Guest post by Lawrence Kuok. Disclaimer: These views are my own views and do not represent the views of Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

One of the great pleasures of my current job is working with startups. Previously, as Director of New Business at Jiepang, one of China’s leading mobile check-in services, I was pitching to the client side. Now, as Manager, Digital Marketing at Starwood Asia Pacific, I’ve met with about 50 startups trying to pitch services to us.

I’ve worked with some really great startups and some that have some development opportunities (and some God awful). Here are a just a few pieces of advice for those startups that want to work with brands. These tips are cross cultural and apply to my experiences working in the U.S., China and Singapore.


Grace To the Humble

It’s amazing how many startups I meet that think they are God’s gift to the world. Recently we worked with a startup and I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy so arrogant in my life. This guy really treated us like we were the vendor and he was the client. He had such an inflated view of himself and it really bothered me.

My take is this: we’re paying you and frankly you need us more than we need you. If you’re naturally arrogant, feign humility. This doesn’t mean blowing smoke up our ass (admittedly, sometimes that helps) but means that you really want us. This isn’t a time to play hard to get. You’re not God’s gift to the world, you’re not that special and you came to us for business. Believe me when I say, your company is not irreplaceable. During a meeting, you pitch to us, our job isn’t pitching to you. Don’t come expecting to hear ideas from us unless it’s something we had asked you to do.


Show Me The Deck

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been covered by the New York Times, Techcrunch, Mashable or have a shout out from one of the founders of Google, you need to present your product in a clear and succinct way that explains to me what your product is and why I should care about it. Recently, there’s a startup that I have been in contact with that really wants to work with us. Their product seems good and it is something that’s of great interest to me both personally and professionally.

But when I asked for an intro deck, the entrepreneur pushed back and says here’s a list of articles. I then wrote them a long e-mail explaining that I can’t pitch this to other people without a deck. They continued to try to push me to pitch this to other people in my company, but I certainly wasn’t going to vouch for an unproven company. We did a little more back and forth and I think they gave up and I stopped being impressed.

As a startup, the more you can disclose the better. For example, brands care about funding because we don’t want your startup to go out of business while we’re in the process of working with you, so if you can disclose your VC, angels or parent company, then it will help us be more confident in you, but having a basic deck is a must.


Patience is a Virtue

Prior to launching our Jiepang Starwood partnership, we originally wanted to launch earlier. We started planning this campaign in July 2011 and launched in December 2011. When Jiepang asked what’s taking so long, we replied, we have other campaigns in the calendar that we planned way before. Trust me, I know how upsetting it is that you tire and toil to get all dependencies finished and then the partner brand says, “hey, we have to wait a few weeks.” In some instances, it messes with your schedule. In other instances, the partnership is a dependency for another partnership or a huge PR announcement.

Most brands don’t want to drag their feet and waste your time. There’s just something that we have to prioritize or some other initiative that needs to be placed first. Don’t take it personally and don’t be upset. Thankfully our launch with Jiepang didn’t affect any other projects (at least not that I’m aware of), but we really appreciated their patience with us.

When I was at SXSW I met a ton of people from all walks of life, whether it be the brand, agency or vendor. Among these people I met the super startup guys. I could always locate these people because most of them didn’t have a clue how large companies work. They were plenty intelligent and had huge ideas, but when I tried explaining to them how approvals worked, they seemed to get impatient. I tried telling them about political structures / getting vouched for, and the idea seemed foreign to them. As much as we try to ignore them, they exist and they are something we have to work through, not work against.


