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.“