While corporate innovators inherently tackle the challenges facing their companies, true enterprise innovation requires an ability to work and engage with a larger ecosystem outside the company. Working with, and learning from startups provides a great path to expanding your innovation toolkit. Startups, early stage companies and entrepreneurs (for simplicity, we’ll just call them startups) continue to create great value in our economy, innovating, executing and pivoting at a rapid pace. These startups rapidly transform industries, and they are changing how consumers engage with products every day.

While the enterprise obviously faces obstacles startups can ignore or don’t face, many large companies have initiatives (some better than others) to encourage a startup mentality across the organization. Others, perhaps recognizing their culture may not support a startup approach, have created mechanisms to engage with startups on problems facing the business.

While acting like a startup sounds appealing, executives and innovators must live in reality; often, the fundamental operating mechanisms and the capital behind both corporations and startups can be so different that behaving the same may be difficult, but leveraging each other can be powerful.

Corporations engaging startup partners brings the unique characteristics of a startup to large companies. While internal corporate innovation does produce results, working with startups brings four key benefits to the enterprise:

Speed. Startups face tremendous pressure to make numbers and simply survive. As such, everything is done with speed.Typically, large companies purposefully limit the pace of innovation through its own decision process, including project prioritization via budgeting. While this tracking helps a corporation to meet its objectives, it could inadvertently slow down its ability to execute, especially on new and evolving ideas.

A startup sets its priorities daily, if not hourly, and functions with tremendous flexibility to get work done. What they lack in scale, they more than make up for in nimbleness. It could make sense to have the development of an idea done with a startup especially at early stages to get rapid feedback on if the idea will work in the market.

Obsessive Focus. Most startups tend to focus on a specific problem in a market; great startups are relentlessly hyper-focused on creating value to solve that problem. In addition to the ability to rapidly pivot and adapt, a good entrepreneur can remove distractions to stay true to their execution path and to the markets they serve. The diversity and complexity of corporations can make it difficult to map all the intricacies of new markets that you may be exploring and fully dedicate resources to serve that market. Given their singular focus, startups typically have a strong grasp on the nuances of these adjacent markets, which can be invaluable to an enterprise.

Diversity of thinking. Almost all corporate innovation functions struggle to maintain a flow of diverse thinking. Innovative solutions require building upon different and unique perspectives to inspire creative thinking. Breaking outside the four walls of the enterprise to work with startups should be part of any large company’s diversity mix. The value of working with startup talent goes beyond simply working outside the company; it is the diverse backgrounds they bring to the table.

Many startup employees may be deeply entrenched in the markets you are pursuing, bringing unique depth to your thinking. Others may have never worked in a corporate environment which could give you a completely different perspective of the problems you are solving without any preconceived notions. Engaging with startups provide a great opportunity to diversify and challenge your thinking.

Risk. Corporate innovators constantly “battle” for the ability to pursue greater risk in their ideas without tripping over corporate risk controls. While in place for good reason, these controls often keep innovators from pursuing opportunities that appear on the horizon.

Enter the startup or external agency partner. By working outside the organization, corporate innovators can pair the risk-tolerant nature of a startup with the long-term strategic vision and resources of the enterprise. This enhances internal innovation function while giving the startup improved agility to maneuver and tackle problems too risky for internal controls. The combination of the more aggressive approach from the startup with the scale of the corporate partner serves as a win-win for both and de-risks the opportunity for both parties.

There are plenty of other benefits to working with outside partners such as startups, and recognizing those opportunities comes down to having a full grasp of the realities of innovation within your organization. Many will agree that there is great benefit working with startups, but framing that relationship often presents a challenge to the enterprise. In my next article, I will discuss how to effectively leverage startups for corporate innovation to accomplish tasks that don’t fit the typical enterprise model.


Arguably one of the most knowledgeable intrapreneurs around, Alex Gonzalez has helped lead transformative innovation and build growth processes for the likes of GE and Equifax, among many others. Today he’s the founder and managing director at Creative Growth Ventures, where he splits his time advising, training and consulting with executives, corporate innovation teams and high-growth startups.