Getting Chicago's big businesses as customers (CEC event w/Juergen Stark, COO of Motorola Mobility)

"Be clear. Be relevant. Be informed. Be realistic." This was the message Juergen Stark, COO of Motorola Mobility, had for an audience of startups targeting 'big business' in Chicago. The event, taking place on Friday 15th July 2011 and organized by the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center (CEC), was introduced by CEC President and CEO Kevin Willer. Willer articulated the unfilled potential of Chicago's startup ecosystem: The Midwest and Chicago have more Fortune 500 companies and large businesses than almost any other region of the US. Yet startups in the Midwest struggle to turn these businesses into customers.

Stark's central thesis was that startups are often too preoccupied with their own cash flow urgency and interest in targeting the highest level executives possible to understand the lifestyle of the executives they target. Stark recalled being doggedly called on his cell phone over and over again while in a meeting. Thinking it was perhaps a family emergency, Stark stepped out to finally take the call. He found the caller to be a startup salesperson asking if he had received the sales email the startup had sent him. Needless to say, Stark was furious.

Stark's prior experiences includes leading a startup himself, CenterPost, so he had empathy for the challenges entrepreneurs face. His advice was simple:
  • Be clear. When approaching large companies, make your value proposition absolutely clear and avoid the techno-speak that is all too common with tech startups. It should be as simple, e.g. "We sell buses". It should not be, "We're the leading mobility technology provide for visualized …".
  • Be relevant. Before making contact with the company, make sure to do your homework. Is this something the company needs? If so, how is it differentiated from other offerings? It's hard to inject something new into existing businesses, because they have many existing systems. Is it worth the change effort?
  • Be informed. If it's not a top five priority for the person you are targeting in a large company, then you are targeting the wrong person. Instead, target the person down in the hierarchy for whom it is a top five priority. Busy executives have over 300 emails a day.
  • Be realistic. Don't hype up and oversell what your product or service offers. Be realistic and win the trust of those you deal with.

My perspective is that Stark's talk is a sign of the times. It's easy to find a sales book from even ten years ago that would advocate many practices that now - in world where the busiest people are even busier - do not necessarily make sense. It's too easy for startups to make mistakes in this area. The CEC event with Stark is a small step in helping Chicago's startups connect to big businesses. However, Chicago will need more infrastructural support in this area if it is to become the US's hub for startups that serve big businesses.

Cross posted on Built In Chicago.