Big companies are from Mars, Startups are from Venus

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While recently helping a startup secure development funding from a large company, I started reflecting on why the two have so much difficulty working together.  Large companies complain that startups are hard to work with, have unrealistic expectations, are too ambitious and are frustratingly impatient. Conversely, startups lament that big companies are slow, uninspired and don’t value the breakthrough potential of their technologies. This leads to conflict.

All of this reminds me of a terrible, but best-selling book of the 90’s: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Are big companies from Mars and startups from Venus? It sure seems that way. Here are some common examples of disconnects:

 

Innovation

Big Company            

What they Say:           

We want and love innovation! We are all about innovation!

What they Mean:       

Well we love saying the word innovation, but what we really need are products that can be in the market within two years. Our CEO, and hopefully me as well, will be in another job by then, and the hedge funds that own 40% of our stock really don’t care about anything long term.  So innovation is great as long as it makes money tomorrow.

Startup           

What they say:           

We have innovation! Our stuff is amazing and it is going to transform your business.

What they mean:       

Ok here’s the deal. We are not quite sure what we have is going to work, and it needs loads of development, but hey, if it works this will be the most awesome thing that has ever happened to your business. Also I’m great and have succeeded at everything I’ve done in my short life, so I’m sure this will work also!

Money

Startup           

What they say:           

You are a perfect partner. We need some support to get us to a product you can sell and market.

What they mean:       

You have gazillions of dollars and we just need a sliver of it to be uber successful. How hard can that be. You won’t even notice sharing that little with us. I mean come on.

Big Company

What they say:           

What you have seems interesting. Let's explore working together. There could be money for you.

What they mean:      

Everybody thinks we have money. I’ve never seen it here. Maybe you guys have the money? The finance people must be hiding the money.

Timelines

 Startup           

What they say:           

We can’t believe this took six months!

What they mean:       

No seriously, we can’t believe it took six months. Don’t you realize we’re surviving on ramen and bananas?

Big Company 

What they say:           

We can’t believe this took six months!

What they mean:       

Wow we pulled out all the stops to make this happen amazingly fast! We’ve never had so much alignment across our hyper-matrixed organization. This is the fastest we’ve ever done anything – we are nimble!
 

Joint Development Agreements

 Startup           

What they say:      

We are open to a funded joint development program and we value your input.

What they mean:      

Look we really need your money. And if getting married is the only way we are going to get it, then so be it, but let’s be clear as to why we are into you.

Big Company

What they say:           

Yes we do Joint Development Agreements all the time.

What they mean:       

Our lawyers are so unreasonable, I don’t even want to watch them chew through you. Once they are done with you guys, you’ll be ours. Good luck!

 

In love and in life, how do we make it work?

“Men are from Earth, women are from Earth, deal with it!”

Firstly, all of us are driven by our self-interests, to further our careers and dreams. It’s important to acknowledge that the other party is looking out for themselves, just as you are.

Secondly, good selling comes from a position of curiosity: what would make your life better and how can I help bring that about?

Thirdly, listen for what is meant and underlying conversations, not just for what is said. Difficult dynamics, motives and issues are often hidden away. Without addressing them implicitly or explicitly, they will remain barriers to constructive resolution.

Fourth, thrive to be clear about your own motives and acknowledge where you have to compromise to create a win-win.

Just as you would do in your personal relationships: If you invest the time and energy to understand your counterparty, as well as share openly what is critical to you, you might finally understand each other and both emerge as winners.

By Bernie Lupien, General Partner, Rhapsody Venture Partners