Insights from Singtel Future Makers
In 2021, StartupX partnered with the Singtel Future Makers team to host a panel discussion with three prominent founders working across various industries to share about the ins and outs of developing corporate-startup partnership.
From establishing synergies between corporates and startups, to securing partnerships with large corporations including F&B groups and even corporates within the financial industries, Janson Seah (StaffAny), Dervla Loughnane (Virtual Psychologist) and Suresh V Shankar (Crayon Data) gave insightful perspectives into how they got things going and forged successful paths between their companies and incumbents within their industries.
This is part one of the full session. Keep a lookout for part two!
*Editor’s note: The following has been edited for clarity.
Shih Han: Hi everyone, welcome to today’s panel session with three established founders in the ecosystem where we discuss synergies between corporates and startups. As the title suggests, we’ll be discussing corporate – startup partnerships; hearing from our speakers on how they manage to secure partnerships with large corporations including Coca Cola, F&B groups and even corporations within the financial industries!
Like many of you here, our speakers here today are passionate about leveraging technology to drive changes and make an impact in their industries. Over the years, they have onboarded many different corporates, scaled to different countries and accumulated vast experiences that would help us shed some light on the ups and downs of corporate-startup partnerships.
Janson: Hi everybody, I’m Janson, Co-founder & CEO of StaffAny. We do workforce management software and we are a SAAS company. And we currently have a presence in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. Our vision of the company is to change the future of hourly work and to be the de facto operating system for deskless workers. It’s really nice to have a chance to chat and share our experiences. We have a team of about 20 people based in Singapore, so feel free to ask any questions that are on the earlier stage.
Dervla: Hi everyone, my name is Dervla Loughnane. I’m the CEO and founder of a company called Virtual psychologist and I am a psychologist. We provide mental health services to people that find phone and face-to-face services too confronting, too embarrassing, too inconvenient or simply unavailable. And we do this via text, so we’re very much like the Uber of psychology. We connect people from all around the world with mental health professionals, and we provide it in local languages. We’re in Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and recently in Singapore and Indonesia and we’re looking to expand to the UK. Obviously, with COVID, our services have certainly hit a high demand. There’s actually only 13 of us and we are scattered throughout the world, but we’re very fortunate to be based on the Gold Coast in Australia.
Suresh: Hi everyone, my name is Suresh Shanker. I’m the Founder and CEO of Crayon Data. Crayon is my second startup; my first was a company called Red Pill Analytics. It is also a Singapore headquartered startup that I exited to IBM in 2009. And because I’m fundamentally stupid, I turned up to do it one more time and think that I will be successful a second time. Crayon is Singapore headquartered and we have offices in India, in the Middle East and we are a global startup.
What we do is that we have built an AI platform that helps large enterprises deliver digital, personalised experiences and marketplaces to their customers. So think of it like this, if you’re Spotify, you can run the whole platform yourself. But if you’re a bank, or an airline, or a large retailer, you can’t create those kinds of personalised experiences quite easily. And our platform lets us do that. Our focus is in the financial services and other travel businesses. We have about 30 million customers on the platform and about a million merchants so we work with extremely large companies around the globe. So that’s a little bit about what we do.
Securing Your First Corporate Partnership
Shih Han: Suresh, can you take us through the very first time that your team secured a corporate partnership, and what are some of the learnings that your team has gained from this experience?
Suresh: One of the things I keep telling people when you work with partners is that it’s not about any lessons that we have learnt, but lessons we are learning because everything is evolving and changing so fast, that we’re constantly having to relearn what to do.
The way we look at partnerships, and this is something that we’ve learnt, is that we stream partnerships into three types.
What we’ve learnt is that the rhythm of partnerships is very different from the normal operating rhythm of a regular stream. You don’t have as much control of what happens to the partner as you do when you’re doing something directly. For example, if I go to a Venture Capital (VC), I’m talking directly to the VC, but if I go to a corporate partner, they are doing something behind the scenes. So you have to understand that you have less control. The rhythm is very different and you’re one step away from the action. And that means you have to convince two levels of people: your partner and then the partner has to convince their own client.
