Anil Dsouza

Assistant Director – Product Management, Northwestern Mutual

What Do Our Successful Startup Partnerships Have in Common?

Topics: Cream City Labs.

In my role as a member of Northwestern Mutual's Digital Innovation team, I work extensively with startups. Our team is tasked with identifying opportunities for Northwestern Mutual to adopt new technology solutions that can accelerate our business strategy and help realize tangible benefits.

Over the last few years, I've been fortunate to meet a number of people who have great ideas and, in many cases, we've worked together to create real value. But not every startup's solution is a good match for our business.

As I reflect on the experience so far, I realize that our successful partnerships all share one common denominator: Their solutions solve a known problem in our industry or enable us to take advantage of an identified opportunity.

Far too often, a startup's demo and initial pitch will focus largely on the product features and all the “cool” stuff the solution offers, but fails to answer the questions we're all thinking, which are: "How can any of these features help our operational teams with their jobs?” or “What problem does the solution solve at our company?" Sometimes, my team and I will take a startup solution we think has potential and network within the company to try to match the solution with a business need or opportunity, but that's like looking for a needle in a haystack. The process is slow and frustrating for all parties involved, especially the startups. It doesn't have to be that way.

I remember a particular startup that approached us with a very specific use case and explained how their solution solved the problem. While they had many services built on their platform, they talked to us about one specific use case and how they believed they could add value to Northwestern Mutual. And because they’d already identified a problem and potential solution, they offered to conduct a proof of concept (POC) to demonstrate how tangible value could be realized using their solution. This made for a very easy discussion with our business leadership and by the end of the first call, we agreed to experiment. In less than three months we finalized contracts, completed a POC and validated the business value. The clarity of the use case ensured we all had the right focus and metrics to measure the outcomes. This clarity ensured that after the proof of concept, the solution did not die on the vine and was operationalized.

So, how do startups like the one I've described ensure their solutions resonate with their enterprise partners? Many factors go into a successful engagement. In my experience, the most important consideration is having a solution that solves a known problem or will enable us to take advantage of an identified opportunity. By coming to the table with a solid value proposition, we are able (and more inclined) to take the next step.

In future blog posts, I'll share with you my thoughts on key non-functional requirements that significantly factor into startup/enterprise success.

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