The relationship between startups and corporations often feel like a marriage that has hit rut. So, in order to save the marriage the couple decides to go to marriage counselling.

The first question the counsellor asks is, “What do you wish you could change about the relationship?”

The husband says, “I wish we had more sex.” Then the wife says, “I wish we had more sex!”.

The two of them stare at each other for 30 seconds and realise that for the past six months nobody has actually asked because they assumed the answer would be, “no”.

The real problem was not sex, it was communication, or a lack thereof.

This is how startups and corporates need to think about each other. Focus energy on spending time with one another, having conversations and understanding the needs of the other half.

And before I really dive into this, it is important to make one thing clear. Startups are not some clairvoyant entity that have discovered the “real truth” and must bring their ignorant Corporate cousins into the enlightened future.

In actuality, unless the corporate culture is toxic, a lot of startups work very hard to emulate their processes, HR strategy and project management culture.

The ‘hustle mentality’ is fantastic for a company of less than 10 people, but once things start to scale it creates a risk of disorganisation, failure of reporting and can lead to bad behaviour flying under the radar.

The most famous example of the this is the fall of Travis Kalanick at Uber.

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When he was ousted, defenders of the manpointed to his leadership, brashness and break-everything mentality as the reason Uber became a success. Those people are probably correct, but they are ignoring the fact that Kalanick “lost institutional control“.

Did Kalanick himself do anything wrong? Not really. But his employees were behaving like jerks and Uber had no ability to fix the toxic culture. So, he got fired, and was replaced by Dara Khosrowshahi, who has a background working with various companies like Expedia and the New York Times.

Ever since Khosrowshahi took over the company, it has been All Quiet On The Western Front at Uber.

Startups might be trying to replace the products sold by corporates, or they may want to digitalise a traditional workflow but if they are trying to tear down the corporate infrastructure, they will not last long.

This is where startup ecosystem can be better. We spend so much energy trying to fight a system that we forget to play the game. As the saying goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”, and unfortunately it is necessity to play, no matter how much the rules irritate or annoy.

Which implies that the next step is learning the rules.

Gaurang Torvekar, the Co-Founder and CEO at Indorse, explained that education is essential to a winning collaboration.

“As a startup, you need to understand the intricacies of working with a corporation, and need to see things from their point of view. Most of the rejections are not out of a lack of willingness from their side. You also need to demonstrate a clear ROI to the stakeholders and try to anticipate one major pain point that your product can solve for them,” he said.

This is why a lot of successful fintech Founders have a banking background. While the technology might be better, it is irrelevant if the Founder doesn’t understand how the banking system works. If they don’t understand internal processes, then they may waste a lot of time targetting the wrong people.

Benjamin Twoon, the Co-founder and COO of Fundnel, says it is important to be humble and communicate. Often.

“What I believe would strengthen the synergistic effect arising from a startup and corporate collaboration is, conversations – as many of it; as early on as possible. Put these people in the same place, at the same time, attempting to solve the same problems. The creativity and passion of a startup and the deep domain knowledge of a corporate, when pieced together, lays the perfect groundwork for development of a truly innovative product,” he said.

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One idea — from myself, not the entrepreneurs — is to implement a sandbox system that has become common across governments. It would allow a private company to stress test a new product without risking the entire corporate infrastructure.

It allows for companies to push boundaries without employees fearing the Sword of Damocles.

To this point, I posited an unrealistic question to Gregory Van, the COO of endowus, and asked him what he would do if he were Tzar of the startup world.

“As this is an unrealistic situation, I have an unrealistic response: no one at corporates would be able to lose their jobs as a result of the corporate adopting technology from startups,” he said.

The reason this is important is because it can help solve the problem of startups stepping on corporate toes to survive, and corporates simultaneously working to crush them for their own self-preservation.

“Corporates can put their customers first, knowing that they will retain and acquire customers by providing a better experience. Be open to technology that accomplishes this overarching goal,” said Van.

And for startups? Van echoed the sentiment of Twoon and Torkevar. Understand the incumbent and by sympathetic to their needs, because once a Founder understands where the “Innovation Account Manager” is coming from, they can actually figure out if the Product (startup) fits the Market (Corporate).

In essence, sometimes it is OK to ask for sex, because the answer might be ‘yes’.

Photo by Andreas Rønningen on Unsplash