Corporate accelerators: What’s all the fuss about?

Fast-growing start-ups from Wayra’s alumni on what it’s really like on a corporate accelerator programme – and their top tips to make it work for you

This week, Startups.co.uk editor Lucy Wayment has been at the world famous 4YFN conference in Barcelona (the start-up focused sister of the Mobile World Congress). In this post from a panel discussion on corporate accelerators, she hears what they can really do for your start-up…

Accelerators are ten-a-penny these days and there’s no denying the appeal. While they differ quite dramatically, you should get mentoring and support and hopefully office space, funding and, in the best case scenarios, access to highly valuable contacts. And it’s the latter where corporate accelerators can really shine, potentially opening the door to their huge networks.

Leading the way in a poll of the UK’s best accelerators, Telefonica backed Wayra is one of the better known accelerators – and one of the longest running, coming up to its fourth birthday this March.

In a panel hosted by Wayra’s head of communication Danny Bartlett, five founders of both past and current Wayra cohorts discussed why they chose to participate in a corporate accelerator, how to make the most of the network once you’re in and the biggest surprises and challenges they faced…

Corporates want what start-ups have and vice versa but broaching deals can be difficult. How did you break through those cultural differences to secure major partnerships?

Fraser Hardy, Qudini: “There’s a lot to be learned from both sides. Going through the Wayra process we’ve learnt a great deal about how corporates work and we’re starting to notice that corporates are learning from start-ups too. O2, for example, allowed us to trial our platform in a couple of stores, it took a bit of convincing but corporates are becoming more open to testing and trialling and are helping to cut back red tape. The trial has been great for us to make a proven case study and get our system out there.

“Everyone’s interested in start-ups but they’re very reluctant to actually get started with you.”

“And likewise we’ve now gone from a very early stage start-up to a four-year-old company with 20 employees and so we can learn even more from corporates about dealing with procurement and red tape.”

Michael Rolph, Yoyo: “Everyone’s interested in start-ups but they’re very reluctant to actually get started with you. What we’ve found is that although the business may be new, the way you conduct yourself therefore has to emulate the processes of a ‘proper’ company, which should be your ambition anyway (to become a successful full-blown business of scale).

“The sooner you give off that message, the sooner a bigger company will engage with you.

“We’ve had massive success with global organisations to win contracts which is a testament to how quickly we’ve put the right structures in place.”

Every start-up these days has global ambitions but it’s very difficult to begin that journey. What can an accelerator do to speed up that process and help you reach international markets?

Keith Reed, 1248: ”One thing it can definitely do is get you those all-important introductions – it can really help you get those key meetings with the right people. For us, that’s one of the reasons we joined Wayra, to get introductions to people at Telefonica.

“The other thing to remember is that corporates aren’t single entities. They’re made up of individuals who have their own motivations and you can be part of the success of an individual employee, you can make a difference to their career. You need to find someone who you can make successful – and that in turn will help your success with a corporate.

“Find your champion within a company, it might not be the top person.”

“Find a sponsor and make them look good and you’ll grow with them.”

Kenny Ewan, WeFarm: “I agree. There are two ways as a start-up you can approach a corporate. One of which is trying to go in to the people at the top, the decision makers – which is really hard – but they’re far more influential and likely to buy into the bigger vision.

“Or, which is much more likely, speak to more junior people who aren’t thinking long-term but have KPIs they need to meet. I’d recommend a strategy for approaching both.”

Fraser Hardy, Qudini: “Yes, find your champion within a company, it might not be the top person, but someone who’s going to keep shouting about you internally is what you need.”

The UK has a big issue with small and medium companies not scaling. Do you think a corporate acceleration process can help you scale more rapidly? 

Phillip Steele, nCube: “To be able to work with the large insurance companies and utilities we’re chasing after we’ve got to be able to support that scale. With IOT devices once you get to large numbers it becomes quite a challenge. Because we’re shipping hardware there’s a whole logistical process around the purchasing, the shipping, the returns and so forth and I’ve been lucky enough to have access to a supplier at Telefonica so they can put in a large amount of back-end infrastructure (at pretty much a transactional cost) which is a huge benefit to us and now we can scale.”

