Concrete VC: Landing trials with large construction firms

You’ve got what you think is a great product that has the potential to transform the construction industry, but where do you go from there? Who do you approach first in these large companies? Specialist proptech fund Concrete VC hosted an event to explore the tactics and strategies for getting a foot in the doorway.

The audience heard from James Austin of Autodesk, Daniel Neasham of Lendlease and George Holder of Mace, who shared their experiences in engaging with startups from a corporate perspective. The event was chaired by Concrete VC partner, Taylor Wescoatt.

Concrete Contech Panel

What does it take for a startup to get a trial with your company?

Mace: Every project we have is a live project, it’s being paid for by a client, and the challenge for our innovation team is to balance all the agendas around that. We need startups to have something we can put out on site. If you have a product that adds value, the door is very much always open. From there it’s just finding the right project, the right timing, and determining the size of project that the startup is capable of working on.

Autodesk: Our discussion is usually along the lines of looking at spend with the IT department, who say we’ve thousands of startups contacting us. The key thing IT is looking for is security around the things startups do with the data on their customers. We always ask startups what their strategy for integration is. You can have loads of VC money but if that data is siloed, if the information doesn’t connect outside the project, and if they don’t feed mistakes back into the loop, they’re ultimately going to die as that information is dead. If your strategy isn’t plugged into that mentality, you’ll run into headwinds.

Lendlease: Our process is fairly informal in terms of screening startups. It usually involves someone in the business catching onto the idea, advocating it from within and putting it to the right person. The stuff I’ve been involved with has been through internal networks, external, and direct approaches. The scatter-gun approach of trying to get in to the company from many angles isn’t going to be productive, it gets to the point where there’s a lot of chatter internally and a sponsor like myself has to spend lots of time explaining to lots of people throughout the firm. A more focused approach and having a central sponsor is preferred.6

If a startup was to email you, what would the content of the email look like?

Lendlease: It would explain their technology readiness level. I need to be able to communicate how far away the solution is from adding value. We want to see that the startup has had exposure in the industry, we don’t want to be leading edge and we’d like other companies to make mistakes first. Integration is key, however we need to know what your get-out strategy is. If we support you, get you on to a project and in our ecosystem, what will happen when someone goes and buys you? If the product no longer works for us, that’s going to be a problem.

The process of governance can tie down true innovation, any tips on tackling this?

Lendlease: You just have to go through those steps, and you’ll need a good sponsor to help guide you. At certain points I’ll try and get startup in to expose them to the right people, however lots of seniors don’t have the bandwidth to enable that.

Mace: Big corporates have governance for a reason, I’ll use the oil tanker/speed boat analogy. Whilst corporates do want to be more lean, the reality is that governance is there. Being resilient and being ready to go when there is a project available is so important. If you say your product isn’t ready when it is time to go, that’s a sure-fire way of not getting a call back. Be honest with us, we don’t mind if you’re early, we can work with it.


Finding the decision-maker

Mace: It’s who’s paying for it. The reality is most tech trials are funded by the project, the decision-maker is the project manager or the budget holder. They are the people I try to interface with the startups.

Lendlease: That’s technically correct, however from my experience if the right people in the business support the idea, the project has to suck it up. You need to make sure you have a good sponsor, who will then ensure all the correct stakeholders are lined up and brought on board.

Brittany Harris, audience member and founder of Qualis Flow: We’ve been really successful with trials by going for a pincer effect. We approached the head of sustainability, and a graduate who had time to focus on us. The guys in the middle are the most annoying, if you have one from the top and one from the bottom shouting about your company, eventually the middle tells them to get on with it. Our quickest trials have been with private developers, public is proving to be very difficult.

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