tl;dr: As a small company, focus on two things with big companies: “1. What can we, the small company do, to make the big company successful? 2. What can I do, as a leader of a small company, do to help the people I’m working with at the big company be successful within the big company?”
I was on the phone yesterday with the head of corp dev for a very large tech company. He and I had never talked before so it was an intro meeting, although brokered by a long term colleague at that company. It’s a tech company we’ve had many interactions at many levels with over the years – some good, some bad, some complex, and some perplexing. Over a long period of time, these interactions, and many others that I’ve had with other big companies, have shaped my view on interacting with large tech companies.
When I started investing in 1994, I was involved with a few large companies. My first company (Feld Technologies) was one of the first Microsoft Solution Providers (Dwayne Walker, are you still out there somewhere?) At the beginning I was still working for AmeriData when I started investing. AmeriData was a public company, a voracious acquirer (we acquired 40 companies in three years), and a very fast growing business (they were less than $50 million in revenue when they acquired Feld Technologies and over $2 billion in revenue three years later when GE acquired them.) For a short time I was connected into GE via their acquisition of AmeriData (I still have my GE business card with the “meatball logo” on it.) During the same time, I started working as an affiliate to Softbank which was a large Japanese company acquiring minority and majority interests in lots of US companies. By the time I co-founded what became Mobius Venture Capital, Softbank (our sponsor – at the time we were called Softbank Venture Capital) was the key investor in Yahoo, E*trade, and a number of other large US-based Internet companies.
I used to think that these large companies had a clear view on how to help small companies. I was seduced by Microsoft’s Solution Provider program into thinking that Microsoft had the long-term interest of Feld Technologies (and then subsequent companies that I invested in, including ePartners, Gold Systems, and NewsGator) at heart. I participated in a number of meetings with Yahoo in the late 1990s as a member of the Softbank team and listened to the vision of what Yahoo wanted to do to help the ecosystem. I spouted all kinds of garbage and nonsense about what we were doing as part of the broader Softbank ecosystem to help advance the cause of Softbank while at the same time helping startups everywhere, especially the ones we had invested in. I had the notion that whenever I ended up in a meeting in GE, I could get GE to do something with one of the companies I was an investor in to help them out. When I invested in the Feld Group, we even set up an initiative to help startups getting connected into the very large Feld Group clients, which included companies like Southwest Airlines, Delta, Home Depot, First Data, and Burlington Northern.
For over a decade, I heard and made happy talk from two directions – that of the investor in a startup and that of the partner of a big company that was looking to work with startups. That we were building an ecosystem. That we’d do all kinds of vague and unspecified things together in the name of innovation. Many drinks were had, many conversations were enjoyed, and many plans were hatched. And very, very little got done.
Around 2004, after the dust on the mess that was my world post-Internet bubble settled and I shifted into a mode where I grinded it out at Mobius until we started Foundry Group in 2007, I decided I was thinking about it completely wrong. I came to these conversations wondering what the big company could do. Sure, I considered the skills and capabilities of the startup, but I was always trying to figure out and anticipate how the big company could help the startup.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
My first adjustment was realizing that whenever I counted on a big company to do something to help a startup, I generally was disappointed. Often, even if the big company wasn’t trying to harm or limit the small company, they often did. This is what causes so many VCs to be wary of corporate investors, especially ones who come to the table with strings attached to a financial investment. But I saw it in all of the partnership dynamics, product roadmaps, build vs. buy decisions, shifting leadership and goals, and conflicting big company product teams. It’s not that the big company couldn’t do something to help a startup, it is just that the startup shouldn’t count on it as a critical input into its success.
Then I realized that the big company has no fundamental obligation to the startup. For a while, I carried around a purist thought of mutual innovation. I got involved in huge investment efforts on small companies to try to satisfy the needs of a big company in the context of a partnership. I’m not talking about a sales situation – separate that out – but rather a long-term business partnership, joint development, or technology partnership. In these cases, the large company puts up no money, but people engage to work with the small company. And the small company puts huge effort into the project for free with the hope of a payoff at the end. The opportunity cost for the big company is tiny while the opportunity cost, and often the direct costs, for the small company is enormous. In hindsight this is a clear imbalance. It’s easy to fix and align the parties, either through money flowing from the big company to the small company, or via clear rules of engagement between the two, but if you assume the big company has no fundamental obligations to a startup, you can’t get hurt too badly.
