How to Navigate Working With Corporates

Whether you're just starting out or have been in business for a few years, there's always a ton of questions that come to mind when it comes to working with corporates. 

We were lucky enough to connect with a former startup founder turned corporate innovation evangelist, Barbara Guerpillon, for a breakfast discussion in Singapore. Barbara works at the intersection of corporate innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. She leads Unilever Foundry in Southeast Asia, enabling the company’s global brands to accelerate experimentation and pilot new technologies more efficiently, effectively and speedily. For the last 10 years, Barbara has worked in a variety of startups in Singapore from e-commerce platforms, to digital mapping. She is an advocate of Singapore’s startup ecosystem and entrepreneur community and believes they have the power to transform the region and create real business opportunities. Barbara sits down with SheWorx to discuss how startups and corporates can get along and how to build meaningful relationships in the process.

What is the Unilever Foundry about? And how does it work?

Barbara explained that the Foundry was established when Unilever started to internally reinvent own business models and tools. The size of the company prevented them from getting the products out there on time. Hence, now we partner with startups that are working on the cutting edge technology to execute these tasks. According to Barabara, Foundry was started when there came a need to build an environment that allows people to try, to fail and to innovate. She says her role in the company is to go internally to scout for business challenges such as zero waste to nature, engaging with millennials, improving connectivity in rural areas. These are transformed into Foundry briefs.

A Foundry brief given when you have a problem that you don’t know how to solve it. "We work with scouting agencies to find good startups, execute landscaping on what are the technology/solutions and then shortlist of 5 startups for the pitch day." Barabara added that for the Pitch day, the Foundry will help the startups for 3 weeks to prepare the use case and they will pitch the functionalities for the use cases while they are evaluated based on the usability and scalability. She says ”I am here to balance on what can you ask the startup and what you cannot ask the startup, help the startups manage expectations, reactivity – help them understand we have to wait for some alignment internally for the pilot to be successful.” We first test the model for the pilot and how well it met expectations and worked. If there is no fit we stop right there. If the results are interesting, we do iteration to make the results better and replicaeable. Finally, if it worked then we help the company scale internally to other markets.

When should startups apply for the briefs or pitches? Do they come as an established company or ideas?

Barabara explained that startups have to come in with a minimum viable product. On average pilots cost around 50000 USD. She added that this 50K is not meant for startups to set up the company or develop the product (“we tried but this method failed”). Nevertheless, not all features are expected to be available or developed. This is where we understand and support to see the scalability of the idea. Usually we work companies are pre series A or series A. For some figures, “We have launched 109 pilots globally à scaled 45 startups”

What are your thoughts on corporates investing in startups?

As for the Foundry, Barabara says, “there was one case so far that we have tested the pilot, scaled the company, invested in the startup and exited.” However the investment arm goes to the Unilever ventures because that is not the primary objective of the Foundry. The Foundry doesn’t aim to fund the startup but the best thing to do is to give them the business. We talk to VCs to identify early stage startups and exponential growth startups, but we take their comments with a pinch of salt as they have vested interests in them. Overall, Barabara remarked that “the objective isn’t to make Unilever have a startup mentality but to bring in the good ways in which startups function and some of these can be included in the way Unilever functions too” In fact, bringing in startups do trigger ideas among our teams to think of solutions for their business challenges differently.

As a startup what should we be looking for when partnering with corporates?

Barabara advises that if you have opportunity to get in touch corporates running these programs, one question you should ask is how embedded is this program in their company. When you integrate with the program and the company, make sure that the corporate has a business challenge to solve. It is unlikely that the company is going to execute if they are just interested in the technology. Ensure that you have someone in the corporate from the business side that has a vote and is engaged with the startup


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