Mentor a digital start-up and boost your change management

The opportunity for brands to engage with start-ups is significant. Yet I am still struck by how big a gulf there is between the growing start-up and the general marketing communities. I wrote in Marketing Week earlier in the year about the opportunities for large companies to engage with these smaller, innovative businesses yet – with a few exceptions – little progress seems to have been made.


This is a shame, because in addition to any hard commercial benefits, there are a lot of ‘softer’ benefits brands can gain from this very vibrant community too. I’ve started to experience some of this through mentoring for several start-ups around Tech City.

There seems to be a new accelerator springing up every other month in or around Tech City, and at my last count, there are now over 10 housing a variety of different types of start-ups. Microsoft’s was one of the latest announced a few months ago, aimed at the gaming and tech community, and Tesco last month also announced its backing of a venture.

What strikes you when engaging with the start-ups is how bright, enthusiastic and often – but not always – youngmany of the people leading and involved in them are. If you are working in digital and haven’t engaged in any way with the area, I think you are missing one of the largest changes in the UK digital industry I’ve witnessed in my whole career, which began just after the dotcom boom.

Aside from brands working with start-ups directly, common business models involve working alongside a lead agency to a campaign brief, or even as a means of cheap asset production, which several big brands like Reckitt Benckiser have pioneered.

Many of the start-ups’ propositions can complement an innovation agenda too. One real-life example is that Qudini offers a virtual queue management tool which House of Fraser recently started trialling.

However, the start-ups are usually small, have limited resources and budget, and almost always need advice and expertise from a variety of disciplines in taking their product to market. Demand for the skillsets found in the marketing community is high.

The support that hubs provide is something that was noticeably absent on this scale only a few years ago. Aside from space to rent and investment funds, the shared setting and ongoing engagement with businesses at a similar stage in their evolution, one of the added benefits is mentoring and training.

In order to take part in this, marketers do have to be able to dedicate some time every month to the company, but whatever your team or organisation’s development plans, your other colleagues from a number of disciplines – for example, finance and legal – could benefit from the engagement.

As well as the personal fulfillment you’ll get from helping start ups, you’ll likely see how many of the companies with the potential to disrupt the future of your own companies’ business model have a very different mindset and modus operandi from the large corporates the mentors often come from.

Your organisation is probably to some degree working out how to drive digital or multichannel culture change, much as American Express and John Lewis have over the last few years. For these programmes to be truly successful, there is a need for a mindset change from staff internally. This strategy could be a good complement, and almost certainly better than some of the usual constituents like a roadshow which the championing teams can provide.

If you want to understand what opportunities there would be for mentoring, you should contact one of the hubs directly or for a more informal approach and to even look at the scene, join one of the regular social events taking place around the Silicon Roundabout in London. But don’t hesitate too long or in a mere 18 months, you may find it is your out-of-date brand that requires the mentoring.

Alex Tait



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