Reimagining Startup and Enterprise Innovation

Growing a Startup Program Tenfold in 2016: Lessons Learned

Dominique Van Deth
Startup Program Director, France

In 2008, when I joined the Business Operations France organization, I was tasked to develop Oracle programs towards the youth including Oracle Academy and the Oracle Education Foundation. I was really passionate about this because as Oracle CEO Safra Catz says, "It is critical students develop the technical acumen and creative confidence to become the innovators of tomorrow."

One of my key assignments was to develop employee interest to support the cause and donate hours of their time and talent to several NGO including Junior Achievement. That is the essence of our Oracle Volunteers program that is growing year after year.

As I moved to oversee all of our Corporate Citizenship activities in France, I had to answer one key question: "How to leverage the hours employees donate (110,000 hours last year!) to create even more value for the company?" This is how the mentoring program for startups was created.

After a trial experience in 2015 with 6 startups and 6 employees, the French Country Leader asked me to expand the program and that is what we did in 2016. As you would do in a startup environment, we grew tenfold, finishing 2016 with 60 startups and 60 employees.

Please find some key learning below that could benefit your organization, whether you're part of a startup or a large organization:

Focus on what you do well and leverage your strengths

At Oracle, we are all about putting our products to market. We have sales reps selling into Enterprise accounts, we have indirect sales, we create major events to engage our customers and help them understand the trends in the industry and how our portfolio of solutions can help them master complexity, be more efficient and tackle new business territories, all of this in a Cloud environment. This is exactly what we bring to startups: our unique ability to help them connect with selected executives in their industry and beyond. Note that focusing on strength is a usual recommendation from leadership development programs. And it is at the core of Praditus, a startup that helps people understand what makes them truly unique and that was part of our initial selection in 2015.

Ask yourself the key question: what is the fundamental truth that very few people believe

Every startup is challenged to develop a unique value proposition. And the same holds true for corporate products. As a startup program, I went thru the same process of identifying my key differentiator:

As I'm meeting with startups, accelerators and Innovation Directors on a daily basis, I hear over and over that startups need more funding. However, there is one thing even more important. Cash you raise will burn quickly and the more you raise, the less you control of the company. And the amount of dollars raised, while giving you good press, will not value much your company compared to happy paying customers. If you find a "fundamental truth that very few people believe" then not only do you have a differentiator, but you're pretty sure that your uniqueness will last for a long time. When trying to answer this question, if you don't know where to start, you might want to read "Zero to One" by Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, as this concept is at the core of this book.

Make it lean

Probably the hardest advice if you are working in a large organization. But if you want to scale, you have no choice but to identify where to focus, define what your key assumptions are, quickly test them and adjust. In my case, I chose to have a highly decentralized approach where I gave responsibility to each employee to manage the relationship with each startup and I focused my time on the critical step of connecting the startup with the employee and ensuring mutual understanding. Once they're off with a good start, I'm confident they'll succeed. Many have criticized the book, but do yourself a favor, read the original book from Eric Ries "The Lean Startup," and I can tell you it will not be a loss of time.

Leverage the power of people and their connections

As I was focusing on growing my startup mentoring program, I evaluated that finding a startup was not that difficult, but finding an employee willing to become a mentor was the limiting factor. Therefore, I tweaked my approach to offer employees the ability to propose a startup they knew. Of course, we needed to be careful to manage potential conflict of interests, but that was hugely successful because not only was it very popular, but it additionally reduced the time I spent on ensuring the good relationship with the startup. Overall, 40% of new startups came thru the employee channel. To give me even more ideas and exchange with my peers, I joined early 2016 a change agent organization called "Les Hacktivateurs" and would suggest you consider taking part in similar NGO (such as Corporate Rebels) as this is a great way to increase your network while finding new solutions to the problems you face.

Now what's next?

I'm very fortunate to be part of a brand new team that is creating startup accelerators around the world. I'm managing the Oracle Startup Cloud Accelerator in Paris and you might be interested in discovering the amazing cohort we've selected. As our global leader Reggie Bradford says in his recent post, "Why Oracle's Approach to Investing in Startups Has Me Feeling Like an Entrepreneur Again," we are working like a startup within Oracle.

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