Startup Pilot Blind Spots: Lessons from Target

We recently held an AMA on corporate innovation with Cory Hooyman, lead innovation manager at Target.

We talked about corporate innovation and how to bring new practices and methods into your team and company.

From the Target perspective, what blind spots do startups have in pursuing a pilot, and how should they make a pilot successful and convert that to a larger rollout?

Corey: First and foremost, a blind spot is not understanding what their partners are thinking about and what they’re concerned about.

We have a lot of people that come into Target not truly knowing what the team they’re working with is trying to accomplish. I’m not just saying with the partnership, but as whole. What are their goals? What are their current resources? Do they even have money?

If you understand as a startup what the person across from you is concerned about, you can make your pilot work for you in showcasing the numbers or successes that matter to that person.

Another huge blind spot is usually based upon traction. So, those companies that are able to hand hold the corporation, if you will, and there’s a lot of work up front. It’s going to be a lot of work because you feel like you have to baby somebody. But these people – when I say these people I mean corporate teams – are used to working with people like Bain or McKinsey or, again, IBM or P&G.

They aren’t used to somebody who can pivot as quickly as a startup can. They aren’t used to somebody who’s as smart as people who are driving startups. You, as a startup, can utilize that to your advantage – showcase how you incorporated their feedback. “By the way, we pushed a product yesterday. Look at that. It’s good to go.” We can partner with you to collaborate and build together. That’s a good thing.

As I mentioned, the number one thing would be to understand what they care about, and then also the advantages that you bring to the table that others don’t.

Ryan: The other thing that startups have a problem with is going into these relationships with happy ears of saying, “I talked with the VP of my product category. He says that this is cool.”

Basically, what that person was saying is that they think it was great, or your idea is interesting. It has nothing to do with the fact that they actually want to partner with you, that they actually have the budget, or that this is actually aligned with something that they want.

You have to go to that next level. What are your priorities? What are your priorities this year and next year? What are your bonuses tied to? What are those things that are motivating you? Try to get your startup aligned with that. That might take some tweaking of the product. It might be finding the business unit that your product actually helps them with. The sooner you can find out what is motivating them and turn off your happy ears and actually get into the real commitments of timelines, piloting phases, and budgeting, then the more likely it is to happen. 

The last thing we want – many startups have been killed this way and it’s dual fault from corporations – the startups get happy ears. They go fundraise, build out a product for the next six months, and then go back to that same person who said that their product was cool and they are still saying that’s cool. That doesn’t actually go to that next level of a partnership or full scale blowout.

Do you have a question about interacting and working with large corporations? Let us know in the comments!

Applications are open for 12 global Techstars Mentorship-driven Accelerator programs. You can apply now or check to see if the Techstars Roadshow is stopping in a city near you!

Startups Interacting with Large Corporations: Lessons from Target

We recently held an AMA on corporate innovation with Cory Hooyman, lead innovation manager at Target.

We talked about corporate innovation and how to bring new practices and methods into your team and company.

Is there one thing that startup founders need to know to best interact with large corporations?

Ryan: The nice thing about our program in particular – especially when we’re working with a large corporation or retailer – is that there’s a massive gap between the corporations and the startups. It’s on both sides of it.

The startups, in a lot of cases, do not interact with an enterprise level corporation because they don’t speak the language. The timelines are off. A lot of the time, the professionalism of the startup needs to improve in order for them to interact with these very large organizations.

On the flip side, the corporations – and Target has done an amazing job of this – admit where they need to improve in order to interact with the startups. Not everything is going to be at the level of a huge consulting firm or a massive software company when it’s just three or four people who are iterating an idea.

When we look through the companies during the application process, we always try to project the potential of that team in their ability to work with the enterprise level companies. Just because they don’t know how to speak that language right now doesn’t mean we can’t work with that and hopefully get them to a level where they’d be able to actually interact with a 10,000 person company or 300,000 person company. That’s a big thing for us.

When we talk about team, team, team for the participants in the program, clearly, it’s about the entrepreneurial skillsets and the stuff that we identify as Techstars as an organization. But for companies that are trying to work with massive corporations, we also have to think about the potential of that team, their ability to interact with those large corporations.

Techstars sits right in the middle, between the startups on the one side of it and the corporations on the other. We plant ourselves right down the middle and try to be the middle ground between the two of them so they can hopefully speak the same language.

