This piece was written by Duel Founder and Brand Advocacy expert Paul Archer. It was originally posted in May 2018, and has been updated slightly to reflect program updates.
Accelerators are everywhere these days. Some are fantastic, some less so. Some of these are with corporates, others not. Would I recommend them to other startup founders? Well, it all really depends on the match between the startup, the corporation, and the stage of your company.
Last year, the team at Oracle’s startup program asked me to write a blog on why people should join their startup program. However, I've actually written one that focuses a lot on why startups shouldn't join. In our case, it all worked out fantastically and it could be the same for you, but every business is different and corporate accelerators are not for everyone.
Hopefully, this will help you decide if they are for you.
My experience with Duel
We were still working on how to position our new proposition after a pivot, and the brand-new team at the Oracle accelerator were still working out how to navigate the rest of their corporation to add value to us. It took us a good while to penetrate the right parts of the Oracle business (which in startup time is forever). Today, however, we are integrated into Oracle’s product solution and on the Oracle Cloud Marketplace. Oracle salespeople selling their Customer Experience Cloud solutions can also use a product demo that heavily features Duel. So that’s great exposure.
We even got to meet the big man, Larry Ellison, during the Founder to Founder event while attending Oracle OpenWorld.
Last year, I was lucky enough to be a key part of a keynote for Oracle’s Modern Customer Experience conference in Chicago. I found myself discussing our vision in front of 3,000 potential clients of ours and getting visibility across the whole of Oracle (check it out here).
It’s all well and good for us, but can it be replicated?
Should YOU join a corporate accelerator?
Now be warned, the vast majority of corporate accelerators are probably a massive waste of time. The most valuable resource a founder has is time. A large organisation operates completely differently to a business that only has six months worth of runway to prove the concept before becoming profitable, getting more funding… or dying. They plan with time periods measuring in years, not months or even weeks in some cases. This means everyone at the corporate will take a meeting - even introduce you to other important employees - but you could spend a year doing that with an organisation like Oracle and only scratch the surface.
The decision to join one of these programs could potentially make the company, but it could also break it too, so choose wisely as it could be life or death.
Keep it in mind that negotiating this relationship requires a founder or highly skilled salesperson to navigate the complex org chart. Ask yourself: is this the best use of my limited resources and time? Enterprise sales people are often your most expensive resource, so is this person better used selling to real clients and making revenue, or selling to a partner to get clients down the line?
The crucial point is that you don’t have the time or resources to maintain focus on both your partner and other clients. The partner has to have a valuable enough distribution network to ensure penetrating it is worth your time.
When to do it
The biggest thing that is often overlooked about joining an accelerator or corporate startup program - on both sides - is whether now is the right time for the startup. A founder’s job is to focus entirely on finding product-market fit. If you haven’t found product-market fit, or you’re ‘pre-chasm,’ then a corporate accelerator is probably not the right environment for you. Martin Casado at Andreessen Horowitz outlines this predicament far better than I ever could in this comprehensive blog.
We had already had an experience of joining an accelerator when we didn’t have product-market fit, and the result was countless very exciting meetings which went nowhere. Massive companies often take 12 months to do a single deal. When you only have 10 months of burn to prove product-market fit, the wise founder avoids these highly exciting, yet generally pointless conversations early in the company life. When we eventually joined Oracle’s program it was probably still a little too early, but only just as we reached the right ‘time’ during the process.
However, if we had joined it three months previously, we may not even be here today.
Another point is if you don’t have your first key reference clients, finding them through corporate accelerators can be challenging. Clients gained through major partnerships are likely high-value enterprise companies - perfect dream clients for scaling businesses, but not perfect for those vital early, slightly forgiving reference clients. Which means that corporate partnerships open up access to enterprise clients and countless leads that you could simply never achieve yourself, but only if the time is right.
How to penetrate the giant
So, if that fits your bill, let me explain how we penetrated Oracle so deeply. It took a lot of hard work, both from our very patient team and the fantastic folks at Oracle. What I like about their approach is that the Oracle startup team saw themselves primarily as a barrier to protect us and navigate us across Oracle, as well as facilitators for the right kind of conversations.
The most successful thing we did was to get buy-in from all layers of the sales organisation by working on showing how integrating with our software would help Oracle make more sales. It sounds simple, but the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor can often be lost when pitching people on your super-amazing new widget as you can end up forgetting that they are a channel, not a client. We then did this from the top down, engaging with all levels, running demos and getting people excited about the product and how it would help them make more sales. The final thing we did was to appoint a champion from within the company. This is the difference between a CRM full of contacts and a concerted effort to drive every person in the corporate in the same direction. Ideally, it's someone who can see the opportunity the partnership can provide their team, but also see how it can advance their career if the project is successful.
The key thing to remember is that people in the large company don’t owe you anything. You may be part of their big fancy accelerator, but in a large organisation, many people won’t know about the program. At the end of the day, it all comes down to whether what you do helps each individual to achieve their personal goals.
Go all in
Go all in, or don’t play at all. We committed huge amounts of our resources to developing for the Oracle platforms and meeting every single person in the company we possibly could. We flew around the world, we spoke at conferences, we met partners. Everything. This is incredibly hard work, but without this, we never would have been able to penetrate Oracle so deeply.
If left to its own devices, a large corporate can bleed startups dry. Oracle has 140,000 employees and we only had 10, so learning to pick and choose the right opportunities is key. Especially as everybody will want to spend time with the new cool innovative thing, and remember, they always have much more time than you.
And just like they don’t owe you anything, you don’t owe them anything, so say no to things that are not part of your core strategy. It’s hard, but it is the only way you can make it work. You will be presented with countless opportunities and you have to filter aggressively or drown. Once you’ve mastered this, you’ll be on track to turning your corporate accelerator into a major channel for what you do.
Don’t join a corporate accelerator if you’re too early and still working on your focus.
Do join if you know where you’re going, the time is right and you are laser-focused on the enterprise market. If this is the case, joining an accelerator that takes advantage of vast global resources and expertise of someone like Oracle could end up being the beginning of the most successful partnership you’ll have in the life of the company.