ESPN, PepsiCo, Billboard, and American Express Talk Partnering with Startups

It is no secret that finding a big company to work with can give a startup a boost that lands them more business and credibility. No matter how novel a platform or technology is, when a major client or partner comes onboard the market takes more notice.

Startup Weekend brought together a panel of executives from American Express, PepsiCo, ESPN, and Billboard to Microsoft’s New York offices last week to discuss what they look for in potential partners. Whether to acquire new ideas or help position technology to reach a wider audience, these brands said they are eager to work with startups—if they have the right stuff.

Michael Bayle, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Mobile, said startups can offer expertise that may fall outside of larger companies’ main body of work. His company, for example, turned to Foursquare to take on a function ESPN had only dabbled in before. “We used to have an application called Passport to check in across venues and stadiums, but we realized that wasn’t our core competency,” he said.

ESPN Mobile worked with Foursquare to create a way for users see the lineup of teams or performers, with information supplied by ESPN, scheduled at the venues. Bayle said his company also made its API more readily available to developers starting at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) to encourage more collaboration. “We try to make other [companies] successful by using our data, our content, and all the rights we’ve acquired,” he said, which can include photos and video footage. ESPN Mobile outsources work to about a dozen companies to help create apps he said.

ESPN is also interested in the “second-screen” phenomenon, he said, which is a trend in the media world to leverage additional mobile platforms to reach the television audience. “There so many people using mobile while watching sports,” he said, “so you see a fair amount of investment in companies like GetGlue, Viggle, and IntoNow, which was purchased by Yahoo.” Bayle said ESPN is exploring this space for potential technology acquisitions or partnerships with other companies.

Andrea Harrison, PepsiCo’s director of digital engagement, said her company’s Digital Labs initiative has opened up conversations with early-stage companies that seek mentorship as well as collaboration with other large companies. “We have a strong point of view now about how we want to work with startups,” she said. During Internet Week New York last month, Harrison described how Pepsi collaborated with Roqbot,which makes a jukebox app, to give diners the ability to choose what music plays in certain restaurants.

Startups can also help large players in the media such as Billboard adapt to the evolving market. Bill Werde, editorial director with Billboard, said his company is re-launching its websites and weekly print magazine and is looking for partnerships in such areas as content distribution and data. “I’m looking for new ways of measuring music consumption and fan behavior,” he said. Some of the companies Werde said he has met with track brand engagement in the social sphere, which could be applied to the music industry.

Billboard partnered with music analytics startup Next Big Sound, for example, which sells data to record labels, touring companies, and publishers to give them a sense of what is happening in the social space with a song or artist.

Even with a growing desire to explore such partnerships, some large companies are taking baby steps. American Express is just now getting its first real taste of collaborating with early-stage companies, according to Mike Morris, director of global digital partnerships. He said his company looks for ways to match new technology with real-world issues. Morris’s team wants to leverage American Express’s assets, such as merchant and card member data, as well as discover new ways to market to card members.

Morris said American Express is starting to invest a more internally in order support new types of digital partnerships beyond those his company has already launched with Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter. American Express offers a card synchronization service that lets users check in via Foursquare’s platform at participating businesses and receive offers when they pay with their credit cards. Morris said American Express is eager to work with other companies to find fresh ways to communicate with its customers beyond direct mail and e-mail. “We basically got bored with those channels,” he said. “There’s got to be something cooler out there.”

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