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Building the Bridge Between Startups and BigCos – Interview with Tina Sharkey

Tina Sharkey is a seasoned Internet and digital media builder and operator. Among other accomplishments, she co-founded iVillage in the mid-90s, launched Sesame Street Workshop online and was a senior leader at AOL, running all of their global messaging and their global network. Most recently, she was the founding CEO of Sherpa Foundry, a global platform that builds bridges between the world’s leading corporations and the Innovation Economy. In short, she uses her experience working at startups and large corporations to help BigCos and startups work together.

Sharkey came to Cintrifuse’s annual meeting and participated in a fireside chat with our CEO Wendy Lea. She gave us a lot of things to think about and we had the opportunity to catch up with her afterwards to talk more about why it’s important for these two worlds to collide and how both BigCos and startups can get the most out of working with each other.

The New Economy is The Economy

There may be an ‘evil twin’ inside your organization – an entrepreneur or intrapreneur that’s trying to disrupt an area of your business. Better to co-op them and understand how you can disrupt yourself.

And large corporates need to figure out how to do business in this rapidly changing landscape. Companies with a global presence are finding a need to reinvest and retool themselves. A reinvention that extends to all aspects of their business – products, services, workforce and technologies. There’s really no better way for BigCos to stay ahead of the curve than to work with the people already trying new approaches to market strategies. Namely startups.

While the benefits of working with startups are numerous, Sharkey points to a couple of things that she sees as the biggest upshots for large companies that engage with the Innovation Economy. The first is talent. According to Sharkey, and just about everyone else, the days of lifetime employment at a firm are long gone. In her words, working with startups helps corporations by “understanding their workforce and the future of work and the people who will be the future business leaders.”

Following talent is learning about and utilizing new methodologies and new ways of problem solving. And the final big benefit she sees for corporates that work with startups is understanding the millennial mindset. Which goes beyond attracting young talent and helps BigCos understand and have insights on the next generation of consumers.

Overall, BigCo’s need to understand startups so they themselves can potentially avoid disruption. Said by Sharkey, “There may be an ‘evil twin’ inside your organization – an entrepreneur or intrapreneur that’s trying to disrupt an area of your business. Better to co-op them and understand how you can disrupt yourself.”

It’s a Two Way Street

Least you think corporations are the only benefactors, startups have a lot to gain from working with corporates too. For instance, for companies that are trying to scale, working with a BigCo lets them understand what scale actually looks like. Working with corporations also helps startups better understand the industries they are trying to disrupt. It can also help them understand what opportunities they have to sell into, work with and to collaborate with the companies that are industry leaders. Corporations can also be sources for potential investment, acquisition or advisers.

Clearing the Hurdles

Be in full disclosure with a corporation with what you need to make the service a possibility. This is critical and I think they would appreciate it.

While the benefits to working together are numerous, it can be difficult for large companies and startups to work together. For starters, things can easily get bogged down in legal and business development processes. BigCos need to realize that startups don’t have a lot of cycles or a deep bench. More often than not, the startup will not know how to navigate the corporate structure the way the corporations want. Overall, if corporates can’t work in a swift nimble way, then chances are they won’t be very success working with startups. Sharkey recommends that BigCos assign
ambassadors or concierges to help a startup engage with the
corporate structure.

And for startups she recommends taking baby steps. Incremental milestones that you can connect to and deliver on, as opposed to signing up for some big sized deliverable. This is especially important for startups that don’t have the capacity, or the funding. Sharkey also recommends to avoid feeling like you have to add on to your core business to service the BigCo. “Be in full disclosure with a corporation with what you need to make the service a possibility. This is critical and I think they would appreciate it,” she said. “I feel like startups think they can’t really tell them for fear that they might lose the opportunity. And that’s not actually true.”

Overall, she suggests to find stakeholders on both sides, make sure that you’re building relationships across the campus, make sure you don’t get over your skis and be transparent with what your capacity to deliver.

Want to know how Cintrifuse helps BigCos and startups work together? Then check out our Customer Connection program designed to connect our corporate partners with with our member startups.

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