CIO Quick Takes: How to evaluate startups

With new technology moving faster than most CIOs can train staff and recruit talent, it's obvious why working with startups is an attractive option. But how can IT leaders tell which rising stars will prosper and which will fall? Four CIOs share insight and advice.

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As enterprises face a steady flow of new mobile, cloud, analytics and social collaboration technologies, and the need for employees with expertise in these areas accelerates, the ability to work with startups offers a slew of tactical and strategic benefits. However, while some startups offer fresh ideas and rock-star talent, others simply won't survive. To determine the best ways to evaluate startup companies, we asked four CIOs the following question:

"What are your top three criteria in evaluating startups?"

No magic potion exists to pick winning startups — that's why venture capitalists cast wide nets — but our quartet of CIOs, who come from a global association of investment professionals, a major home improvement retail chain, a private university and a global logistics service provider, each have unique insights and advice. For starters, the CIOs say startups need to be a good cultural fit, they need to have strong management teams, and they must offer some technological advantage.

Elaine Cheng, CIO, CFA Institute

Elaine Cheng, CIO, CFA Institute

Here's how four IT executives from CFA Institute, Lowe's Companies, Fordham University and BDP International evaluate startups.

Elaine Cheng, CIO, CFA Institute

"Working with startups is a fantastic way to quickly bring new ideas and technology to CFA Institute. Startups are really a 'fast up' for our organization. The culture at startups, however, can be very different than our organization, and those are factors we take into consideration when evaluating firms. For CFA Institute, the top three criteria we consider are:

  1. Does the startup firm have values consistent with CFA Institute?
  2. Are we collaborating on a technology or capability that is relatively low risk but high potential?
  3. Does the firm have any experience in our field or working with organizations like CFA Institute?
Chris Langford, director of corporate venture capital, Lowe's Companies

Chris Langford, director of corporate venture capital, Lowe's Companies

"These three considerations drive our decisions to partner with startup firms."

Chris Langford, director of corporate venture capital, Lowe's Companies

"For Lowe's Ventures, the three most important aspects when evaluating a startup are management, opportunity size and market dynamics.

"We focus on early-stage companies (seed and Series A) so the quality of the management team (a formula of startup experience, industry experience, education and intangibles) is the most important aspect. A great management team is good at solving the inherent problems of a company still trying to determine its market fit, customer acquisition model and value creation plan. Beyond that, companies focused on large problems with competitive advantages (either first mover or IP-driven) are more attractive."

Frank J Sirianni, Ph D, vice president and CIO, Fordham University

Frank J Sirianni, Ph D, vice president and CIO, Fordham University

Frank J. Sirianni, PhD, vice president and CIO, Fordham University

"The product or service should fill a gap in the market and have some differentiating characteristics from similar offerings. What is it? How does it work? What makes it better than other solutions? This is both a market and investor variable. If it makes sense, it should appeal to investors the way it appeals to the market. It is either exciting or not.

"Who are the movers and shakers of the initiative? People, passion, position. This may sound trite, but it is not. The proper combination of visionary, operational, and market savvy skills are necessary, if not sufficient for success. Commitment and low or deferred compensation should go without saying."

"Another item I would consider is the current annual revenue against funds invested. Assuming commitment from the entrepreneurs and low margins, the company's revenue should look something like the investment in."

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Angela Yochem, CIO, BDP International.

Angela Yochem, CIO, BDP International

"First, the startup needs to offer a differentiating capability for my business. Startups that have potential to significantly enhance our existing business lines, or create the foundation for an adjacent business line, will get my attention.

"Second, I look at the startup's willingness to engage creatively with our company, and how flexible the startup can be. Third, the people behind the pitch will be partnering with our business, so they must be transparent, perceptive, skilled in complementary ways, and have the ability to deliver game-changing offerings to our customers."

This story, "CIO Quick Takes: How to evaluate startups" was originally published by CIO.