The turning point for me was a specific time I experienced a large company totally fuck over a long-term partner that had gone all in on their relationship. This large company benefited enormously – both directly (via product sales) and indirectly (via market reputation and customer love) from the small company over a period of several years. But, one day, the large company decided to do something that drastically undermined the business of the small company, and no level of effort could generate a discussion between the two companies about it or a path forward that was supportive of the small company.
I realized that was a consistent pattern in my world. Large companies have whatever agenda they have. They have no responsibility to the small company beyond whatever legal contract exists, which often is heavily weighted in favor of the large company. Strategies change. Executives change. The macro changes. Exogenous forces, that the small company can do absolutely nothing about, regularly cause havoc for the large company.
Rather than be mad, hate the large company, feel like a victim, or behave like an abused spouse or child that sticks around and keeps coming back for more, accept that you are fully responsible for your own destiny. And that instead of expecting something from the big company, you should be focusing on doing specific things that help the big company while advancing your goal as a small company.
It was subtle to me at the time, but totally obvious to me now. In the conversation I had yesterday, I gave some direct, constructive feedback on situations where startups I’m an investor in had felt abused, mistreated, or deceived by the big company. But I was clear that none of these were fundamentally issues for the big company. They hadn’t done anything illegal, but they had damaged their reputation with me and with many VCs and entrepreneurs I knew. I was willing to give feedback from my perspective, but I had absolutely no expectation that the company would do anything about the past or behave differently in the future.
This corp dev leader was gracious. He listened, accepted the feedback constructively, suggested that the reputational dynamic mattered a lot to him and the company, and acknowledged that the only way to improve was to keep trying. I said I was always happy to start with a completely clean slate and try again. But for me, this doesn’t mean having false hopes and expectations that something magical will happen. Instead, I start from the focus with every engagement point of “what can we, the small company, do to help you, the big company, be successful.” If I can’t figure that out in an unambiguous way that we, the small company, can afford to try, then it’s not worth the engagement.
JFK’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” echo in my mind. Modify it slightly as startup: “Ask not what big company can do for you – ask what you can do for big company.“
I’ve had some really crummy experiences with business and corporate development people in the past year. There’s been a strange change in ethos, where suddenly people have forgotten that when they do deals, they are doing deals with other people, not with a company. I learned this in 1993 when my first company was acquired by Len Fassler and Jerry Poch, two of the absolute master deal makers I’ve ever worked with. The each taught me so much about this, by first being people, then dealmakers.
I’ve got a few posts on this topic coming but until then here’s a great post from Chet Kittleson at UP Global about how he thinks about it. Now, while Chet focuses on business development, the same is true for corporate development or sales.
My name is Chet Kittleson and I’m a human. I have eyes and ears and a nose and two nieces, and one nephew, and two sisters, and a wife, and a house and a couple of cats and a mom and a step dad and a biological dad and some friends and a history filled with good and bad and right and wrong and so much more that I can’t fit into one run-on sentence. Like I said, I’m a human.
What I’ve done with this first paragraph, hopefully, is began to build up trust between you and I. The type of trust that extends beyond the walls of LinkedIn and Twitter, and into a meaningful relationship between us as human beings. I’ve exposed more than simply what I do for a living, and in doing so, I’ve broken down a wall that previously would have created a barrier between where we stand now and where we might stand a week or a month or a year from now.
This sentiment is meaningful in every walk of life, but in business development this is the difference between failure and success. It’s not Microsoft or Google or Amazon that you’re looking to partner with, it’s Mary or Matt or Lindsay.
“Companies don’t make deals with other companies. People make deals with people. Understanding the motivations and incentives of the relevant people involved is critical to getting a deal done,” said Greg Gottesman of Madrona Venture Group.
The old adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” should be something closer to, “it’s not what you know or even who you know, it’s who you can influence.” And to be clear, influence is not in the same family as manipulation. Influence is based off of authenticity and trust built by years of friendship and communication. People who genuinely trust you to help them make smart decisions based on their needs as human beings as well as the needs of the companies they work for are in your sphere of influence. This is where the bulk of real and lasting business happens.
