Step aside venture capital: Corporates are stepping up to the plate

For a few years now there’s been a tremendous amount of VC investment available for scaling tech businesses. But things are changing. Corporates are now getting in on the act, building relationships with early-stage ventures and offering something a little different.

I started my career in the height of the dot-com boom. My first job was to pitch for the redevelopment of the FTSE.com website. I remember submitting a two-page proposal, detailing next to nothing, and summarising with a price tag of £1m. A price tag which was roughly £900,000 overpriced.

Looking back, it was a pretty irresponsible time. And not one I’m particularly proud of. Especially as FTSE became a client.

There’s plenty of talk of whether today is a repeat of that time.

We’re seeing "unicorns" (companies valued over $1 billon) popping up daily. Building profits is now secondary to building revenues. And building revenues doesn’t seem that important either.

And it’s not just the companies that are worth billions. There’s a glut of tech founders who have become billionaires overnight, many of whom are leading companies that have yet to make a dollar’s profit.

Twitter lost almost $700,000 a day in its first quarter of 2016 and after 11 years is yet to turn a profit. Snap posted a loss of over $500 million last year. I says “it may never achieve or maintain profitability” and was valued close to $25 billion when it went public in February. And the list goes on.

It’s certainly a different approach to business.

For a few years now there’s been a tremendous amount of VC investment available for scaling tech businesses. But things are changing. Corporates are now getting in on the act, building relationships with early-stage ventures and offering something a little different.

And rightly so.

VCs have been building thematic investment portfolios designed at disrupting mainstay industries made up of businesses that have, until recently, been mostly focused on operational efficiencies and sustainable innovation. And sadly, that’s most of them.

And in turn we’ve seen the advent of new innovation streams, normally labeled by the industry they’re disrupting – fintech, insurtech, retailtech, edtech, biotech, healthtech…. you get the idea.

Whilst some of this innovation will challenge the mainstay wholesale, most will chip away at small parts of a business, slowly bleeding big business dry. A phrase we like to use internally is "death by a thousand papercuts."  

So, just what are the big companies doing to change things?

We’ve recently completed a piece of research, interviewing tens of high-profile CIOs and innovation directors from around the world, looking to gain an insight into their strategy for tech innovation and continuous business relevancy.

The interviews boiled down to three main activities that cropped up time and time again:

  1. Buy – acquire or invest in new ventures either before they hurt us or whilst they’re still "cheap"
  2. Partner – explore collaborations with new ventures, looking at building proof of concepts that can be either rolled into the core business or scaled independently
  3. Build – look to the new venture landscape for inspiration, map it to the strategic direction of the business and design propositions and businesses that can achieve relevant scale and growth for the business

Across each of these there’s a load of further complexities and considerations. For most of the people interviewed, the actual execution of these tended to be embryonic, and as with trying anything new, the results mixed.

What was good to hear was that even the most backward of big companies are now starting to accept and embrace the changes taking place.

So whether we are indeed in a bubble or not is somewhat irrelevant; there’s a huge amount of emergent and successful tech innovation that will change market conditions. It’s now about identifying it, tracking it and ensuring your business is positioned to act on the knowledge in a fashion that will gain competitive advantage.

And the good news is the startups are receptive to those exploratory conversations. Remember, for them it’s about how to achieve scale as quickly as possible on the best terms they can negotiate. Corporate relationships have suddenly become hugely attractive.

All you need to do know is this: Work out what you want from a startup and what you have to offer, and package that up in a way that excites them to join forces with you. And make sure you do all this before they start chatting with half a dozen of your competitors!

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