How “born globals” dance with gorillas to punch above their weight

For over a decade now I have been studying “born globals” i.e. new ventures that internationalize rapidly, and in particular how these firms leverage relationships with large multinationals to facilitate this process. My studies on this topic span China, India, UK and USA.

I recently published a book targeted at other academics, based on this research, titled Born Globals, Networks and the Large Multinational Enterprise, which was released during the Academy of International Business conference in Bangalore.

The insights for entrepreneurs from this research include the following:

Be proactive in recognizing the opportunity to harness globalization. More than at any point in history, multinationals are genuinely interested to engage with start-ups. It wasn’t always like this. When I started my research in 2002 I could barely find any multinational with a structured partnering program targeted at young companies at home or abroad. This changed over the next few years as multinationals recognized that they could not be self-sufficient in generating novel ideas, and that start-ups were great at doing this. Today many multinationals offer a range of start-up engagement mechanisms from mass partner programs to selective incubators.

Be discerning in order to leverage the right opportunity. Just because an opportunity exists does not mean that it is guaranteed to work out. Entrepreneurs have to be discerning in how they engage with multinationals. In one sense, discernment in this context entails figuring out which partner is most appropriate to its strategic intent. Another facet is ensuring that its interests are protected, which may call for clever cooptation of local allies (e.g. mentors from respected incubators or VC firms). Yet another aspect of this is learning as much about the partner as possible to have a realistic understanding of what is and isn’t likely to be feasible.

Be reflective to learn from, and become better at dancing with, gorillas. Gorillas i.e. large multinationals can be an effective source of new business opportunities and revenues – but typically there are limits to how helpful they can be in this way. In the long term, new ventures will accrue important benefits if they adopt a learning mindset and seek to learn new capabilities through observation of, and joint activity with, large multinationals. Also, partnering with multinationals is a skill, and ventures can become better at this over time – if they consciously make the effort to reflect on their partnering experiences and talk to mentors periodically.

Thus partnering with multinationals involves considerable skill and effort – but the payoff can be considerable for new ventures if they can pull it off. Such start-ups harness globalization to punch above their weight. It’s a worthy goal for ventures with high aspirations in terms of innovation and internationalization

“Dancing with gorillas” – what is it?

Dancing with gorillas refers to start-ups partnering with large companies, in particular multinational corporations. I have been studying how these very different types of companies engage with each other in both the West (especially the US and UK) and East (especially China and India) for about a decade now. At the early stages of my research, I once asked the late Professor C K Prahalad what he thought about the scope for start-ups to engage with large multinationals, and his immediate response was: “Many of these small companies have no choice but to learn to dance with big gorillas”. I immediately latched on to that phrase!

Source: An interview with Dr Shameen Prashantham available here