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Unilever Foundry head Jonathan Hammond on how startups can win over corporates

Jonathan Hammond

As SxSW gets underway, Jonathan Hammond, head of Unilever Foundry, shares his top tips on how startups can engage with corporates and brand managers.

Flights? Check. Airbnb? Check? Networking party invites? Check. Sounds like SxSW is on.

SxSW has been a must-attend event for startups for years. More recently, it’s become the same for the world’s leading companies, creating a maelstrom of opportunity for the two sides to work together.

Three years into creating Unilever Foundry, Unilever’s global startup innovation platform, we’ve learned a lot about how to succeed in startup/corporate collaboration. And as we head into SxSW, we’ve commissioned global research into the upsides and downsides of the space.

We’re expecting the full results later in the Spring, but we wanted to share our early findings as a pre-SxSW heads up on how to make the most out of networking at one of the industry’s most influential events. Think of these as our three top tips for a successful SxSW.

1. Know your worth

In our experience, startups are a confident bunch. It’s usually part of the entrepreneurial gene.

Don’t let the fact you’re meeting established corporate world leaders put you off your stride. Our study shows 80% of global brand managers say startups can have a positive impact on a large company's approach to innovation, with 79% looking to work with more startups in the coming year. Why? As one head of innovation we interviewed put it: “Innovation and growth come from combining industries in interesting ways, and by opening up your thinking to outside influences – startups are an amazing source for all of this.”

In other words, startup demand is incredibly strong, arguably the strongest it’s ever been. Be confident and know your worth.

2. Don’t over sell

Look around you. Demand might be strong, but supply is even stronger. And there’s nothing that will alienate you from corporates more than unsubstantiated ‘unicorn talk’ and over-promising, particularly when it comes to timelines.

According to our research, over half of brand managers and corporates (53%) have found that working with immature or under developed startups is a real barrier to collaborating in a meaningful way. As one startup founder put it: “Being honest about the business you have and potential you have rather than pitching yourself as these world changing businesses is probably going to be better received by the bigger brands."

The balance between these two forces can be a tricky one. Have confidence of course in your product, but if you take our company for example, it’s highly unlikely your tech is the solution to all business needs across Unilever’s 400+ brands.

Be specific, be realistic and show how you can help with something business critical.

3. Insights can be as important as tech

Beyond their size and scale, there’s one thing that corporates typically do far better than startups – insights. They have the budget and resources to make it work.

In our experience, and the findings from our research confirm it, the best startups are those that twin their new technology with robust consumer or market insights. Corporates need to work with startups that can “tap into very specific expertise and explore far more” than they can. Or, as another brand manager we spoke to put it: “[Startups] need to move beyond a dog and pony show approach, [and] curate against specific agendas.”

Your instincts are likely to have got you a long way. Whether you’re in startup or scale up mode, you will be making dozens of business decisions every day. And, as it’s your business, your gut has all the data you need to make the correct decisions more often than not.

When it comes to the corporate world, it’s less likely to stand up to scrutiny.

So, there you have it, my top tips on how to engage with corporates and brand managers at this year’s SxSW. It’s a crazy world out in Austin and it’s very easy to lose track of what’s important, both for you and your would-be collaborator.

Global companies like Unilever want and need to work with new and exciting startups. So have confidence in what you can offer, but be realistic and be business critical, not business mythical.

More insights from the global research will be revealed at SxSW where I will be on the panel: Play Forward: Why What & How of Brands & Startups, 5.00-6.00, 12th March alongside Karmarama’s Lawrence Weber and Mondelez’s Barry Calpino.

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