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Will Fan

By Will Fan
Co-founder and CEO @ QLC

Running a startup is like playing a game of Dota 2

As the startup culture matures, founders are realising that corporations have a lot of wisdom, experience, and resources to be leveraged, and that perhaps working with, rather than against them, could be the smarter way to go.


Running a startup is hard work, and whenever that rare opportunity for me to take a breather presents itself, I sometimes gather a few of my QLC colleagues to play DOTA 2, a multiplayer online game where two teams battle one another to accomplish an objective.

I love the game because it’s all about teamwork and strategy. I also love how I am able to choose from more than a hundred different characters that are classified into three categories: Strength, Agility and Intelligence.

Those in the Strength class are usually big, lumbering characters that pack a big punch and can soak up large amounts of damage. Those in the Agility class may not hit as hard, but they have greater levels of guile and speed.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to just focus on these two classes, which I thought are pretty reflective of the Corporation-Startup divide.

For years, many of those in the startup scene have prided themselves as being the “cooler” guys, compared to the “boring” people from the corporate world. After all, companies like AirBnB and Uber have made startups seem like the cool, edgy place to be by disrupting conventions.

Some of my peers in the corporate circles, on the other hand, view startups as tiny enterprises with no clout that are devoid of job stability. After all, it’s a well-known fact that the majority of startups fail.

In a way, startups are like the Agility characters from DOTA 2. They are renowned for being a lot more agile than hulking corporate entities that get bogged down by rigid structures and bureaucracy. Because of the way they are structured, startups don’t have to navigate through the morass of red tape and are hence able to reach their objective faster. That’s why they can be such effective disruptors.

Corporations, then, are like the Strength characters. Though they are comparatively slower because of their size and the need to answer to shareholders, they boast enormous financial muscle and access to resources that most startups lack. That’s why some conglomerates eat startups for lunch without even worrying about a calorie deficit.

It’s a team game

But I find it this talk about which is the better place to be in a little pointless. While they each have differing strengths and weakness, they ultimately share a common goal: innovation.

What they need to do, just like in DOTA 2, is work together.

I’m hardly the only one who thinks so. In fact, corporations have been working alongside startups for a very long time.

According to consulting firm New Markets Advisors, many Fortune 500 heavyweights, including Procter & Gamble and IBM, operate an incubator.

In 1996, Shell Global founded a corporate incubator called GameChanger that helps startups explore their innovative ideas by providing seed funding and support in other areas. To date, the incubator has worked with more than 5,000 innovators, realizing 150 ideas in the process.

Over in Germany, industrial manufacturing conglomerate Siemens has a venture capital initiative that has channelled more than €800 million in investments into start-ups and established companies based in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Dr. Rudolf Freytag, CEO of Innovative Ventures at Siemens, summed up the importance of startups by saying that they “enable access to new technologies and allow new business models to be quickly tested in a flexible manner.”

The more efficient route to innovation

A global study titled The State of Innovation that was released by the Unilever Foundry last year stated that 80 percent of corporate bodies view startups as a positive influence to their innovation efforts.

Three key factors were listed as the driving force behind current collaborations between startups and corporations: learning something new, improving efficiency and solving business problems in new ways that can scale.

Meanwhile, 90 percent of corporations that are already working with startups expect to continue to do so in the future. The majority of respondent from both parties also said that they are expecting more collaboration to take place in the future. The study even went as far as to predict that employees from these two entities could be working alongside one another in co-working spaces by 2025.

The results of this study are backed by similar findings in a joint research report by Imaginatik and Mass Challenge titled The State of Startup / Corporate Collaboration 2016.

The report revealed that 82 percent of corporations see partnerships with startups as either “somewhat important” or “very important”, while 23 percent classified it as “mission critical”.

On the other hand, an increasing number of startups are now viewing their corporate peers as valuable partners rather than “competitors” or “potential acquirers”.

“As the startup culture matures, founders are realizing that corporations have a lot of wisdom, experience, and resources to be leveraged, and that perhaps working with, rather than against them, could be the smarter way to go,” said the report.

“Also, in a post-Uber and Airbnb world, startups realize that the power is not only with large corporations, and that leads them to be more selective with whom they choose to work. In fact working with corporations is shaping up to be a startup’s most powerful growth hack.”

A boon to national development

It is not just corporations that covet the agility startups are naturally endowed with. Governments, too, have been keen to work together with small enterprises to leverage their ability to innovate and solve problems in unconventional ways.

Take for example the government-backed Dubai Accelerators Program that QLC is currently a part of. This program connects QLC to the education arm of the Dubai government and we're working closely with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) to roll out our services to universities in the region.

The importance of startups in the innovation process is again highlighted in CITIE (City Initiatives for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship), a resource to aid city governments’ efforts in boosting innovation and entrepreneurship.

In a report by Accenture, which worked with Future Cities Catapult and Nesta to produce CITIE, the firm noted how “vibrant startup ecosystems are important not only for growth and jobs but also for a city government’s ability to solve local problems and run itself well.”

The report also found that city governments have a proclivity to embrace traits typical of startups, such as a willingness to experiment and learn from failure, when both parties work together. This in turn aids the innovation process.

Looking to the future

I believe the outlook for the global startup sector is a positive one. Besides the fact that corporations and government bodies are poised to deepen their relationship with startups, the fact that many countries are looking to grow their startup population also bodes well for the industry.

For example, Indonesia started the 1,000 Startups Movement in 2016 and this program aims to grow a thousand startups that would have a combined value of US$10 billion by 2020. In India, the startup population is expected to reach 10,500 by 2020, double the figure in 2016. Hungary is also in the midst of an ambitious project to turn its capital of Budapest into Europe’s startup mecca.

This boost in startup numbers could translate to greater employment opportunities for people around the world. A PwC report from 2013 projected that the tech startup segment alone could help generate 540,000 jobs and account for 4 percent of Australia’s GDP by 2033.

And having more startups around could also mean a radical shift in the way the world works. After all, remote working can be considered the norm for most startups.

Why? Because that’s how we stay agile. That’s how we disrupt conventions for the greater good.

And for any gamer reading this, yes, my favourite characters in DOTA 2 are indeed the Agility ones.

Will Fan

Co-founder and CEO @ QLC

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