Cory: There are certain things that founders should watch out for. If the time is not right, the corporate yuckery can take place. They can in some way, shape, or form drown your company by not being aware of some of the things that Ryan mentioned, like the gaps.

I’ve talked to people who have, not through this program, but I’ve talked to companies locally who are on their (and I am not exaggerating this number) 28th, 29th or 30th meeting with Target. They’re still hoping for a pilot. People get passed around to various people in the organization with the intent of maybe this person might be somebody good to talk to.

Really, the only reason they keep getting passed around is because nobody has any money to do what these people are trying to accomplish. If you knew that up front, you might be like, “I’ve had my fifth meeting. I get it. I’m out. I’m going to go focus on something else.”

But because people don’t want to tell you they don’t have access to these resources, they just pass you along with the hopes that somebody else can deal with it.

Do you have a question about interacting and working with large corporations? Let us know in the comments!

Applications are open for 11 global Techstars Mentorship-driven Accelerator programs. You can apply now or check to see if the Techstars Roadshow is stopping in a city near you!

5 Key Factors to a Successful Pilot

Last week, I wrote about the many things—testing a new product, exploring the potential for a working relationship, understanding your market better—that make corporations want to run pilots with startups.

This week, I want to go one step further and lay out some of the key factors to actually running a successful pilot with a corporation. I’ve watched a bunch of different portfolio companies run them, and the best pilots all have these factors in common.

Find Your Champion

Quickly identify your champion within the organization and make sure they are along for every step of this ride. You want someone who’s experienced, open-minded, and cool under pressure; you’ll need that when roadblocks come up. Believe me, they come up.

Your champ also needs to be someone with the power and influence to keep the project moving forward. Maybe they’re a skilled navigator of your corporate culture. Maybe they know the key allies in your industry who can help grease the wheels. Regardless, this person should have the power needed to move things along throughout the process. 

Start with the End in Mind

That doesn’t always mean cash immediately changing hands. A pilot can be free, but make sure you have a defined time frame for how long it will be free. More importantly, make sure you have discussed your exit criteria and agreed upon eventual pricing before starting the free phase of the pilot. Especially when it comes to budgeting, setting prices early on allows your corporate partner to plan accordingly.

And don’t forget to plan for success too. If you have winning results, will you phase in the pilot in stages, or will you go for 100 percent implementation right off the bat? Setting these parameters early prevents a snap judgement down the line.

Define Learning Objectives

Never set up a pilot with a binary mindset of, If this works then the corporation will buy it. If it doesn’t then they won’t. This is a recipe for disaster. Instead, set up learning objectives for the pilot, and make sure they’re flexible enough to adapt to the situation once things get going on the ground.

That way, if things don’t go as planned, you can learn, iterate, and, most importantly, continue piloting.

Track Every Metric Possible

Speaking of learning, measure as much as you can. If you don’t, you’re willingly ignoring the potential for new, maybe crucial insights about your business. In addition, share every valuable metric to enable your champions to sell internally.

You’ll be grateful you did later on when it comes time to prove your learnings. Feelings are great, but data is more persuasive and more translatable to new contexts—and hopefully deeper partnerships down the line.

Over-Communicate with Everyone

Even amongst all the data, don’t forget about the humans in your pilot. Weekly check-ins with your employees and partners let you do all kinds of things: get up-to-date info on how things are going; build trust and morale; and keep you nimble in the face of new challenges and opportunities. If possible, make as many of these check-ins in person. Jump on a plane, if needed, and make it happen!

Don’t forget to communicate back to your employees, mentors, and investors. That said, don’t oversell your pilot to investors. Corporations have all sorts of motivations for piloting, and until you have a signed, paid contract, a pilot doesn’t mean a lot.

In the end, be responsive to everything the customer asks for in real time. Remember that it is equally, if not more, important to sell your team’s ability to execute than your technology.  Showing your attentiveness and expertise is oftentimes the deciding factor.


Big thanks to Chris Smith, CEO of Kipsu, for helping contribute to this post. He definitely knows a thing or two about piloting and continues to impress with the successful pilots he’s pulled off at Kipsu. He can be reached at for further comment.

Techstars Retail Founder Spotlight: Clarence Bethea

We’ve all been there before: we walk into a big box store, we’re preparing to check out, and then we’re strapped with a confusing and unwanted warranty. This week, we talked with Upsie founder Clarence Bethea about how his team wants to flip the script on warranties.

