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I have seen many corporates who want to engage with startups. They come to me and ask me to, “bring some startups who can present to them.”

My response is typically that I don’t operate a startup zoo and if they want to feed the founders, they have to go elsewhere. This tends to make corporates a little bit annoyed. They ask me why I say that.

My response is that an early stage startup is constantly fighting against death, and they literally have no time for this. What they need are people who can help them make money – everything else is a waste of time.

Turns out, corporates actually understand that. Corporates are learning to work with startups in ways where there is value creation on both sides – via pilots that lead to real money. There are two types of these pilots:

  • Pilot activity that focuses on distribution or lead generation.
  • Pilot activity that focuses on the corporate becoming a customer.

Distribution or Lead Generation Pilots

When Techstars ran a program with Disney, Disney partnered with Sphero, a program participant, to create what is now the BB-8 robotic toy. Disney injected the brand and distribution, Sphero contributed the technology and engineering. This toy was one of the world’s most successful toys when it was introduced into the market, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

Another example comes from the METRO Accelerator for Hospitality, Powered by Techstars in Berlin (full disclosure: I have been the managing director here for two years). FragPaul (Ask Paul) is a maker of HR software for German restaurants. METRO signed a rollout deal with FragPaul, and now delivers over 100 qualified leads to the company every single week. This kind of deal flow is life changing when you are a two person startup who didn’t have to raise capital to date, and now employs 10X more staff less than a year later.

Pilot Activity that Focuses on the Corporate Becoming a Customer

Another pilot example from Techstars’ METRO Hospitality program is Flowtify, who simplifies HACCP, a systematic approach to food safety for gastronomy operators. METRO tested the product in some of its store restaurants, provided valuable product feedback to the Flowtify team, and helped the company find its sweet spot. The product is now used in a variety of gastronomy establishments and recently won the 2018 Intergastra Innovation Prize.

What Makes Pilots Successful

The success of pilots depends on a number of factors. First, you need dedicated staff on the corporate side who work 100 percent of their time on the pilot project and oversee its success. There needs to be a clear pilot process, quantification of what constitutes success, and timelines that delineate what is supposed to happen when. If this is coupled with a functional follow-on path for what is actually happening beyond the pilot, and a dedicated budget, this approach is extremely successful.

When this happens at scale, startup partnerships can have a huge impact on the bottom line of corporations. Six startups from the current METRO Hospitality program are in the midst of successfully piloting their technologies with METRO. If the rate of sales continues at where it currently stands, these startups have the potential to be generating $1B in sales with METRO per year. That’s game changing for the startups, and also moves the needle for METRO.

If you want to see the end product of the latest METRO Accelerator for Hospitality, Powered by Techstars class, and maybe meet some of the next $1B sales club startups, we would love to see you at our Demo Day in Munich on December 12th. Grab one of the remaining Community tickets before they’re gone: http://bit.ly/METROAccel-DD17

I am looking forward to seeing far more of these pilots done right in the future.


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Jens Lapinski
Managing Director of the METRO Accelerator for Hospitality, Powered by Techstars. Before Techstars, Jens was a partner at Forward Labs, which he co-founded in January 2012. http://jenslapinski.com @jenslapinski