West Stringfellow is the VP of Internal Innovation and Operations at Target Corporation as well as Entrepreneur in Residence. He is a mentor for Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target. This is the first post in a series on corporate innovation, originally published on LinkedIn.
As I described in my last post, we just wrapped up our first Target + Techstars retail accelerator. Today I want to share some lessons about building an accelerator that is attached to a company of scale such as Target.
Recruit Companies who have a Strategic Fit with Yours, but that also want to do Something Meaningful
We started with the hypothesis that we should be recruiting retail tech companies. We knew that Techstars has a spectacular ability to select the startups most likely to succeed, but we didn’t know which ones would excite Target’s team members… and thus foster the most productive collaborations.
Luckily, we selected a few companies that not only aligned strategically with our company, but that also are seeking to do the right thing for humanity.
For example, Revolar combines an app with a wearable safety device designed to help protect women from abuse and assault. Inspectorio helps to guide overseas factory inspectors throughout the supplier compliance verification process; their work focuses not only on quality but also on detecting socially damaging practices with regards to factory workers.
Our CEO, Brian Cornell, found both of these endeavors compelling and his passion helped to ignite engagement among so many of our Team Members and other mentors.
Create a Broad Mentor Pool
Top-down support from leadership is critical, yet some of the strongest mentors will be the on-the-ground specialists.
Startups are often in more need of fundamental tactics as in “here’s how you get little things done”. These are often simple business mechanisms that seem unremarkable to the people who understand them best. But when, say, an engineer is trying to figure out the best way to package a product and make it look pretty, such tips may be lifesavers.
Thus, bring in mentors with numerous perspectives and from many different levels across your company. Then maximize interactions between startups and team members. Do not try to force business partnerships; enable team members and startups to spend time together – in both informal and formal mentoring settings – and partnerships will emerge organically.
Remember this: if you build an emotional connection between the people, mentorship works much better.
Watch out for Cultural Differences
At Target, people might not get back to each other for a week after a meeting, as they explore possibilities and work out necessary details. But the startup mentality is far different, and after a day with no response, entrepreneurs start to wonder what went wrong. The better your ability to identify and understand such differences, the easier it will be to diffuse them.
Look for Winning Teams, Not just Ideas
Ideas will evolve and pivot throughout the program; teams are the reason a startup succeeds or fails. Focus on companies that are eager to learn. Startups that entered Target with the sole goal of learning – and weren’t just focused on selling – emerged with the strongest relationships and partnerships.
The Ability to Scale Matters
Let’s face it, entrepreneurs can talk big. “Sure, we can easily scale.” But it’s a sobering challenge to sell to – and serve – a large enterprise. When a founder tells a Target Team Member that they can handle scale, that Team Member is likely to respond with something like, “OK, let’s run a test today of your ability to handle 200,000 transactions per hour for two hours.”
There are good ideas, and then there are good ideas that scale. You want to find startups whose teams have the ability to scale.
Launching this accelerator had a huge benefit for Target: it taught us how to be better at mentoring, and we are now applying those lessons internally across our company. That alone makes this program a gigantic win.
Our next Target + Techstars accelerator will be next summer, and we’ll start taking applications in January. But, in the meantime, we built a website that allows startups to introduce themselves to Target.
P.S.: If you missed the Demo Day and are keen to catch the highlights, please do so here.