The Team:

Clarence Bethea, founder/CEO (pictured above), and Katie Long, project manager

The Problem:

We’ve all been there before: we walk into a big box store, we’re preparing to check out, and the guy at the register offers us an extended warranty. We think that’s a moment that everyone hates.

There’s 3 major problems that happen at the register:

  1. Price: You’re paying anywhere between 200-900% more than you should.
  2. Transparency: You never get to ask, you know, what’s covered and what’s not covered? What do I do if I need to make a claim? Who do I talk to? Do I bring it back to the store?
  3. Service: Service starts for us with having your receipt, understanding who you’re supposed to talk to, when you’re supposed to talk to ‘em, and who you’re supposed to call.

The Solution

Upsie solves all three of those problems by saving you 50-90% versus the big box stores and having complete transparency, so you actually know what’s covered. We even tell you who is the carrier behind that plan. And then service for us starts with having your receipt. So we store your receipt and warranty. You know down to the day how much time you have left.

The Challenge:

We think we have a product that people really understand. The biggest challenge for Upsie is, how do we get this in front of people?

We’re going to conquer that challenge by partnerships with a number of different folks, whether that be with a retailer or an insurance company or a credit card company.

What Actually Motivates a Corporation to Pilot with a Startup?

Working with a corporation can offer all kinds of opportunities to a startup. It lets you test new functions of your app, figure out implementation techniques and, most importantly, learn from and build a lasting relationship with a potential partner.

I’ve watched this process first-hand at the Techstars Retail Accelerator, in Partnership with Target, where many of our startups have run successful pilots with major retailers. We kicked off our second class on July 17, and I’m watching our latest class set themselves up for potential pilot opportunities in the near future.

Sadly, many pilots end up failing, and I think one of the main reasons is startups do not clearly understand the motivations of their pilot partners.  

So, why would a corporation run a pilot with a startup?


None of us knows everything, even in our own field of expertise. Pilots let corporations explore areas of strategic interest without betting the whole house on something new or unfamiliar.


A pilot lets a corporation test your startup’s idea, and whether a potential partnership is actually feasible and worthwhile for it.

Assessing Workflow

Few things derail a partnership faster than two systems that just don’t work well together. You want to be peanut butter and jelly, not peanut butter and…sushi.

A pilot gives you a way to better understand the contours of a potential relationship without risking too much.

Employee Motivations 

While the corporation’s strategic motivations get you in the door, the motivations of the employees you’ll be working with are what ultimately get you the deal. Always ask yourself, “Does the success of this pilot somehow influence your internal champions’ bonus?”

If the answer is “yes,” you will have much higher engagement. If the answer is “no,” you may not ultimately have a path forward with this company.

Find Budget 

Running a free or discounted pilot allows the testing to move forward while a corporation actually finds budget for a larger roll out. Sometimes this is just a matter of budget cycles, but it could also be budget reprioritization, which takes longer.


In a B2B pilot, it’s ultimately your customer’s customers who will vicariously sustain your business—i.e., if your customers die, you die. A good pilot can teach corporations more about their customers, and whether your product helps serve them better. That’s the ultimate return on their investment in you.


In addition to thinking big picture, pilots also teach you what granular tweaks separate good ideas from great ones. In a pilot, you can experiment with what changes to a product bring the best results, and what trainings for employees supercharge adoption and boost impact.

Now that you (hopefully) understand the motivations behind piloting, how do you actually pull off a successful pilot? Check back soon as we lay out the key steps to actually implementing a successful pilot.

This was originally published here

Announcing the 2017 Techstars Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target Startups

We are excited to announce the 10 startups that will be joining us in Minneapolis for our 2017 Techstars Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target. We kick things off this week and are looking forward to three months of awesomeness, capped off by Demo Day on October 11. The focus of these startups ranges widely—from theft to warranties to personalization—and founders come from as near as Minneapolis and as far as Belgium.

While in Minneapolis, the startups will have access to a range of mentors who will provide feedback, answer questions and offer advice to foster the startups’ growth and development. More than 150 mentors have once again signed up to mentor this year’s group.

This will be our second class to run through the program and we’re planning to build upon the success of last year.  Our 2016 Techstars Retail class’ collective fundraise was one of the largest by any Techstars class within the first year.  It included mobile enterprise staffing and scheduling tool Branch that is now running a pilot in select distribution and call centers and 130 Target stores. It also featured Inspectorio, a platform for inspecting manufacturer quality assurance that raised a $3.7M seed funding round from Target and have begun operating globally with Target and other global retailers.

