Making Startup Partnerships Successful

July 16, 2019 Amy Radin

startup partnerships - young people at whiteboard

Startup partnerships are a great way for established companies to jump-start innovation. But startups need lots of advice, from defining audience targeting and value propositions to building out messaging frameworks and navigating the corporate gauntlet that can make or break their success.

The problem is, even with a well-defined marketing, communications, and sales strategy, a startup at the pre-seed, seed, or even A-round stages may not have the endurance to make it through the corporate gauntlet. The effort is just too complex and time-consuming given the demands and limitations on a young company’s talent, and the sensitivity to monthly cash burn.

You may say, well, the startup world is a bit Darwinian. Only the fittest survive, and that is to be expected.

Yet while most everyone at work in the corporate world acknowledges their own bureaucracies, too few act upon the recognition that their people, policies, and processes can affect startups’ survival, which in turn hurts enterprise efforts to transform and innovate. They themselves pay a price for killing or weakening these innovators, who are a source of new capabilities that established companies are unlikely to create on their own.

The good news is that corporate leaders can do something about it—if they can summon the leadership, courage, and tenacity to do so.

Where startup partnerships go wrong

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve seen founders run into once introductions are made and interest is expressed in learning more.

First, a couple of months pass before a meeting can be put on the calendar with at least some of the right people in attendance.

Then, after the presentation and demo, the conversation moves to: “We love this tech and it would do a lot for our organization…”

Yet within a couple of follow-up meetings, phone calls, and other internal introductions, someone introduces one of many variations on “but”…

  • “But we have too many priorities.”
  • “But we have to pick our battles with [fill in the blank – Procurement, Compliance, Information Security, et al.]
  • “But we have so many open roles and there is no one here to lead the pilot.”
  • “But we cannot get the support in “the business,” they are just focused on this quarter’s sales.”
  • “But [often incorrectly] it turns out we already do this or can do it ourselves.”

These are real quotes from real conversations with well-paid, smart, and accomplished corporate managers who get the reality of declining customer franchises, diminished brand commitment, new and unbounded competitors, legacy distribution, etcetera. Some of them are actually—yes—digital natives, and all are at least digitally enlightened.

I wonder, are they simply beaten down? Are they afraid? Do they define their roles as being great at repeating how things have always been done, and not deviating too much? Or are they trapped inside a legacy mindset, an outmoded idea of the value of speed (no, you cannot expect the world to wait for your annual planning cycle), and higher internal hurdles for getting approval to do new stuff than to maintain the status quo?

How startup partnerships can go right

There are common characteristics inside large enterprises where startup partnerships are being used to advance the future and startup business models, offerings, and technologies are being adopted.

  • Leaders are allowing the processes, policies, and procedures that are fit for the purpose of innovating to co-exist alongside those that are essential to sustaining earnings predictability.
  • Leaders are present who are willing to try new things, and know that failure is a natural and expected part of experimentation.
  • Leaders are speaking up and advocating for policy and process change, and holding themselves and their people accountable for delivering the short term while also taking steps to the future.
  • Leaders are developing their people, ensuring collaboration and diversity through action not just talk, and having their people’s backs when they take risks.

Startups are discouraged by enterprise relationship opportunities where the pace and bureaucracy are simply too slow and complex to be practical when they have to demonstrate milestones every month to their investors.

Is your company or another one you know of missing out as a result? Can you challenge yourself to change it?

This post was first published on Amy’s blog.


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About the Author

Amy Radin

Amy Radin works with executives to reduce uncertainty and realize the benefits of innovation. A recognized Fortune 100 Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, adviser and investor, and board member, Amy has helped companies like American Express, Citi, E*TRADE, and AXA move ideas to performance. Her book, The Change Maker's Playbook (, outlines tangible steps for identifying and delivering sustainable, business-changing impacts.

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