How start-ups should talk to corporates

3 minute read


Effective communication with corporates can be make-or-break for start-ups. Get it right and there’s the possibility of partnership, investment and maybe some form of exit. Get it wrong and you’ll be one of the many start-ups that corporates consider but never commit to.

Steve Drost, Chief Strategy Officer at CodeBase, explains how to talk to corporates.


There's an old cliché that says that start-ups don't know how to sell, and corporates don't know how to buy. At CodeBase we work with over 100 start-ups and see evidence of that almost every day.

Working out exactly what a corporate needs from a start-up is the key to communicating with them. A first step is to work out what kind of corporate you're dealing with.

Is it an established corporate that is decades old, likely to have a conservative company culture and use traditional playbooks? Or is it a newer company built around software or an internet-based business model?

The word ‘corporate’ covers both types of business despite their needs varying widely. The good news is that there are opportunities with both traditional and more modern corporates.

A fresh approach

Older incumbent corporates are often looking to fundamentally change their approach. A huge part of corporate transformation is actually talking to start-ups. Start-ups work from a blank canvas and that freshness of thinking is often just what corporates need.

Some corporates simply aren’t ready for transformation. Instead they may be looking to show their customers that they are still relevant and can hang out with start-ups. They might sponsor a hackathon, for example, but aren’t able to integrate a start-up’s products or approach. What they are looking for may be superficial but the start-up can still benefit from testing proof of concepts or accessing first customers. A more conservative form of communication may be best for businesses like this.

Corporates may be having conversations with start-ups because they’re looking for talent to hire, or they may be chiefly interested in IP. The greater your understanding of the corporate and its aims, the more effective you can be in your communication with them, both in terms of the message and how you deliver it.

Confidence and authenticity

How you present yourself and your business is part of the communication challenge and there isn’t a single right way to do it. The corporate world has got the memo that disruption is real and software is eating the world. They know they need to do something different and working with start-ups is part of that. Therefore presenting yourself as different to the corporate status quo makes sense. Does that mean you should wear t-shirts and flip-flops to a pitch meeting? Not necessarily, but working out how to present yourself is all part of the start-up hustle. The important thing is to be confident and authentic. Being humble is always good too.

Identify your superpowers

Part of that confidence can come from understanding quite how different a start-up is from a corporate. The speed with which a start-up can move is so radically different from a big business that it’s almost a superpower. Most start-ups don’t understand that. Work out what your superpowers are in relation to each corporate and make them clear in your message.

Focus on your personality

Effectively conveying your personality and that of your team is also incredibly important. If you’re an early stage company, all you're really selling is yourself. You’ll have a minimal viable product but it’ll probably be a bit of an ugly duckling. You not only have to persuade the corporate that it could become a brilliant swan; you have to make them believe that you’re the people that can make it happen. That means showing how passionate and obsessed you are. Corporates need to buy in to you, just as much as the product. Communicate in a way that lets you build personal relationships and trust.

In summary, work to understand the corporate and what they are looking for. Understand how different you are and highlight these aspects. Be confident and authentic. And above all, talk to corporates in a way that lets your passion and your personality shine through.

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