Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

Start-up Hub Problem Page: How can I avoid being the victim of ‘start-up tourism’?

April 28, 2016

“We’re not fans of start-up tourism. We’re not here for that dog and pony show… work with us.” 

– Mutaz Qubbaj, co-founder and CEO of Squirrel


One of our Start-up Hub community, Mutaz Qubbaj, who is the co-founder of money management app Squirrel, referred to the concept of ‘start-up tourism’, where big corporates cosy up to start-ups to get benefit – instant innovation kudos, if you will – by association.

When we spoke to other start-up founders and leaders, we heard that it’s not an uncommon gripe. This is where vendors risk alienating the start-up community, by not backing up their apparent interest with genuine support.

We decided to get three perspectives on the issue, taking the view from a start-up, a mentor and one of our own team. Here’s what they had to say.        

The inside track on start-up tourism

Mark Dawber – head of business development at SPARKL @MarkLDawber

Start-up tourism isn’t necessarily done out of malicious intent. Most vendors just want to see you out of curiosity, but more often than not, it doesn’t actually lead to much success for either party!

Ultimately, innovation needs a budget to make things real and the majority of start-ups are well aware of – or at least should be – the vendor’s pain points.

In any situation, the key is to make sure that you firmly establish the intended outcome (and the money required) before committing your time and resources – otherwise that’s your time wasted and another great idea in the bin.

For more tips on how to pitch complex technical solutions to enterprises, you can take a read of my colleague Emily Hier’s recent guest post on the topic for the Start-up Hub.

Mark is Head of Business Development at SPARKL. With over 30 years of experience selling complex solutions in telecoms, banking and defence, Mark finds the collaborative start-up experience to be a rewarding one. 

A mentor’s view on start-up tourism

Melanie Marchant – start-up adviser and mentor @pomstrine

Firstly, do your research about the company; are there any examples of collaboration with start-ups? It is a sad fact that many companies want to be involved in the start-up scene to give the impression of being nimble and innovative but lack the commitment or resources to follow through.

Ensure that there is a clear strategy in place for the company. If they cannot articulate the direction of the company over the next few years and identify where your company might help in reaching this then they are more than likely window shopping. Ask what resources and budgets have been assigned to the innovation project and activities. What is the culture to change in the organisation?

Are the senior management team open to innovation and embracing change? If no, then it’s very unlikely that anything will come from a relationship. Also be very wary if an organisation refuses to contribute in any tangible sense at all – whether that be financially, by supplying dedicated mentors or facilitating customer introductions. This is as clear a sign as any that they are not 100% committed.

If answers to all the questions above are positive there is a lot to be gained through working with large companies, particularly in terms of branding, PR and wider visibility. When one dominant player works with a smaller company or start-up it often opens the flood gates in terms of other commercial relationships.

Melanie is an independent consultant, start-up advisor and mentor with extensive in both digital and Over The Top (OTT) services. Sheoffers counsel to start-ups and entrepreneurs and currently serves as board adviser, technical adviser, mentor and supporter to incubators and angel investment organisations, including TechStars, Entrepreneur Acadame and Angel Acadame.

The Cisco perspective

Ged FittonGed Fitton – Senior Business Development Manager at Cisco @gedfitton

Digital disruption is happening everywhere, and even companies that were born in the digital age aren’t immune from its impact. Innovation has always been at the core of Cisco, but innovation isn’t something that only happens at the centre of a company – in closed, safe, specialised areas.

Innovation is now happening at the edge of all businesses, driven by market changes and the constant questioning of business models. And this amazing innovation is increasingly happening outside of the corporate world, where great ideas are brought to life by start-ups. Companies that embrace innovation outside of their corporate bubble are the ones that can not only keep pace with change, but can accelerate it by nurturing, partnering with and supporting start-ups.

This isn’t just about fancy corporate PR and intangible initiatives; it’s about investing money, people and time in real programs that create mutually beneficial relationships. Cisco has brought this reality to life with initiatives that include IDEALondon, DevNet and the Solution Partner Program – each one created to help a start-up get the validation and alignment from a global technology player that it both needs and deserves.

Why is this important? It’s called the ‘Halo Effect’. The start-up gets a meaningful business support wrapper around its innovation and an opportunity to align with a global brand that opens doors to commercial success. Meanwhile, Cisco gets an opportunity to demonstrate to its customers that some of the most innovative and disruptive ideas have been created in partnership with our growing community of incredible start-ups.

Ged Fitton is a senior business development manager at Cisco, where he is responsible for supporting and developing an ‘innovation-led’ program to identify next generation start-ups. He assists with their development by aligning Cisco investment, resources and products to support their growth.

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