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Working with start-ups: How to tell the ‘shiny objects’ from the powerful solutions

Health and Benefits|Inclusion and Diversity|Wellbeing

By Steve Blumenfield | December 20, 2019

Start-ups are known for disruption, but you don’t want them disrupting your business. With these six tips in mind, both start-ups and clients can succeed together.

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About The Cure for the Common Co. podcast series

The Cure for the Common Co. podcast series explores innovations in the world of employee health. We talk to entrepreneurs and CEOs who are leveraging technology to address the needs and priorities of a new generation, delivering benefits that can separate employers from the pack.

The leaders of the start-up companies who share their stories on our Cure for the Common Co. podcasts have their own unique, fascinating founding stories. When you listen to these impassioned leaders and others passionate about their own start-ups, it is easy to believe that with their powerful visions, a good user experience and enough coding, they can conquer the world – and uniquely resolve even your thorniest business issue!

But working with start-ups can be problematic if you don’t do your homework. Reality can settle in as you begin to live the promises and work with their solution in your company. That shiny new object can suddenly become just another vendor. 

That old guard set of vendors being disrupted? You may somehow reminisce their standard – if rigid – approach to implementation. Reporting? You knew what to expect – the good and the bad – from the old guard. They spent decades creating solid, consistent products and services that largely delivered against the expectations that were set – give or take a performance guarantee.

Enter the start-up. The successful ones will get there for sure, but your company may be the lucky ones putting them through their paces. When they talk about disruption – you want them to disrupt the industry, not your company! Here are six tips we have learned in our own work with start-ups, and in supporting our clients with vendors over the years.

  1. 01

    MVP is DOA:

    Start-ups talk about their MVP all the time. Unlike the most valuable player that you might think of in sports – MVP is the “minimum viable product.” Start-ups seek to quickly develop their MVP so they can test it with real customers – you – and gain critical insight for future development. This enables them to be “lean” and “agile” in their work.

    But as we all know from that one phone or computer software upgrade that went awry on our personal devices, roll-out of new solutions at scale can reveal flaws and bugs that weren’t anticipated in user testing.

    To be clear, it’s not only start-ups that struggle with clean product launches; industry titans, from auto manufacturers to tech giants, have their own product launch and update release issues. However, when working with start-ups, we need to be especially mindful of their size, scale and the point they started from in product development and testing. Expect some bumps unless you have seen evidence of multiple clean implementations in a similar environment.

  2. 02

    Vision meets the factory floor:

    There is a Japanese proverb that states, “In the struggle between the stone and water, in time, the water wins.” Start-ups are out to change the world for the better, and have the benefit of being able to focus intensely on a single goal. With dedication and focus they become outstanding solutions, but they must adapt in order to work within the context of the company environment in which they will operate. The factory floor is different from the lab.

    Good solutions will work with that environment – either float on that proverbial water or, with intense enough effort on the part of the company, become part of a larger effort that diverts the water into a direction that serves all better.

    It’s important for corporate clients to keep those things in mind when implementing a vendor solution. Service and solution providers should consider the rest of this list to better serve their clients:

  3. 03

    Listen and learn:

    Vendors are expert in their solutions, but success depends on executing within the confines of the corporate environment. Adapt, shape to their environment and persist.

  4. 04

    Commit to capabilities, not aspirations:

    It may be tempting for vendors to say “yes” to every client request, especially from brand name companies that can be intimidating to a start-up. We have found over time that delivering against clear, shared expectations wins every time over broken promises.

  5. 05

    Understand the differentiator:

    Vendors need to keep in mind that clients are looking to them to fulfill a specific need. They need to hold to that promise and do everything it takes to make it real for the client.

  6. 06

    Communicate, communicate, communicate:

    Things will go well and things will go badly. Be transparent about both. Communicate often to be sure the client always feels as important to your start-up as they did were when you were selling to them. Bad news is received better when the relationship is strong.

With these tips in mind, both start-up and corporate clients can succeed together, learn from one another, and deliver excellent results for both.


Senior Director, Health and Benefits

Steve Blumenfield hosts the Cure for the Common Co. podcast and is Head of Strategy & Innovation in Willis Towers Watson’s Health & Benefits group.

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