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What I learned spending the summer with startups

One of the balancing acts of running an accelerator: Keeping Target’s big corporate machine from crushing seedling companies.

Revolar co-founder Jacqueline Ros makes her pitch at Demo Day at the Target + Techstars Retail Accelerator in Minneapolis.
Stephen Allen

In two minutes, the stage lights will go up, and I couldn’t be more excited. Jacqueline Ros, the co-founder and CEO of Revolar, is going to take the stage and tell the world why a plastic disc the size of a quarter has the potential to make millions of peoples’ lives safer.

She’s pitching to more than 1,000 technologists, entrepreneurs and investors who have come to Minneapolis for Demo Day — the grand finale to the Target + Techstars Retail Accelerator, for which more than 30 of Target’s senior leaders and 100 Twin Cities leaders became mentors. It’s Techstars’ first program designed to connect with start-ups with the potential to transform the retail industry.

And it’s a huge moment for Revolar.

I’ve spent the last 13 weeks with Jackie and her co-founder, Andrea Perdomo, serving as a mentor and helping them sharpen their business plan and clarify their market position. Spoiler alert: Sky’s the limit.

As their mentor, and now friend, I wanted nothing more than for them to succeed and for Jackie to crush her pitch at Demo Day. But as CEO of one of the biggest retailers in the country, I also needed them to succeed.

Target is a $70 billion company with a long legacy for great design and innovation. But as our industry changes, as more and more consumers demand total integrating between physical and digital experiences, we need to change, too.

Sure, we have some of the best minds already working with us, but we’re also smart enough to know that all the answers do not lie within our four walls. We need people like Jackie and Andrea for new ideas, fresh thinking. We need entrepreneurs developing new and innovative products and solutions that have the potential to create new paths for growth, diversify our business model and transform every facet of industry —– from supply chain to operations to marketing. This kind of innovation is vital for retail’s future, and will redefine our industry.

At the same time, these companies need us, too. Target opens doors to capital, to consumers and scale. We have world-class talent and expertise and, of course, millions and millions of customers who shop our stores and our site every day.

For me, this was just one of the balancing acts of running an accelerator: Keeping our big corporate machine from crushing these nascent companies. My fellow mentors and I recognized early on that the relationships between us and our startup counterparts needed to look much different from any supplier-buyer relationships we’d managed in the past. And that’s why I’ve come to know Jackie and Andrea.

In partnering with Techstars, we opened the doors wide. The program drew nearly 600 applications from more than 50 countries around the world. In June, we selected 10 companies and invited them to spend the summer in Minneapolis.

In the 13 weeks since the accelerator kicked off in June, I’ve learned many invaluable lessons. Here are three that stand out:

First, it’s critical to help any innovator in your organization — in this case, our accelerator startups — get to the right person first. In our case, we’d promised these companies a front row seat to our enterprise and asked top-level leaders to show them around, but I still saw too many instances where working with Target proved overly complex and hard to navigate. Who’s the decision maker? Am I meeting with the right team? A “no” from the wrong leader of the wrong team can kill a great idea. Help clear the path up front.

Second, try to keep pace. There was a lot I could teach these entrepreneurs, but one of the biggest lessons they taught me was speed. The juxtaposition of our operation and theirs was stark. Startups are measuring time in terms of months-worth-of-funding. I saw, first hand, that too often we moved too slowly. We can’t return an email a week later. Time is money, no matter what size business you’re working in. And in this business an opportunity can emerge on a Monday and disappear by Tuesday if you’re not careful. Noted.

Finally, the most important lesson is that we weren’t always asking the right question. Teams would start by asking “Is this right for Target?” instead of “Is this idea right for the world?” and then figuring out how to build it, together.

And this is what I loved so much about working together with Jackie, Andrea and the Revolar team. Jackie’s greatest fear about working with a mass retailer like Target is that her product could become just another “product on a peg.” She has an incredible story to tell. She started her company with some unfortunate inspiration, helping her younger sister recover from an assault, and learning that one in four women will be assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Never wanting that to happen to anyone again, Jackie started Revolar by asking, “What if calling for help could have been as simple as pressing a button, a single click away?”

Without hardware or engineering experience, without any money, Jackie set off on solving that problem. Driven by purpose, passion and persistence, Revolar went from prototype to nationwide retail launch in eight months. But that story is tough to tell a shopper from the shelf.

So during their time with Target, the Revolar team worked with our buyers and marketing teams and developed a plan to tell that story through experiences and events — like a pilot happening this fall to connect directly with students at UC Berkeley. And that’s just the start, as the Revolar team is now refining use cases to bring its products to more people, like parents who want to keep track of their kids or aging relatives who struggle with mobility.

I’m really proud of the work of all these teams this summer. And I can’t wait to meet next year’s class of entrepreneurs. But most of all, I finished the summer totally inspired by the Revolar team and the power of Jackie’s simple question:

What if?

Brian Cornell is the board chairman and CEO of Target Corp., responsible for Target’s global business, including nearly 1,800 U.S. stores and, more than 341,000 team members and millions of guests. Cornell leads the retailer’s executive leadership team in accelerating Target’s performance, advancing its digital evolution and delivering on its “Expect More. Pay Less.” promise to guests. He joined Target in August 2014 after more than 30 years in escalating leadership positions at leading retail and global consumer product companies, including three CEO roles and more than two decades doing business in North America, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Reach him @Target.

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