet consider with care and with caution. This century might be relatively young, but we’ve already seen waves of overinvestment in what felt like pivot points, but frequently were simply money pits.

One discussion at Blink’s (MediaCom’s division, which matches client needs with start-ups) event for the week focused on the big question of whether innovation by big corporates in this space really delivers business value or is essentially an effective way of driving public relations and image.

The panel concluded that there’s a sweet spot where you can get both, but the panel urged caution in having too high an expectation of this work stream.

Dora Michail, managing director, digital, at The Telegraph, reckoned that if 1% of the meetings with start-ups converted into something powerful, something that would drive real change, you were doing well.

Jon Bradford, early-stage investor and founder of Motive Partners, characterised corporates’ meetings with start-ups as a "petting zoo".

Does that leave you wondering whether it’s worth your valuable time? 

Whether you should leave the disrupting to someone else and hope for the best?

What if, despite your best efforts, it fails?

What motivation is there for corporate innovation when it’s so hard to execute and business as usual pays this week’s bills?

Dave Knox, one of the Blink panel, has written a guide for businesses seeking to navigate this. In it, he quotes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: "Most large organisations embrace the idea of invention but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there….. in business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1000 runs… it’s important to be bold." 

Knox is passionate about the value of start-ups: "the canary in the coal mine", and points out that it’s easy to dismiss them, warning: "The leaders of yesterday have to learn the rule of an entirely new game of business in order to maintain their position as the leaders of tomorrow."

Businesses need to think through how they innovate. Anyone can create experiments or buy in some new tech. The real question to be asked and answered is: where is the new business model?

There’s a danger in using an accelerator that is incentivised on introductions to start-ups. The business must ask the right question first and be prepared to experiment in an agile way to find the answers. 

The team at Blink focuses on defining the business opportunity or problem first. With this clarified, the odds of finding the right start-up solution to make sure that your business has competitive advantage are hugely improved, and operating this way can lead to step changes in performance

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom