Gina Waldhorn on connecting corporations and startups

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Slovene startup conference PODIM has gathered entrepreneurs from the whole CEE region in Maribor. We’ve had a chat with Gina Waldhorn from Evol8tion, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, who shared her views on collaboration between big corporations and startups.


Gina Waldhorn (Evol8tion) on collaboration between big corporations and startups.

On PODIM, you’re going to talk about connecting brands and startups. Can you tell us a little bit more about your lecture? What are PODIM attendees going to learn from it?

My keynote is focused on the vision behind building a bridge between the worlds of big brands and early stage startups, and the importance of innovation to the success and ultimately the survival of big brands. What if Kodak acquired Instagram? What if Blockbuster had incubated Netflix? The vision comes to life through these examples, and I believe both sides – the startups and the brands – need each other more than they know. For startups, brands represent an opportunity for proof of concept, scale, and even a new channel of funding. For brands, startups represent first mover and competitive advantage, and the opportunity to adapt their culture to a more lean, change-oriented (vs. change-feared) model. My hope is that attendees on both sides will feel inspired by the opportunities this bridge can create, and that corporates feel more empowered to embrace the risk that comes with innovation.

The topic of this year’s PODIM is collaboration between startups and established companies and your company does exactly this. How did you come up with the idea?

I was working as a director of media planning for a global logistics client at a major media agency in 2010, and my client’s target market was small businesses. We were spending over two hundred thousand dollars a week to purchase print ads in news publications we hoped small business stakeholders were reading. At this same time, I started attending local technology and startup networking events in NYC, as I was toying with some personal startup ideas of my own. While at these events, I became exposed to a number of enterprise software startups that provided unprecedented value to small businesses. It became clear to me that for the cost of a single print spread, my client could invest or acquire one of these solutions, and truly bring service and utility to the small business audience they were trying so desperately to connect with. I met my co-founder around this same time, and left the big, safe, agency world to start Evol8tion.

Are brands/big companies keen on collaboration with startups? From your point of view, which global brands are most open to startup-driven innovation?

While the majority of Fortune 500 brands will agree that technology is important, it’s only going to increase in importance over time, and they’re terribly deficient when it comes to their usage and experience with technology, most are still not embracing partnerships with startups. I believe the reason for this is culture. Corporate culture does not reward risk, and instead breeds an environment where employees are just looking to maintain the status quo vs. explore disruption. Evol8tion is lucky enough to be working with a handful of brands who are pushing past these challenges, one of which is Mondelez International. Through their Mobile Futures program, Mondelez has empowered more than 20 brand managers across three markets to execute more than 20 startup pilot programs. They’re moving faster, rewarding risk, and creating an organization of “intrapreneurs” that are paving the way for the Mondelez International of the future.

What are the key trends you see in the next following years on your field of expertise: corporate and startup collaboration?

With regards to corporate and startup collaboration, I believe we’ll see brands test out different models of tapping into technology. For example, there is a big trend of brands sponsoring or starting their own incubators. There is merit to this approach for the right brands, but for many, it’s more of the “bright shiny object” effect versus a strategic, dedicated path towards innovation. I believe we’ll see a trend towards more corporations seeking internally, among their employees, for the next big startup idea. I hope to see more internal branded Kickstarter type programs, where brands invest in their own internal ventures and employees behind those ideas.

While talking to startups and brands from different parts from the world – do you see any differences in their way of work, how they see innovation and disrupt?

Absolutely. In America, I believe we’re a bit falsely inflated with venture capital. You can’t attend a networking event without bumping into ten people who introduce themselves as venture capitalists. This creates the feeling that it’s easy to raise money, and therefore I find American startups to be less risk adverse. American entrepreneurs build companies around their own passion points. However, I found that in Australia or Brazil, where there was less free-flowing capital, founders sought to build in specific verticals where it was a much safer bet to ascertain funding, such as Enterprise or Education.

What is true innovation for you?

Innovation is doing things differently. Turning status quo upside down.

What would your message to CEE startups?

Don’t wait until you’ve perfected your platform or you’ve achieved scale to start reaching out to brands. The time to engage is now. Early and often. Tap into big brands further upstream in your development process to find out what they want, what they need, and what keeps them up at night, and build those solutions into your product before it’s too late. Brands don’t need anymore advertising, programmatic buying has solved the reach crisis. Learn from the brands about how to build services, utilities, and experiences for their consumers using your technology, and they won’t be able to say no.