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Debunking Collaboration Assumptions

By: Sasha Kazantsev

6 min read

So, you have decided to start an open innovation project. You have found a perfect partner to pursue your idea with. You have had the first meeting and even broadly discussed the potential price of your joint service for the end-users. It looks like working together will be the everlasting honeymoon. What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s take one step back and assess the situation. When we talk about an open innovation project, most often we refer to a situation whereby one partner (a startup) is a supplier of a new technology and another partner is

applying it to an existing system (an enterprise). The expectation behind such a project is that the joint project has greater market value. From the perspective of an enterprise, the project is a win, because with it, they can save time and money otherwise spent on developing the tech in-house. For a startup, that has so far been working with limited access to market joint innovation is a promise of capitalising on their technology relatively soon and in a significant scale.

So far so good, right? A sensitive and empathetic reader can already notice a seed of conflict in this setup. Unlike traditional team work, where you and your mates are aiming for the same target, open innovation presents a challenge that is more comparable to a symbiotic relationship. You are supporting your partner in the final vision of a joint opportunity, while at the same time your strategies of reaching this objective can be very different.

In Vertical we ignite early-stage collaboration of this kind and helping the partners to align their expectations about each other is one of the fundamentals of long-term success. Where should one start? Being on either of the two side, you can start by validating (or de-validating for this sake) your fundamental assumptions about your collaboration partner.

What types of assumptions are there and why should I challenge them?

  1. Financial
    Leading to misunderstanding in pricing/funding
  2. Personal
    Leading to misunderstanding in communication
  3. Organizational
    Leading to misunderstanding in strategy
  4. Collaboration-related
    Leading to misunderstanding in project dynamics

Financial assumptions

Assumptions about an enterprise

“We read that last year Company X has made 15€ bln in the first quarter”


Discuss the range* of budgets allocated within the Enterprise in particular for R&D or licensing in your area.

*You do not need sensitive data here. What you need to know is whether the project of yours can expect 10k or 100k for a pilot in the future

Assumptions about a startup

“We estimate the R&D expense for the startup to be no more than 10k€.”


Negotiate how does the project fund additional development expenses (e.g. legal compliance services).

Discuss what development cost the startup can pick up as part of their internal product development.

Personal assumptions

Assumptions about an enterprise

“We haven’t heard from Jill in a month. Maybe they have found another project and lost the interest.”


Make sure to align your collaboration milestones with the level of your enterprise partners’ occupancy.

It is usual for your enterprise partners to be booked months in advance. Mark in your calendar the times optimal for interaction.

Assumptions about a startup

“They seem to be eager to learn. They are gaining so much from this collaboration in soft values.”


While entrepreneurs usually are very motivated and engaged, it worth to remember that they often bet their entire wellbeing on a project with you, and may have impatient investors behind them. Ask startup team about their stakes in accepting your partnership.

Try to accommodate a startup for the off-boarding, in case of a fallback.

Organisational assumptions

Assumptions about an enterprise

“Pilot went great. They love our product. Next step is international market!”


Most of the large enterprises have heavily fragmented market operations. Learn your partner’s organisation structure on the early stage of collaborations.

Assumptions about a startup

“They have managed a pilot just fine. We are ready to call them for a big trial”


Often expanding delivery output for a startup means hiring new resources. To allow them scale with your demand, make sure that payment can be fragmented (not 1 time on delivery).

Collaboration assumptions

Assumptions about an enterprise

“We agreed to a pilot — we have a great deal”


Internal sales* are just as diverse as the external once. Learn what drives your collaboration from the strategy standpoint of the partner. How and how much do they expect to profit on it?

*For example, if the person X has paid your pilot based on your pitched deck, this does not yet mean that his supervisor will sponsor your project for another year on the same value proposition.

Assumptions about a startup

We agreed to a pilot — we have a great deal”


Have you provided validation criteria for pilot? How do you know what to do next?

Provide the startup with insights* necessary to draft a continuation plan.

Document/log the efforts and derive initial validation criteria for collaboration.

*E.g., consider the internal end-user of the service (usually corporate mid-management).

Other common assumptions

Assumptions about an enterprise

“Our project sponsor knows exactly who’s an end user of our service.”


On every stage of the project ask your team: If we were to release a beta version of the service tomorrow, how would it work? Do we need to train the staff? Does the staff need a special interface to operate it? Your true end-users are often also hidden within the company.

Assumptions about a startup

“Innovation with a startup can be done without internal managers allocated to the project.”


Ask yourself: Will I be able to be present for 1-2 weeks of the on-site pilot full time? Can I join a telco with the startup weekly on their schedule?

Often, it makes sense to allocate a PM for practical tasks early on, to have a prepared person ready to scale the effort.

Resolve assumptions: 4 fundamentals of collaborative relationships

Use these cards for setting up a dialog or a series of talks on your project. It can serve you as a checklist for the projects that are just starting or the projects that came to a stall for an unclear reason.

One of the possible formats that you can apply it to is setting your project kick-off meeting around these subjects as an agenda.

However, keep in mind, that to find out some of the deeper facts about your partner, you will need attention and dedication throughout the project. Another possible use-case for these cards is conducting a meeting on conflict resolution.

TO DO’s for an enterprise

    Discuss with the startup the estimates for collaboration development costs. Work together on variants and breakdowns.
    Discuss the company stakeholders, burn rate and parallel projects. Where does your collaboration lay in their greater activities.
    Discuss the capability of the company to scale with you. Can they supply your demand? What will you have to compromise?
    Start thinking of what gateway of quality (quantitative) this project will have to pass.

TO DO’s for a startup

    Ask your partner about the resources that are typically allocated in your area.
    Align your calendars and make sure to sharply set the checkpoint milestones.
    Learn your partner’s organisational structure. How would you scale from a local pilot. What is business interest (financially) in your segment. Is this interest distributed or centralised.
    Start mapping the profitability metrics of your opportunity. It will later become validation for your venture suggestion.

More details?

Please get in touch with Sasha Kazantsev if you should have any questions or if you need more details.

Sasha Kazantsev

Strategy | Collaboration
+358 45 878 7079