When you are small it’s sometimes useful to make friends with the bigger boys. I had some luck in the genetic lottery and turned out quite large – so this rule only started to have meaning for me as I grew a software company that sold to large corporates.

In this world you have some sales channel choices – the simplest is selling ‘direct’. Direct is exactly as it seems – you make a right nuisance of yourself until such time as you get to speak with someone who has a problem that you think you have a solution for. Then using all the guile you can muster, you persuade the bigger boy to let you become their friend. Delivering on all the things you say you can do is then really rather important and when that inevitably happens, the bigger boy introduces you to his (or her, that’s girl not boy – whoops this analogy is becoming ridiculous) friends, and all is well.

Another technique is selling via partners – this time you find a company who has already made friends with the big boys/girls and who is willing to introduce you. This is sometimes very pleasant indeed – ContactEngine achieved this status with Microsoft last year who know all the biggest boys and girls. Microsoft call this Co-Sell Status and it’s a win, win – they introduce us to their clients – we provide solutions – those solutions end up driving usage of Microsoft’s cloud services (like Azure, or Cognitive Services) and everyone is happy.

However, choosing the right partner has been a terribly hit and miss affair – I won’t list the companies who we have partnered with which resulted in no new business for us as it’s actually not (always!) their fault. Sometimes it is simply that they are too big and you are too small for the partnership to have enough mutual advantage for both parties. But I think we have worked out the best formula to drive this strategy – and that is via an ‘Accelerator’.

The ever wonderful Wikipedia defines these as ‘Startup accelerators, also known as seed accelerators, are fixed-term, cohort-based programs that include seed investment, connections, mentorship, educational components, and culminate in a public pitch event or demo day to accelerate growth.’

Couldn’t have put that better myself. And this is exactly how the Microsoft relationship was born. Around a year ago, together with hundreds of others companies in the UK, we pitched to the biggest boy/girl and were honoured to be selected. Microsoft then ran several months of training – pitch, investment, branding – the whole nine yards – to make sure that we were best placed to convince their clients of our merits. We graduated and now we have several mutual clients making us both money.

Our latest Accelerator win has been with the behemoth that is Accenture – the global services company. ContactEngine was one of twenty companies chosen from 280 applicants for this year’s FinTech Innovation Lab London cohort, and we’ve already seen the programme drive change in our business – our FinTech offer had been somewhat singular (we were lucky enough to start working with a Dutch bank in 2018) but is now more plural after we reformulated and repositioned our offer and already we are seeing some green shoots of growth in several of the many partners that Accenture have on board.

But there are some lessons, so here are my top tips for accelerating accelerators:

  • Join! That’s easier said than done – most will require some preparation, some pitching and you’ll need to be good. Take as much time preparing as you would for an important client;
  • Do everything asked of you. This can be tough if you are a small team – we are lucky to have had some decent growth and we have people who can absorb the time requirements that they place upon you. It is true that when you work for a massive company you imagine that small companies have spare time – we really don’t. But do make sure you put enough in to get enough out;
  • Listen really carefully. It’s best not to guess what you can best offer a mutual client – companies like Accenture will, almost always, have a decade or more’s experience of companies that you might like to work for. Listen to them – they really will know what’s best;
  • Swallow your pride. This is the hardest for me. Many accelerators offer mentorship – some of us value that as an aid, some of us don’t. Try to tell your face to behave itself, even if you feel a little bit patronised;
  • Pace yourself. When you are in a speed boat it’s sometimes irritating to encounter a super tanker – just make sure you plan for things taking longer than you’d like, but if you do 1-4 above, you can be sure that the accelerator will do just that.

Finally, if you are just starting out as a micro-business, then Accelerators in large cities like London can also offer hot desking, free juice and access to meeting space that would otherwise cost you a fortune. One of them even has free beer in the fridge – though whilst tempting, I don’t recall anyone actually taking the plunge. Well, at least not until the sun had risen above the yardarm….

So good luck – you have to be in it to win it, but from my side of the accelerator fence they really do exactly what it says on the tin.

Dr Mark K. Smith

Founder & CEO