You’ll be surprised at how captive another person will be when they view you as an industry expert on things that pertain to their needs, rather than an expert at selling whatever it is you’re selling. Send them suggestions on other partnerships or products that have nothing to do with your organization. (Thanks to T.A. McCann for that nugget.) Connect them with your competitors if they’re able to offer something that aligns better with their goals. Stay relevant and true and you’ll be invited into conversations and email threads that otherwise you would have never been privy to.
“I never would have imagined what a profound impact the people I bonded with – co–founders, investors, mentors, partners – early on in my entrepreneurial career would continue to have in my personal and professional life over 15 years later. What better investment can we all make than in the people we respect.” said Mike Fridgen, GM at eBay and former CEO of Decide.com.
So if you’re interested in pursuing a career in business development, or are new to the field, here’s your first call to action: drop every book you’re reading with “sales” in the title, walk outside, and meet someone. Then meet someone else. Then go back to the first person you met and ask them how they’re doing. And all the while, don’t forget for one second that every single person you’re meeting is ridiculously human. Every one of them, regardless of their title, the number of connections they have on LinkedIn or the amount of budget they have control over, they’re human and they have eyes and ears and a nose and nieces and nephews and sisters and brothers and wives and husbands and all the rest.
Second call to action: start selling something. Anything. Learn how to remain human when money is added to the equation. Cold call strangers out of the phone book, set up camp outside of a grocery store, and learn to build trust out of nothing in an authentic way. I’ve worked with partners on $500 deals and I’ve worked with partners on $500,000 deals, and in the end it all comes down to your ability to understand those on the other side of the table. Start with beef jerky like Noah Kagan did with his 24-hour business challenge, and work your way up from there.
Good people are everywhere, even in the business world, and as the barriers fade away those who you once referred to as contacts or connections turn into, don’t let this word intimidate you, friends. They turn into people you can share stories with, people you can consult with on the next fiscal years partnership proposal, people who can help and that will at some point need help. It’s simple, but if you can remember this throughout each coffee meeting and each conference call and each email, you’ll be just fine. Hey, that’s one human’s opinion though.
Every single day I have multiple conversations and emails from CEOs and people at companies I work with about how to work with Big Tech Companies. You know – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce, SAP, LinkedIn, Cisco, Yahoo, HP, AT&T, Verizon, Icouldkeepgoingforalongtime.
But this conversation is not limited to just the gigantic tech companies. They include all the up and comers andtheabunchmoreyouprobablydontthinkarethatbigbutare, including a long list of newly public companies or still private but mega-funded companies.
This conversation comes from two different directions.
– BigCo reaches out to LittleCo and has a classic “happy ears meeting” where BigCo talks a great game about all the great things the two companies can do together and how it’s going to be awesome and LittleCo hears what they want to hear, not what has been actually said. And then the giant black time suck hole of the “let’s work together dance” begins. In the typical case, this goes one for months and months without any resolution or action. Eventually everyone gets tired of each other.
– LittleCo reaches out to me and says “Hey – I really think we could be strategic to BigCo. Can you make an introduction.”
My response to each of these is NO NO NO NO NO NO. After I say NO a few more times, I state “You are thinking about it wrong.”
Instead of expecting BigCo to react to you in any way, start from the perspective that if you want a relationship with BigCo, your only goal in life should be to help BigCo be successful.
Start by coming up with a hypothesis about what you are going to do to help BigCo be successful. Then, test this hypothesis. The Lean Startup approach is super helpful here. Test, ship, iterate – just keep trying and keep learning. Use what you are creating to get the attention of BigCo. Don’t spend six months developing a business development relationship. Don’t spend months trying to get the decision maker on the phone before you’ve done anything. Don’t wine and dine endlessly the people you know, or get connected to. And never, ever go single threaded with one person at BigCo, or one BigCo, hoping something good will happen.
Simply go do some shit for BigCo. Be precise. Execute well. Communicate it to the people you know at BigCo. Do it without any formal arrangement. Show BigCo why they care and why you are the one that will move the meter for them.
Then you can start having the business conversation.
As a bonus, this works for sales also. But you probably figured that out already.