One of the most important things you can do is to map all stakeholders and partners to understand their goals. Every partner has a Partner Manager whose job is to onboard the partner, and normally they are very excited people because that’s their job – that’s their Key Performance Indicator (KPI). But what happens after that? There’s the business owner who has to make something happen with that partnership. You can map all the different stakeholders in the chain, and can you understand what their goals are, is one big learning that we’ve had.
The second learning is we tend to qualify clients, investors etc. We do a lot of work when we go into them, we qualify a partner as well as we would do it with a client or an investor, with the same kind of due diligence that we would do. And it actually is very important because it looks like a lot of time is invested upfront but it actually saves you a lot of time later on in the process.
And the third big learning that we have is, to put down your Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), KPIs, or what you use as your company’s management system. Be ruthless in tracking against those expectations. You got to say what are your expectations of the partnership and put them down. That’s some of our learnings from not just the first, but many of the corporate partners that we have onboarded over the years.
Janson: For us, we look at partnerships in two different ways or two different areas. The first area is having GTM partners and distribution partners. Make sure that the Partnership Managers have good KPIs and interacting with all of them, would be really, really key in the first area. The key message is understanding the intent, the KPI of each of these stakeholders, as well as the organisation. And once you are able to map that and have a good conversation and find a win-win arrangement, then you have a good outcome.
In some cases, our partnerships were not on a good footing, because in the end, the outcome was not exactly the same for both parties. Perhaps one of our partners was looking for a more scaled distribution where they hope StaffAny can be used for every SME around their customer base. But unfortunately for us, we serve a very, very niche segment of hourly workers and deskless workers. And in that case, that alignment is not fully matched. So I fully support mapping the entire relationship mapping, as well as understanding the key results that each partner is trying to drive towards.
Shih Han: Sounds like mapping out KPIs, and OKRs is something that is actually equally important for the different industries. Dervla, you’re based in Australia, and one of the first few partners is Globe and they are based in the Philippines. How is it like working with an overseas partner, and how is it different from securing partnerships with someone that is based in the same country that you are familiar with?
Dervla: We were very fortunate through our relationship with Optus and Singtel to be able to start a pilot with Globe and then eventually convert that pilot to a contract with Globe. It certainly comes with challenges. Obviously, from Australia, we’ve got timezone challenges, we’ve got language challenges, we’ve got cultural challenges and even in terms of how we sell our product, for e.g. how mental health is known in Australia, versus, a country like Philippines where it’s far more stigmatised, is very different.
First of all, I would say what’s really important is aligning your values. Make sure that your values are aligned and we were very fortunate with Globe that our overall outcome of what we were trying to achieve as partners was definitely aligned. And the other thing when you’re looking for partners is that you need at least one key internal stakeholder that is rallying for you. You can map them all out, you can know them all, but you need to have one internal that is prepared to support and help you get across the line. So that has been one of our biggest learnings. Globes has been a fantastic organisation to work with, really supportive and I really feel like it once you get your values aligned that partnership will thrive.
Suresh: I couldn’t agree more with that. You need a champion on the other side because you’re never going to know what goes on inside a partner’s organisation and only a champion will actually help you navigate that system. So I think that’s why we’re all nodding violently out here.
Best Practices in Working With Corporate Partners
Shih Han: Identifying a key stakeholder within the organisation is one of the best practices. Suresh, any other tips or best practices in working with corporate partners?
Suresh: My first thing is, don’t get carried away by all promises that a partner makes. It’s important, but it’s like building a business, where it’s going to take a lot of time to literally get to that pot of gold. So I would basically think my best practice is to ask:
The first question we asked them typically is, tell me why have you done this before, ask them about the successful track record they have in executing a partnership. So ask them about (1) Where have they done it before? (2) Do they have a clearly written programme/agenda of how they will do it?
That’s the second thing that we found very useful as a best practice. Don’t just take their words for it; drill into details, say “Hey, where have you done it? What challenges do people go through.” And a good partner manager or a champion will actually tell you it’s not going to be easy, these are going to be the challenges, this is why I exist and I’m going to walk you through some of these challenges as you go through that. Ask them all the different stakeholders that you need to convince and what is important for that stakeholder.
