How to run a successful Startup Pilot: Maze decoding Impact

How to set the scene for a successful Corporate Startup pilot

I’ve always been a believer in the value of Corporate Startup relationships. Today, I am lucky enough to witness the synergies of such partnerships at MAZE, and we’ve compiled a few tips on how to set the scene for successful Corporate Startup pilots.

But first, I have a confession*.

During my corporate years, I was a pain in the ass to my bosses. I was restless and impatient. I wanted to see change, and I wanted it fast. I lost the count to the number of times I broke into their offices with revolutionary ideas to make our lives easier, and completely change the way we worked.

At some point, I was actually the person making PowerPoint slides listing all the things we could learn from Startups — there was even one explaining the differences between Unicorns (them) and Dinosaurs (us). Charming.

It was tiring but I had fun. More importantly, it was useful because it taught me a lot about the decision-making process of corporates and all its implications. It was also useful for my bosses because it forced them to consider and be open to different possibilities.

A few years later, when I joined MAZE, I was given the challenge to make Corporate Startup relationships work (considering a future post on karma, the universe, planets alignment, and all of that).

Today I know that Startups have a lot to learn with Corporates as well — on structure, processes, doing things at scale and long-term vision, to name a few. I also know that these 2 worlds are drastically different and hard to combine, but they have so much to gain working together. Definitely worth the shot.

At Maze X, our impact accelerator, we do this by running Corporate Startup pilots.

What is a startup pilot program

A startup pilot program is when a corporate decides to test internally an innovative solution created by a startup for a business challenge they are facing. Generally, startup pilot programs happen in the context of a startup acceleration program or in partnership with innovation departments of the corporate itself. At Maze X, we select some startups specifically to pilot with our corporate partners.

Meet our startup pilots

This year’s edition we have 3 Startups piloting with our Corporate Partners

  1. NU-RISE is testing its product with Luz Saúde, which will allow doctors to monitor the levels of radiation being delivered near tumours and surrounding organs at risk.
  2. MysteryMinds will be testing MysteryCoffee at PLMJ, aiming to create meaningful connections between their employees, from different practices and hierarchical levels.
  3. Electricfeel is helping BNP Paribas understand their current mobility landscape while assessing the opportunities to reduce the negative impact of moving their workforce every day.

Whether you are a Startup or a Corporate, when starting a pilot, there are a few details that you should have in mind. We’ve prepared a quick checklist of things to have in place before starting this relationship that has mainly to do with expectations alignment: agreeing on a plan, a common language, and a comfortable pace.

For Startups

Get to know your client

Spend time understanding the Corporate’s reality, their culture, their industry and why they want to work with you in the first place. Learn as much as you can about them by listening. Do this before presenting a formal proposal. If you see it just as a commercial opportunity, you are probably missing the point.

Make it unique

Build a proposal that shows what you’ve learned so far, that feels exciting, but it is reasonable and adapted to their reality. Justify what you are presenting: what pain are you trying to solve? How do you plan to deliver what they value? Be flexible. Sometimes Corporates are looking for state of the art innovation, others it’s the stories and new ways of keeping their workforce engaged that count. Whatever it is, make sure you have the full picture and see how you can help with that.

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BNP Paribas’ team at a Maze X sunset last year, showing their support to Chatterbox, a startup they are piloting with

Nurture this relationship

You will probably have a key point of contact inside the Corporate. This is your champion, your biggest fan (and friend) inside the organization. She is the person that will make it work internally. Make sure you make her life easier by being present and responsive and adjust to her pace. Take a moment to understand what your champion has on her plate and be mindful of that. You will be expected to push them — as most likely, they are hoping to learn how to be more agile with you — but try to find the right balance.

Involve your own team

It’s common to see pilot opportunities negotiated by Startups’ C-levels. If this is the case, make sure you include your team from the beginning, let them know what this means for your organization, why you need this, and what they will learn from this experience. Help them split their time wisely between this and their daily work. Having the whole team on board will be critical in the long-run.

For Corporates

Choose your champions wisely

You probably know already who they are — your innovation superheroes. They are resilient, curious, and excited to challenge the status quo.

We know we are very privileged for understanding the value of having these people on board. Daniela (from PLMJ), Tanita and Patrícia (from BNP Paribas) and Gonçalo (from Luz Saúde) thank you for the drive that a pilot (and any organization) needs.

Accelerate R&D internally

Use this opportunity to accelerate and test things internally — being it a new way of working, a new team set-up, surveying your employees about a pressing challenge, or speeding-up decision making. Think about what you can accelerate besides the product/service you’re going to test.

Define what successful startup pilot means

Think about what success looks like. Be clear about your goals for the pilot, share it with the Startup, and get together to define the best impact metrics that you would like to see measured by the end of it. Starting with that goal in mind is critical for a successful outcome.

Leverage on the opportunities

If innovation and culture change is something you are aiming for, spend some time thinking of how you are embedding that in your organization. It won’t happen from day to night just because you ran a pilot. Leverage on Startup’s stamina and agility to influence your own culture. Here are a few things to try:

  • Think about who in your organization would easily adopt the solution to test it internally. They will most likely become your influencers. Let them spread the word
  • Build a strong internal communication plan that triggers curiosity
  • Invite the founders to speak with your teams (on their journey and what they’ve learned, how to pitch, how to do consumer research, …)
  • Schedule internal monthly reflections for everyone involved to think about how to incorporate what they have been learning from this experience

Although we’ve seen these things work, we recognise that every pilot is unique and we never approach one with assumptions made.

For us, it will always be a learning process: we test things and see how it works, we speak with Startups and Corporates that have done it in the past and get inspired by their experiences.

We love stories — of successes and failures, and what people and their companies got from these experiences. And that is why we would love to hear it from you too.

Do you have a good pilot story to share with us? Is there any tip you would add to this list? I would love to learn more from you. Reach out and let’s talk!

* This post was written with Usher’s Confessions on repeat.

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