Techstars is the Worldwide Network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, and strong partners and mentors help make this happen. Target continues to be an incredible partner for our Techstars Retail program and we hope to build upon the amazing success of our class last year.  

We love this city and know 2017 is going to be an amazing year for Techstars, Target and the Twin Cities Startup Community!

Here are the Techstars Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target startups:

Air Tailor provides expert alteration and repair services for consumers and retailers.

New York City

BYBE simplifies digital alcohol promotions for retailers by embedding digital alcohol rebates inside retail applications and websites.

Columbus, Oh

Find Me A Shoe offers virtual fitting service for online and offline footwear retailers.


Kokko is a personalized cosmetic and beauty shopping experience based on color science.

Bay Area, CA

Local Crate is the first nationally, local food company by making it easy to cook meals inspired by popular local chefs with seasonal, local ingredients in the comfort of your home!

Twin Cities, MN

Savitude’s technology provides recommendations on clothes based on a shopper’s body shape.

Bay Area, CA

Shopturn is an on-demand return service for brick & mortar retailers, enabling consumers to return purchases directly from home.

New York City

Spotcrowd stops shoplifting by using the crowd & existing IP-cameras.

Antwerp, Belgium

StoryXpress is a cloud based automated video creation platform for businesses to create content quickly and easily.


Upsie is a mobile app that’s disrupting the traditional warranty industry by reinventing and demystifying the warranty experience for customers.

Twin Cities, MN


Founder Highlight: Starting Up in Retail

Lizzy is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Blueprint Registry. Lizzy started her entrepreneurial journey by founding In.Bounds in 2012, a non-profit crowd fundraising platform aimed at inner-city youth athletics. In.Bounds was acquired by Sports in School in 2014, where she is now an executive board member.

Prior to that, Lizzy founded Showman Design, LLC, a design consulting firm where she managed art direction, relationships, and new business for multinational corporations (Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft) and startups.

Lizzy graduated from the University of Washington where she received a B.A. in Visual Communication Design and holds a Master’s in Design from the School of Visual Arts. In 2014, Lizzy was named Print Magazine’s top 20 designers under 30.

What is your founder story?

Blueprint was born out of the frustration my co-founder Nevin and I experienced when we were buying and registering for home furnishings online. At the time, I was finishing my master’s degree in design and was also engaged to be married.

Nevin came to me with the idea of shopping online through visual blueprints as a way to discover new products. For me, registering had been a huge pain point. We had three different registries, with a random selection of items and no real sense of what we needed.

The idea was intriguing and relevant for what I was going through. After a few weeks of assessing the competition and market value, Nevin and I decided to partner and start Blueprint Registry in April 2013.

In your opinion, what is something retail tech founders should know about working with large retailers?

There are endless learning opportunities when working with large retailers; however, you should be prepared to be persistent, accept constructive criticism, and highlight opportunities while mitigating risk.

Who was your most recent hire and why?

We recently hired a content manager who is creating evergreen content so we can grow and expand our SEO presence. We have seen an impact, as our organic search is up 96% year-over-year.

What’s the biggest challenge to overcome in your industry right now?

Continuing to keep up with users demands and wants. What sets one company apart from the next are features, price, and UX/UI. We are challenged everyday to continue to improve every area of our site to keep up with these demands so we can ensure we are acquiring new users at an increased pace.

How does the decline in brick-and-mortar retail affect you?

This is a double-edged sword for our business, as we are all online. That said, a big driver of user acquisition is the fact they can register at brick-and-mortar stores and sync them on Blueprint.

We believe that the shift from brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce is inevitable, but there will always be a need for in-person experience (window shopping, returns, social interaction, etc.). The biggest winners will be those companies that seamlessly combine the two.

What are some of the trends in the wedding/gifting industry that you see are working in your favor?

Gifting cash virtually is one of the fastest growing areas in the wedding and registry market. We see this seismic shift as a massive opportunity and are continuing to build products and improved UX/UI experiences to match this need.

The purpose of Techstars Worldwide Network is to help entrepreneurs succeed. Check out the impact of the Techstars’ network over the past 10 years.

What I Learned Being Mentored by Brian Cornell, CEO of Target

Techstars is a whirlwind experience. Thanks to this incredible program, the business growth that happened for Revolar is mindblowing and keeping up with the pace pushed my team beyond what we thought was possible. But having taken Revolar and our team through this process twice, I can say with absolute confidence that the magic is in the mentorship.



