Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Doing business with startups, due diligence and lessons

Every CIO gets many calls from startup IT companies wanting to bounce their million dollar idea—to seek the CIO’s advice and understand whether it makes sense in the enterprise. Some of these are self-funded, while a few may have angel investors or private equity already in place for growth. The steady growth of such small startups in the recent past has created an interesting problem for the CIO. Why is it a problem?

In quite a few cases, there is not much to differentiate one startup from the other. So how does the CIO separate the chalk from cheese? What is the due diligence required before getting these vendors on board?

A majority of these startups are seeded in institutes like IIT and IIM (globally pertinent equivalents may be the Silicon Valley or MIT kind of institutes), where the idea takes shape fuelled by the entrepreneurial bug. Most such ideas take a while before they gain traction with their target audience. These are the real gems, and being an early adopter of such startups provides an immense advantage.

Having worked with a few such companies, I realize that it does take a lot of effort to get the product/service aligned to enterprise processes and direction. As the first or amongst the first few customers, the value proposition is almost always attractive. Their reference checks largely depend on their mentors (professors or others) who are able to provide the details behind their continued support to the new entity.

The second category of startups comprises breakaway groups from existing companies, where a group of people have decided that their ideas have higher value than what they currently see within a large entity. This group typically specializes in services for a specific technology, domain or application. Such companies do well to begin with as they are patronized by existing customers (supported by them) who see a price advantage with a smaller startup. Such entities pass the tipping point within 12-18 months by either reaching a steady state, or falling apart. The due diligence is thus largely dependent on the team’s leader and its past track record as they continue to offer similar services.

A variant of the second category is a group being lured by an investor who believes that unlocking the potential has good upside for everyone. The service offering is thus no different from the above. A private equity institutional player invests in existing entities that needs funds to scale up or laterally, but in this case the carving out was initiated by the investor. How does one ensure that the entity will survive and make it to the tipping point? The team comes with impeccable credentials; the unknown factor is the investor who may pull the plug. In such a case, it is critical to conduct diligence on the investor and his past track record. Search engines come to your rescue in such cases, as past footprints cannot be obliterated.

Either way, put in safeguards to protect your enterprise’s interests with financial, legal or even escrow accounts to address sudden disruption. Work with your legal team for once, ask all the questions even if they make the other queasy; at least you will be able to sleep with ease.


  1. Anonymous11:59 AM

    Very Interesting Insight!
    I could not agree more.

    ~Birendra Prasad
    Zensar Tech

  2. Safe guarding enterprise with due diligence & Legal provision is OK. However, if one is contemplating to take Competitive advantage then associated risk also need to be evaluated and involve business stake holders. Partnering with Business Stake Holder is a must. Envisage the sudden disruption and mange through a RISK portfolio of the enterprise s another way.
    'C' level decisions have to be strategic and hence are associated with Risks. CIOs need to take those risks & deal with if want to be 'C'IO.
    For Category one Start-ups: It is better to arrange internal support for disruptions. Stakes of the Start-ups are linked to limited motivation and not long-term commitment in majority cases. Other avenues of Higher studies, challenging assignments, more new ideas, Lucrative jobs are few reasons. Financial sustainability is another risk reason.
    For Category two Start-ups: Success rate is higher than the category one. However, mid-life entrepreneur may also miss-out on the long term financial sustainability factor or fall back. Have a fall back in place through some other trusted vendor (legal function may help in this).
    So its all about entrepreneur approach of being 'C' and sleep shall get regulated!