And the last best practice that we’ve used is to set up an operating cadence. Don’t just take it for granted that because you’ve signed that deal, which can take a lot of time and effort, things will automatically flow. They don’t flow; everybody in the large corporation has got their own problems and other things to do so set up an operating cadence.
We have monthly operating cadences with various people out there so I think the moment you have that cadence, then people prepare, because just as a large company has processes that don’t make things happen. Large companies also have processes that means that if there is an operating cadence, they need to operate so people will come professionally prepared for that cadence. I would say these are the three or four best practices that we’ve seen over the years. We’ve learnt more from our failures in partnerships than from the successes through the years of failures that we’ve had with partnerships.
Identifying Potential Partners
Shih Han: Janson, as StaffAny works with many different corporate partners, how does your team identify the people or F&B outlets that you have potential to work with?
Janson: Maybe for people that are at the earlier stage, at the start, we kind of throw pasta on a wall and hope that sticks, and we kind of iterate and bash our way through. But I think, as founders or leaders of the organisation, you need to have a very, very clear understanding on who your ideal customer profiles are. And in our case, the naivety of a first time founder at the start was more about everybody can be our customer. But when you do that, it’s a huge recipe for failure. What we quickly learnt was that our target customers need to have a certain, for example headcount size or number of outlets to actually reap the benefits of the value that we’re creating, which is labour cost efficiency, as well as productivity in terms of not spending time doing administrative manual work.
Shih Han: Dervla, how does your team figure out who’s the best customers that you guys have a potential to actually reach a partnership with, given that time is definitely running tight for all startup founders. What does your team actually take to identify the right partners as well?
Dervla: We know our profile, we know what the headcount needs to be, we know what the sort of turnover revenue needs to be. And what also helps maybe is looking at more legislation depending on certain countries where there’s been changes in legislation relating to mental health.
But something that I’d like to say to all startups is when you first start, you just want to get a few customers and that’s the big thing. How do you pick the first one or two, that’s always the hardest, and what I’m going to say is, often when you start as a founder, you just choose anyone. You choose anyone that you can use the logo, that’s the big thing. That very first client that you get, that first customer that you get, can be the biggest decision that you make everything else from there might have been a domino effect.
Bridging Decisions Between David & Goliath
Shih Han: Similar to the questions that the audience is asking – they have partnerships with the companies themselves but the problem that they’re facing is, for bigger companies, they tend to move slowly, and it takes time for them to settle in terms of the decision making and the administrative side of things. What are some of your thoughts and tips that you can share to actually work around this?
Dervla: Our tip is to be very clever about the way you do things. For e.g. if you’re going to offer a pilot, say that if they signed by a certain date, you’ll give them an X percentage discount. Really do what Suresh said and put in milestones that they have to follow. That’s something that we said, if you sign by first of November, we’ll give you X month free, and we’ll give you a discount. So certainly try to set up that operational strategy that you’re going to use to deploy the service. There’s lots of other little tips and techniques, but one of the best things is get that internal stakeholder to really champion for you. That can make or break you.
Shih Han: Suresh, from the corporate side, I know there’s a lot of consideration when making decisions, but now that you’re on the startup side, how do you navigate this with your partners that you’re working with? For example, any tips on getting the partners to help to move things forward a bit faster, so that you can actually achieve the goal, and maybe get the deal signed earlier? What are some tips that your team employed to work on this?
Suresh: I have some honest but bad news for the founders out here. For big companies people tend to move slowly in terms of administration and in terms of decision making. But I think the best thing that we can do is to tamp down our expectations as founders as to how fast a corporation will move. And that involves just putting yourselves in the corporate partner’s shoes for a bit. If I’m sitting in a corporate office, and there’s a partner manager who’s supposed to try and get the partner in quickly and take you out quickly, and Dervla talked about how when you actually find the right partner to champion, things can move somewhat fast.
However, remember that for corporations, reducing risk of the partner is their single biggest challenge. That person is thinking – Is this solution better? Is this going to be okay? What do my customers say? What are the legal agreements? They have to go through all of that, because unfortunately, for them, when they take a brand, they’re putting on weight.