This summer, I was honored to have Brian Cornell, Target’s CEO, as a lead mentor to Revolar. I had no idea what to expect when I first met Brian. I had, of course, read all about him and was excited to meet the man who had gone undercover in his own business to hear out what his guests truly wanted. This is also the man who I read had flown across the globe for the love of his life and who, in my opinion, had taken an incredibly powerful, historical and empathetic stance on the safety of his guests.

I’ll never forget our first meeting. I wanted to learn from him what it took to be the CEO of a massive business and a ubiquitous brand.

So I asked him pretty much point blank, “What does it take?” His answer caught me off guard and still makes me smile. In essence, Brian told me that a CEO needs to be very self-contained: calm in the midst of chaos. You can’t let what is happening in one area impact your ability to focus on what is in front of you.

Then I told him what I had seen in my first few weeks at Target’s HQ. I told him I saw Pride. I saw his team take pride in having stood on the right side of history, pride in the innovation he was bringing to Target. But I knew that could not have been an easy decision to make, so I asked him, “Why?”

The DNA to Care

His answer moved me. Brian walked me through the history of Target. He told me it was in their DNA to give back to communities. Did you know that since day one, Target has given 5% of their profits back to the community? That’s millions of dollars every week! Did you know that Target was also the first retailer to feature African American models in its advertising? I didn’t. But he taught me that it was in their DNA to care.

By the end of the meeting, he gave me his contact information, agreed to mentor our team and told me not to hesitate to reach out. It’s a promise he’s kept and I’m never one to be shy when I need help. I remember leaving that meeting and knowing to my core that I had met someone who had it in his DNA to care.

At our second meeting, I asked him about communication. “How do you best communicate new things to your team?” Communication in any business is difficult, but I couldn’t even fathom what that looks like with 340,000 employees. He told me to keep my communication simple enough that a child could follow along. People have a million things running through their minds and it’s your job to make the message as simple and concise as possible so that a wide and diverse group of people can immediately follow along.

Thoughts, Learnings, New Actions

Then he dug deeper and we started whiteboarding. He told me that when I present new information, I should break it down into three areas: thoughts, learnings and actions.

  1. Thoughts – reviewing the assumptions we made. By stating them as thoughts and referring to the whole group, you take any blame away (because it’s not about blame, it’s about learning from what we thought).
  2. Learnings – now that we have tested what we thought, what did we learn?
  3. Finally, he said to present New Actions – how are we moving forward from here?

Thoughts – Learnings – New Actions. Simple, right? This has seriously made my life so much easier!

For our third session, he asked me to present what I had learned about the program and what we would be working on moving forward. As you can imagine, I was thrilled (but nervous) because I knew that we had been brought to Techstars not just to grow our businesses, but to help Target learn from startups how to improve and do more faster.

How would he receive our honest observations? Would he like our proposal?

We presented to him in the same fashion he had recommended. Thoughts – Learnings – New Actions. We also shared the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here’s what I learned about Brian that day: he is not only an incredible leader of people, but he appreciates honesty and has a great sense of humor.


Mentorship and Friendship

There’s one thing about mentorship that I think many people misunderstand.

It’s not a take-take relationship and it’s not about having someone’s ear. Mentors are friends whose advice you actually take.

Mentorship is friendship with a focus. They are the friends that help turn your hurdles into leaps of progress. My team and I have made friendships this summer that will span the rest of our lives. We’ve made friendships that have positively impacted not only the trajectory of our business, but helped us grow as individuals.

The best part? Mentorship, like friendship, doesn’t end just because the program is over. Thank you to Brian and to all of our Target mentors for an incredible summer I’ll never forget!

Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Revolar is selling its second safety wearable on Indiegogo for a big discount off the retail price. Click here for more info and connect with them online.

Interested in receiving invaluable mentorship for your startup? Apply today. Applications close April 9.

Live AMA: Techstars Retail (Online)

Have a cool company in the retail space? Thinking of applying to an accelerator? Wondering if it’s right for your startup? Ask anything in our next AMA with Techstars team members: Ryan Broshar, Managing Director,  & Sarah Bain, Program Manager. 

Click here to register! 

Live AMA: Techstars Retail (Online)

Working to innovate the retail industry? Thinking of applying to an accelerator? Wondering if it’s right for your startup? Ask anything in our next AMA with our Techstars Retail with Target team members: Ryan Broshar, Managing Director; and Sarah Bain, Program Manager.

Click here to register!