Corporate Innovation/Interview/

The benefits of running a corporate venture client unit as a startup founder

How the head of Maersk Explore — the integrated logistics company’s venture client unit — is using what she learned as a founder to improve the startup corporate experience

By Alejandro Tauber

Before joining Maersk to set up its venture client unit in April 2022, for more than a decade Camilla Ley Valentin ran a SaaS startup she cofounded called Queue-It, which developed a virtual waiting room service to control surges in website and app traffic. 

Unlike some of her colleagues in corporate venture clienting, this gave her a unique perspective on the needs of startups seeking to run proof-of-concept (POC) projects with large corporates — least of all how to improve the experience for founders. 

She said she was driven to join Maersk Explore — back at the company where she’d started her career in the 90s — because she wanted to make as big an impact as possible.

“I was reflecting on what the most important contribution could be that someone can make, and I thought, if we don’t fix the climate, the rest of the goals we have as a planet don’t really matter,” she tells Sifted. As one of the world’s dirtiest industries, shipping fit the bill. 

When she joined, Maersk had a small unit doing proof of concept projects with startups, but with the blessing of top management, and under Ley Valentin’s watch, it was expanded into a formal and global venture client unit. She’s now trying to improve the experience founders have when working with corporates — which are sometimes blamed for moving at a snail’s pace when compared with small and nimble startups. 

Her team looks at startups that are past Series A — seed and Series A startups are typically invested in directly by Maersk’s CVC arm — and that might help solve a pressing issue facing the company in the immediate term, across every business unit.

The founder’s perspective

As a founder Ley Valentin says she often dealt with large corporates without a venture client unit — “that’s not easy,” she says. “It’s so important to have these large multinational clients, it means the world for the little company that’s getting started, and vice versa. But these two worlds are not easy to connect.”

She experienced firsthand the difficulties budding entrepreneurs face when dealing with multinationals. 

“I’ve experienced this firsthand as a founder in a SaaS startup that had very large enterprise clients in many countries. Most of the client base for Queue-It are large ecommerce companies in the US. So I definitely have a lot of experience from the founder side.”

What’s hard

From the perspective of a founder, Ley Valentin has set out to solve several issues with the Maersk Explore programme. 

“One of them is really, really simple: it’s so difficult to find the right way into a large organisation,” she says. 

“To gain an access point as a startup is super tricky. Because the companies are so large, even if you have a very specific solution it’s not obvious what business unit to approach or how to get in contact with the right individual.” 

Even if you do find the right person, it’s not obvious that they’ll give you the time of day to present your solution. And if you do get engagement, then the next headache starts.

“If you managed to find the right people to contact, you often get into meetings with 100-plus stakeholders from the corporate –– which, at least in my experience, is not unusual –– and you need to navigate those stakeholders.”

On top of that, she says, startup founders need to keep in mind that processes in corporates move at a glacial pace compared with venture-backed startups. 

Finally, there’s also the legal procurement process, “which can also be quite overwhelming the first couple of times you try it as a startup. You might get squeezed, you might feel overwhelmed, you might not have the legal resources to absorb it,” she says.

Startup feedback

Other venture client unit managers Sifted has spoken to have been pretty straightforward about the most important KPI for their programmes: business impact.

Ley Valentin, while also concentrating on financials, has another metric she takes very seriously: “I am extremely concerned about what the startups think about us as a venture client.

“Our reputation as Explore reflects on our team and vice versa. And of course we’ll make mistakes, and the startups will make mistakes, and the joint team will make mistakes, but the startup community is small and everyone talks, and one bad case can easily spread.”

Having lived as a founder, Ley Valentin brought to Maersk the insight that expectation management and communication with the startups is critical. “There are many things that — just because of basic cultural differences between startups and corporates — can be perceived completely differently from both sides. And […] I, in all modesty, have seen both sides of the table for several years now.”

Here to help

Concretely, Ley Valentin and her team try to be as open with the startups as possible.

“We can do all the branding we want, but the experience happens in the proof of concepts we run together. When we’re running one, we make sure that the startup understands its competition and that there might be other startups in the POC phase. This doesn’t happen often, but sometimes there is competition internally,” she says. 

In that case, the Explore team helps both the startup and the internal teams communicate what they’re working on in a transparent way so everyone is up to speed. “I think no one has bad intentions, but sometimes things are not super clear, so I think full transparency on everything is the key here. Although it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

One of the challenges is the perceived power imbalance between a large corporation versus a small startup. “That’s where my team needs to have the ability to back the startup and be their advocate in the organisation. I think that, in general, the startup probably needs a little more support than the corporate on this particular part. And that’s a very important part of our role,” she says. 

“We need to be respectful and understand the position the startup is coming from, help understand if it has a critical observation, and then make sure that it’s analysed and brought forward in the right way.” When something goes wrong, often it turns out that there was just a misunderstanding that needed to be clarified rather than some deeper issue, she adds. 

How to define success

With Ley Valentin’s focus on the startup experience, the startup Net Promoter Score (NPS) is high up on the list of KPIs. 

“Do we bring value? And is the startup happy with the collaboration?” — apart from the more numerical KPIs, these are two critical questions that Ley Valentin says are key to the Maersk Explore programme.

Another more left-field measure of success is that the team doesn’t look at the number of POCs resulting in a signed contract.. “It would be obvious to say that if a vendor contract is signed after the proof of concept and we become a client of the startup then it’s a success, right? And while that is definitely one of the outcomes that we’re going for, of course, we actually don’t do this as a major KPI,” Ley Valentin says.

The reason is that her team puts learning before numbers. “We don’t say, we’ll do X POCs and need to sign a certain number, because that’ll  generate the wrong motivation in the team.

“Now, we’re talking from our side, right? Of course, the startup probably would have liked the contract. But maybe there are good reasons that we shouldn’t do it after all, and then it’s important for us as a group, meaning the bigger company, to understand okay, what did we try? Why was this not a good idea? Didn’t we think it was the best idea ever? 

“And now can we apply those learnings going forward in our, for example, decarbonisation journey? So it’s important that we do the post mortem on all of these POCs. And then the company value comes with the learning of what we’ve done.”

Moving on

Ley Valentin tells Sifted that the idea is that most projects will result in contracts with the startups they’re working with. From the beginning of the programme, her team tries to prepare the startups for the final step in that process: procurement. 

That was the case for Notilo Plus, a French startup that produces drones for underwater inspections, and gnani.ai, an Indian startup building an AI-powered customer service tool. 

“The way we try to improve this experience for the startup is that we have a fairly straightforward contract framework for the POC, which is about eight to ten pages, which is nothing for a company our size,” Ley Valentin says. That contract includes some of the key terms that are then carried over into the final procurement contract, which is more extensive. 

Her team also plays a decidedly more psychological role in the process. “We prepare both parties mentally for this during the POC, by actually talking about it. We also engage with our procurement and legal team on all the POCs before they are completed so they know what’s coming.”

Even though the companies Explore works with are normally more mature, Ley Valentin says that this preparation is crucial for making the process as smooth as possible. “Just to set an expectation that it’s going to be a lot more comprehensive than what they’ve seen signing the POC, and to give them a chance to find legal assistance if they don’t have it in house to the necessary extent,”she says.

Alejandro Tauber is a freelance tech and business writer based in Amsterdam. He tweets from @AlejandroTauber

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Steve
Steve

I give her 18 months in this position before someone at Maersk sees she’s wasting their money on feel-good eco-investments. After that, she’ll be a former VC.