From pilot to scale: You’re experimenting with startup technologies, but how to scale

by | Oct 7, 2022 | Blog Post

Between 2008 and 2016, the fintech startup Leverate announced ten partnerships that each “cost tons” and “took all the brainpower and sweat [Leverate] had”. Commenting on the partnerships in July 2016, Leverate co-founder Itai Damti revealed that, over time, each of the once-celebrated partnerships died.

As more and more corporates begin pursuing collaborative growth, stories of jilted pilots are becoming increasingly common. Perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, pilots are relatively easy to get off the ground. Scaling pilots, however, is a different beast.

The trouble is, unless pilots scale, they’re largely a waste of time for both the corporate and the startup. It’s a situation that begs the question:

Is there anything innovation leaders can do to ensure more of the pilots they launch with startups scale into impactful long-term partnerships?

What we’ve learned from scaling our first 100 pilots

It won’t surprise you to read that, at Co:cubed, scaling pilots is a subject we give serious focus. In our experience, there are at least five boxes innovation leaders can tick to prepare pilot projects to scale.

1. See pilots as a means to an end

The first is to see pilots as a means to an end. From a corporate perspective, far too often, pilots are seen as the end goal itself. “We’ll launch the pilot,” the thinking goes, “then assess the results.” It’s an attitude that leads an unreported number of exciting pilots to their death.

As opposed to the end goal, pilots should be seen as a step in a staircase to long-term growth. The distinction might be subtle. But it replaces laissez-faire attitudes with the kind of dynamic determinism necessary to transition temporary tests into permanent fixtures.

2. Harmonise expectations

When both corporates and startups get this first step right, seeing pilots as a means to an end can also help with harmonising expectations.

For young and hungry startups, piloting with a large corporate is seen as a new and potentially game-changing growth avenue. They engage their teams, investors and suppliers around the news – this could be the break they’ve been looking for.  However, for corporates this pilot is often seen as a hopeful experiment at best. Essentially, both parties need to find some common ground here: startups should focus their enthusiasm away from overpromising to investors and into delivering an outstanding proof of concept, while corporates should focus on the objective of a long-term partnership and how this pilot is a vital first step. Harmonising views and expectations early on solidifies positive working relationships and avoids the shattering of startup enthusiasm as time goes on.

3. Engage the core

Collaborative growth pilots are frequently launched without engaging the wider business. It’s a grave error.

As we’ve written elsewhere, you can’t transform a corporate without transforming the core. Engaging the core business at pilot stage is crucial to turning that pilot into a long-term partnership. All too often we’ve seen innovation leaders declare that ‘we’ll incubate this on the side and engage the core business when it’s ready to scale’. However, the reality is that if you can’t get a leader from your core business engaged when the pilot only costs €30,000 and takes 2 months, then how do you expect to garner their support when it costs millions and involves a multi-year roll-out?

By engaging key decision-makers early, it allows people to contribute their ideas and ambitions from the outset. Conversely, it removes the risk of innovations being seen as unnecessary outsider voodoo. It can also unlock resources and budgets from other areas of the business, which innovation teams will need to call on as pilots ramp up.

Engaging the core is absolutely essential to scaling pilots.

4. Relentlessly track (and communicate) pilot results

If pilots are seen as a route to a long-term partnership, then the logical next step is for both parties to establish clear KPIs and trigger points that, if achieved, would result in a decision to scale the partnership to the next stage.

Aligned objectives and SMART goals help to focus both the startup and the corporate. Once each milestone is achieved, following the launch of pilots, it’s tempting for all involved to strike them from to-do lists and revisit them a month or two down the line. Clearly, such an attitude damages the chances of a pilot scaling up.

Following the launch of a collaborative growth pilot, results must be relentlessly monitored, and relentlessly communicated to key stakeholders.

Remaining hands-on allows both corporates and startups to improve results iteratively, turning dials and pulling levers to boost pilot results.

5. Build agility into your budgets and resources

With traditional corporate partnerships, budgets are typically drip-fed into projects throughout the partnership lifecycle. It’s a model that’s usually copied across to collaborative growth pilots – but one that’s a square peg for a round hole.

Collaborative growth pilots require budgets to be agile. Often, resources and budgets can be small to begin with. Frequently, they need to ramp up as the pilot grows and hurdles threaten progress.

Reserving resources and budgets early on – and having the ability to be agile further down the line – prevents projects from flying off the treadmill as the pace increases.

Scaling startup innovations in PwC

The startups Co:cubed introduce to corporate clients are typically taken on an 8 week journey. Startups meet various stakeholders and teams throughout the corporate business, ensuring their influence extends beyond innovation teams.

Gradually, startup ideas diffuse into the wider business, gradually engaging the corporate core. Pilots, as opposed to being viewed as innovation experiments, are instead seen as the launch of new partnerships; a perception that’s supported through the regular communication of results as pilots progress.

That’s precisely what happened when Co:cubed introduced innovations from the secure communications startup Highside to PwC. To our delight, innovations from Highside filtered not just into PwC but into the operations of PwC clients, too.

Collaborative growth pilots require a fresh approach

Compared to open innovation, collaborative growth is a relatively new and altogether different concept. Making a success of collaborative growth pilots therefore requires an altogether different approach.

Corporates are beginning to crack getting collaborative growth pilots off the ground. To realise the true value of collaborative growth, though, innovation leaders cannot lose sight of scaling their pilots.

Only a handful of today’s corporates have mastered the art – but all are enjoying ongoing returns as a result.

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