Startup competitions at SXSW: You get out what you put in

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(Photo courtesy Judith Doyle via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Judith Doyle via Flickr)

OMD's chief digital officer/chief innovation officer asks, "Can the brand-startup ecosystem be salvaged?"

AUSTIN — "The client called me two days ago, panicked," said the matchmaker to me. "They didn’t have enough startups for their competition. So I hit up a few of my go-to outfits to fill in the slots. You saw that last one, right? Wasn’t she great?"

Thus proceeded one of 80 — yes, 80 — startup competitions at SXSW Interactive this year.

And while some of this year’s events were obviously well-planned and executed, far too many of them were terrible. For everyone involved.

Sure, there once was once some  PR value from hosting one of these tech tournaments.  That's clearly vanished in a cloud of me-too-ism.  What’s left is kabuki with AV problems.

How did we get to this? Can the brand-startup ecosystem be salvaged?

Of course it can, but only if we acknowledge that startup events serve as the result of a killer startup strategy, not the start of one. Startup strategy does not violate the first rule of business: you get out what you put in. There are no shortcuts, folks.

What do I suggest for brands? These steps have served well:

Define what it is you want from startups. It may not be what you’re initially thinking. I’ve found the biggest value of startups is an injection of innovation, inspiration and critically — a different perspective. It almost doesn’t matter what the product or service the startup is offering. Their approach is different from yours. Learn from it.

Get to know your VCs. I attended a number of VC receptions in Austin, and didn’t run into a single brand or agency. VCs are experts (or at least, better than us) at picking winners. Get to know them; let them get to know you. It’s a relationship worth developing.

Get executive buy-in. I saw executive access as the "prize" of startup competitions at SXSW. That’s right; one startup goes to the boardroom. That is not commitment, and the startups can smell it.

Startup aggregators are a great complement, not a solution. A deep rolodex is a good place to start, but is by definition not yours exclusively. Assign or hire someone dedicated to cultivating relationships 52 weeks a year, with only your interests in mind.

Be specific. I’ve yet to find a business challenge too narrow to fill a room with startups.

I asked the startup matchmaker why his client hadn’t been able to fill the dozen slots in its competition. "The dollar prize wasn’t high enough. Another competition I’m doing tomorrow is giving out 50 grand to the winner." No great relationship ever started with a game show; nor will your great startup success.

Ben Winkler is chief digital officer/chief innovation officer with OMD.

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