Like it or not, your corporation’s future is being written by young talent outside of the company walls. While internal innovation teams are crucial in helping major companies keep a leading edge, working with outside entrepreneurs will help your corporation to move even faster. So are there great ways to tap into the innovation economy? How do you find and engage with those hidden gems that could play a role in reshaping your company’s future?
Two years ago we launched Orange Fab, a 3-month accelerator program at Orange Silicon Valley. Now, in April 2015, in the midst of season 4, we’ve accelerated 28 startups, enabled 5 direct commercial engagements, and built an extensive network within Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial community.
As a brand-new corporate accelerator, we faced a unique set of challenges in building what is now a thriving community of founders, mentors and corporate partners. Below are six lessons from our first two years of life.
1. Stand out from the crowd
At launch, we faced an immediate existential problem: why would anyone care about Orange Fab? In a place where funding seemed to grow on trees – the Bay Area accounted for 29% of venture capital worldwide – talented startups can often pick and choose growth opportunities. As we found our niche in a competitive marketplace, defining our value was a critical first step.
Like many accelerators, we offer some of the classic perks: office space in downtown San Francisco, mentoring from Silicon Valley experts and $20,000 in the form of a convertible note. But what makes Orange Fab special is our position in the larger technology ecosystem.
As part of a global telecommunications carrier, we offer advantages that other accelerators don’t – including partnerships with some of the most influential corporations in the world through our Fab Force program. Here is the deal: startups build a strong product, we provide the growth and distribution channels that take their business to the next level.
We recently announced the expansion of Fab Force to include three new Global 500 corporations: AXA, Airbus, and Total. Startups that are an especially promising fit for Orange or one of our European partners enjoy personalized meetings with key executives and stakeholders, all in a trip to Paris. (Enticing, non?)
2. People > software
At Orange Fab, we scrutinize product and business model as closely as the next accelerator, but our startups are more than just a set of specs and growth charts.
As Box CEO Aaron Levie says, “Industries are transformed by outsiders who think anything is possible, not insiders who think they already know what is impossible.” Accordingly, we’ve learned that a great team makes a great product – not the other way around. We genuinely like our startup teams and want to see them succeed – this is the bedrock of successful strategic relationships with Orange and our partners.
Furthermore, we’ve learned that our startups are most successful when those ideas are well-aligned with our vision for Orange and beyond. At most accelerators, your mission is to drive companies towards success; but at Orange Fab, our mission is twofold: elevating our startups, as well as informing, educating and inspiring our parent corporation. Thus, an accelerator team must be empathetic to both worlds, adapting seamlessly to both the fast-paced startup sensibility and to that of the existing corporation.
3. Don’t be a Lumbergh
Anyone who’s worked at a large company knows how easy it can be to lapse into “corporate-speak” – the formal tone of the parent company, forged over decades doing things a certain way. But when you start sounding too much like a cop, a lawyer, or a character from “Office Space“, you run the risk of alienating your audience.
Global trends show that workers increasingly value open communication, flexibility and rapid progress over traditional corporate silos; and especially for founders accustomed to the breakneck pace of building a company from scratch, a rigid environment can be a turnoff. You’re better off ditching the formalities and instead speaking the language of the customer.
We’re lucky that Orange already has a friendly, approachable brand. But as an accelerator, we’ve further defined our own unique and personable voice. At Orange Fab, we place a high value on making ourselves accessible to a larger community of entrepreneurs. We host regular happy hours, seminars and info sessions that help us get to know new mentors, potential applicants, and other friends of the program over casual get-togethers. Between our beautiful offices, laid-back networking events and friendly team, we take pleasure in providing an environment where you can feel comfortable and welcome.
4. Run with the right crew
You’re a new kid on the block – at first, nobody knows your name, what you do, or what exactly you’re about. When you have big ambitions, it helps to have friends in high places. After all, who is likely to get you more eyeballs: Brad Pitt or Brad Schmidt? Validation from a highly-respected name lends confidence, morale, and credibility to your work. What’s more, that endorsement will bring your program more outside attention and traffic.
At the launch of Orange Fab in March 2013, Orange CEO Stephane Richard lent his support and endorsed the program and its mission to break new ground for the company. Not only did this help Orange Fab USA to thrive, but thereafter inspired the creation of new Orange Fab programs around the world. We’ve since expanded to Israel, Poland, Ivory Coast, and across Asia – all in less than two years.
5. Keep an open mind
Evaluating startups is a bit like dating: everyone has a type. You like brunettes; I like security products with a focus in enterprise applications. But let’s face it: you’ll never get exactly what you had in mind.
However, with the right attitude you’ll get some pleasant surprises as long as you keep an open mind. At Orange Fab, we often get asked what “types” of startups we accelerate. When choosing companies to work with, we’ve learned to never allow categories – enterprise web, security, connected objects, etc. – to limit our thinking about what we can accomplish. After all, startups, like people, don’t always fit neatly into “types”.
Staying open to new ideas is key. After all, innovation means taking risks and constantly learning new processes. But this sense of flexibility works both ways as well: While working closely with our mentor network, startups are most successful when they remain nimble and open the partnerships and other development opportunities that Orange Fab provides.
We invest in teams, not in rigid notions of what types of companies will succeed. So in the end, our favorite category is “surprise us”.
6. After 3 months, real life begins
As a startup applying to accelerators, your first step is getting your foot in the door. But this is only the beginning of a journey that continues well beyond graduation from Orange Fab.
Throughout our three seasons, we’ve found that many initial discussions between our startups and Orange lead to a pilot deployment with the goal of safely testing a product in the market. In some cases, we’ve found that a startup team needs more time to develop its product before engaging with a corporate partnership. They may need to ramp up their manufacturing process to accommodate demand. They may need to achieve a higher volume of sales to make a partner feel secure in a distribution deal. Whatever the reason, it’s wise to hedge distribution talks until all of those variables are in place.
For any startup with distribution goals, however, there’s no better place to be than at a corporate accelerator. The Orange Fab network isn’t going away – so when it’s the right time to re-engage, doors are always open. All of our partners, across both Orange and Fab Force, are here with the same goal: sustaining a competitive edge. This means that wherever there are motivated entrepreneurs, there are endless opportunities for companies to learn, grow, and push boundaries. Our job is to keep a foot in both worlds, continually sowing the common ground that allows successful partnerships to flourish.
We’re very proud of our track record so far, but the long-term advantages of the Orange Fab community of startups, mentors and partners will be felt for years to come. In just two years we’ve built not just an accelerator, but a network that spans the globe. So as we step into year three, our biggest takeaway is that we’re just getting started.