For them, it’s a reputational risk and therefore, I would say tamp down your expectations on the amount of time it will take. So when I look at a partnership I say it’s like a human baby; it’s going to take me nine to 10 months to get something out of a partner. Get them interested, get it signed, get somewhere and get the first thing.
To all the founders, if you internalise this, you start thinking about partnerships very differently. You don’t start by saying I’m going to get 200 clients, I’m going to get to 9 million customers etc. You say, if I want something nine months from now, I’ve got to start today and someone has to spend the time on trying to make this happen. So you have to think two or three or four quarters ahead. If you really want your partnership strategy to work, don’t try to waste your time banging your head against the wall trying to get corporations to move faster. They’re not made for it.
That said, I think the way you look at it is that the most structured programme is the most clearly written a partner programme is for the corporate partner. If they got it in writing, you pretty much know that they’ve thought through the internal processes, and they’ve lined up the ducks at their side. So I would actually say, don’t get your hopes up in terms of speed. In fact, if you calibrate your own thinking to that, you’re probably more likely to end up with a lot of success at the end of nine months, or 12 months.
Shih Han: How has StaffAny benefited from working with the partners that you onboard?
Janson: Working with partners and large entities do give us a few, what we call advantages.
First, it’s about learning about what to build in terms of our product roadmap, because many of the times these partners are of a different maturity in terms of expecting the use of technology as compared to some of the more traditional businesses that we currently serve. We don’t serve all the questions and other features that they want to. And we make that very, very clear. I think the most important thing is not to over-sell, and over-promise, we need to be clear on what we can do and what we cannot do. But we can also map out our plan in terms of commitments to say that if we work on a pilot project, six months pilot, by the end of the six months, we will have this feature that you are desiring that will come out as part of the pilot programme.
Now, that’s very, very beneficial if and only if this feature request is part of your entire product vision, as well as where you are heading towards as a company. You don’t want to go off tangent.The biggest things are learning the opportunity to grow together, as well as to understand.
Suresh: I’ll admit that one of the things about roadmaps is that this is one of the biggest challenges that you face. Whether it’s a client or a partner, I think this is a constant theme of all founders and the challenge that they face in it.
And I think the simplest way to look at it is that you have to look at your roadmap, and you have to say, when you get a request, whether it’s from a client or a partner, one, is it on your long term roadmap anyway, and you’re just accelerating. If it is accelerating? Yes, do it because then hopefully, the partner will just actually help you kind of also take it out of the market. If it’s a feature that you haven’t thought of, but it may be useful. I think the question you ask yourself is very simple. How many other partners or how many other clients do you think will eventually buy this product or buy this feature if they will? Then it’s good. You’re just basically getting a collaborative innovation partner who’s helping you build new features, like, you know, you’re getting another product manager to help you do that.
So I would say don’t turn it away, just because it came from the partner, you will look at it and say, it is a great idea, I think it is relevant and more people will buy it. But the third one is the hard one, which is when you’re actually being asked to go off, you’re tangential things are a thing, which may be important to make the partnership work. But it may not fit your own roadmap or your own thinking about the product. This is a very, very hard one. And I think it really depends on multiple things as to how to solve it. If there’s a lot of money at stake, be practical, take it, but don’t make it part of your roadmap, just say it’s customised. I’m not going to over engineer this, I’m just making it available because I’m getting a lot of money for doing it. That’s my rule.
A lot of people are very dogmatic and say no, we will not deviate. But the only thing I would say is don’t live in hope that because this partner wants it, you will actually bring it in and it will become some big feature that you will actually make a lot of money on. Because that hope is what I think destroys a lot of relationships. And in some ways, right? Just to be clear, I’m doing it because you’re giving me money, I’ll build it, I’m not gonna be worried about it. Or I’m doing it because I think other people will want it and therefore it’s okay for me to do it. Or I’m doing it to accelerate just put it into clear buckets when you’re dealing with roadmap related questions.
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This is how we failed, and then realised it gave us what we needed to succeed.
The National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Overseas Colleges program, NOC for short, has provided much support for many home-grown startup founders. Its role in Singapore’s startup ecosystem is crucial, especially with extensive global networks. Hear more from NOC alumni and their experiences in this @Techinasia article.