“You’ve got to have a global perspective from day one.”

Michael Rolph, Yoyo: “What is it that makes Silicon Valley feel more likely to be successful and create global enterprises? Well, first and foremost, they have an attitude from the word go that says ‘we’re going to create something big, and we mean it to be global’. I think we need a lot more of that attitude coming through from start-ups not just in the UK but Europe in general that when you have an idea you have a vision that if you get it right it can be a global huge enterprise.

“You need to have the right positive attitude and approach that says ‘we are going to make this work on a global scale.’ And then every single step that you take should be within that context – so all of your processes and hiring your team – you’ve got to have a global perspective from day one.”

What surprised you about being part of an acceleration programme?

Kenny Ewan, WeFarm: “The thing that surprised me the most was that you don’t suddenly have this massive link to a corporate just because you’re on a corporate accelerator. For us, joining Wayra didn’t mean Telefonica was suddenly beating down our door but I think a lot of start-ups do believe it will be like that.

“As an example, I was literally just doing a talk at the Mobile World Congress and one of the senior people at Telefonica in Spain came over and said ‘This is amazing, why aren’t we doing something together’ and I had to politely find a way to tell him I’d been trying for a year.

“The timelines for a corporate are obviously completely different from a start-up.”

“A lot of it is about perseverance and timing. The timelines for a corporate are obviously completely different from a start-up. From a positive point of view, I wouldn’t have been at that event talking to Telefonica if it wasn’t for the Wayra accelerator. It’s about not thinking you’ve won at the beginning but having the patience and putting the work in.”

Fraser Hardy, Qudini: “There’s a lot of hard work involved to get where we are, it certainly wasn’t a case of being with Telefonica and getting straight into the O2 and Movistar stores, it’s been four years of graft. At one point we did a small scale trial and O2 weren’t sure if they wanted to go ahead, so we went back and iterated on our product and the convinced them of the benefits. We also had to go against some much bigger companies during the procurement process for Movistar. It’s not an easy ride but you need to figure out how to target the right people in the company and get your message across to them.”

In terms of advice for other start-ups, where do you begin when looking to work with big businesses?

Fraser Hardy, Qudini: “Looking to get your product into any big company you need to listen to the feedback. We were pitching a big department store and we had to tweak our pricing structure in the early days and understand the difference between OPEX and APEX and what it means to them in terms of purchasing. There’s a lot we didn’t understand but now we’re in a much better position.

“Get as much exposure to that as you can and then keep plugging away at it.”

Phillip Steele, nCube: ”Networking! Using all the contacts and the people who have far better connections than you is so much stronger than trying to cold call.”

Michael Rolph, Yoyo: “I’d add perseverance. When we created Yoyo we knew the biggest beast out there would be trying to integrate with Micros, and they became acquired by Oracle, so it became doubly tough. After 18 months of pure perseverance and networking like hell we became only the second organisation to get gold partner status.

We would not be doing that if it wasn’t for many false starts, when you think you’ve got there and then the person has left. But keep persevering and it will pay off.”

“Knowing your value and making sure you don’t undersell is crucial.”

Kenny Ewan, WeFarm: “I’d also add the importance of PR and communications. I think a lot of start-ups think it’s something for further down the line but it can help you from the beginning. We recently signed a contract with Pret A Manger and I think the turning point in that deal was that we’d recently been featured in a number of national newspapers.

“When you walk into a meeting and people already know who you are it’s a huge psychological shift for them, even though the comms pieces might not be huge things, as soon as your name’s in the public domain there’s a validation, external verification and a trust element.

“The second crucial thing I’d say is finding a test case that can prove your concept. Finding the first one is always the hardest but even if you have to do it for free, or if it’s minimal – the value of having that verification is really important. And the rest come much more easily than the first.”

Keith Reed, 1248: “I guess I’d add, as a start-up, knowing your value is key. You have something corporates don’t. You’ve got this vision, this drive, this will to change the world and that’s not in the DNA of corporates, it’s eased out of them.

People will pay for trials. As a start-up we often don’t ask but you can absolutely ask. You need a paid trial more than a big company. Knowing your value and making sure you don’t undersell is crucial.”

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