First Impressions Still Matter

A few months ago, I was recently approached by a startup to subscribe to their services. She insisted that we meet and I thought sure, why not understand the landscape a little bit more. I’ve been on the biz dev side so even though she was a little pushier than I would have liked, in hindsight, she got the meeting because she was pushy, so kudos to her. When she arrived, she was wearing shorts and a tank top. Singapore is pretty hot and humid so I tried not to think twice about it, but throughout the meeting I thought, seriously? We entered the conference room, connected to the projector and then as she turned on her computer, the screen showed the blue screen. No fault of her own, but it just made my mind begin to wander, “how old is that computer? Is this legit? Etc” Then she rebooted, and then her desktop was completely cluttered. I also couldn’t help but noticing a folder that was entitled “F…” – but I didn’t say anything. To this day I wonder what was in that folder. I try not to judge based on superficial appearances but the interaction just kind of gave a negative energy. If anything, small things like that shifts the attention of the person you’re pitching to.

Another example of poor presentation was recently, when I met with a startup, when he came to the office the guy had a “limp fish” handshake. During the presentation, he just spoke really monotonously. He just didn’t seem interested in his product. I asked if he wanted some coffee about 15 minutes in and he replied that he was fine and just continued to talk. At the end of the presentation, I shook his hand again and once again, limp fish handshake. It just didn’t seem like he wanted to be there and so in my head, there’s no reason why I’m there either so I started thinking about my fantasy basketball team that I had been neglecting.


He Cares She Cares

What are the needs of the people and company you are serving? I’ve met many startups that have no idea what it is we need but insist on a meeting and then try telling us what we need. Sometimes that works, but usually it doesn’t.

Look at the titles of the people you are meeting and the people that matter. If they’re in sales, make sure you can provide a measurable (and trackable) ROI. If they’re in branding, what type of interactions can you serve and what type of attributions can you provide? Think critically about what your stakeholders need. If you have an advocate, just ask over a beer and the nice ones will typically lay out what people need. After that, just execute upon that.


Eat Drink and Be Merry

This is something that confounds me of many startups. Making brands like you is important and that usually can be done over a beer. I cannot stress enough the importance of relationship building. This is not just characteristic of China. This is universal, but the effect is just amplified in China. Have a lunch, grab a beer, eat kabobs, go bungee jumping together – do something social with your clients.

The people you are trying to work with are human (usually) and so try something to develop that relationship. I like to grab a drink with vendors whenever I can just to chat and catch up. I think it’s a good way for us to talk off the record about what it is that we want from each other in a candid and yet low key manner. My best relationships with vendors are with people that are just genuinely nice and fun people and whenever I have new business for them, I think of them. I can tell you that I’d prefer someone that does “A-“ work that I get along with than someone that does “A” work that I don’t get along with. I think this is true with most people. Obviously don’t take advantage of the relationship (and we will know if you are), but you will receive a lot more grace if we like you than if we don’t like you.


Many Times We Prefer Startups    

Startups are great for a number of reasons.

  1. You’re probably cheaper than big name competitors or you have a new concept that solves a pain point of ours
  2. You’re more flexible.
  3. You’re more energetic and excited to work with us.

(If these characteristics are not true … maybe rethink your startup)

I recently met with a few agencies for a project. Some of the larger agencies with established reputations came back with boiler plate proposals. It was clear that they had copy and pasted from another deck, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but made me feel less special. In hindsight, I think that either they didn’t have the audacity to pitch new ideas or they just didn’t have any new ideas. Most of the proposal seemed pretty basic (e.g. Part of their 50 point plan, one point is to set up our social network accounts – we have been on the social networks for years).

One of the startup agencies is the one that actually wow’ed us. They read our brief and came back with a proposal that was on brand, very executable and a plan that was specific for us. They presented in a way that made us comfortable with what they could do and we could even envision them executing it. They really didn’t have a lot of the boiler plate framework mumbo jumbo that many big agencies have – they just came with their ideas and we really liked it.


Start Now

These seven tips are all very general (but important!) tips for all startups. However, they’re just a starting point. There are certainly many more specific aspects to be considered and different sets of thinking required that vary startup to startup and industry to industry, but if you start with these, you’ll be in a good place to begin working with brands.


  • Justin

    Nice post. I like your point “Eat Drink and be Merry”. I’ve started my own biz and between the grind of all the hats I wear, I forget to be social….