Startup Scouting Secrets: Where We Look for the Next Big Ideas

Aleda Schaffer is a strategic partnerships manager at American Airlines

You’re about to polish off an email and head home after a 10-hour day at your startup. Suddenly, the phone rings. You’re exhausted (and tempted to ignore the call), but you see the name of a Fortune 100 corporation pop up on the caller ID.

Intrigued, you answer the phone. To your surprise, one of the biggest companies in the world wants to partner with you and market your product to its huge customer base!

Being scouted by a major brand is every entrepreneur’s dream. As it turns out, it’s just as beneficial for big corporations to bankroll teams solely dedicated to discovering the next big idea. Large corporations have to manage risk with shareholders and often have environments that aren’t very conducive to innovation. Partnering with — or simply acquiring — a nimble startup with a great idea helps companies protect their core businesses while nurturing creativity.

I know this from experience. I make hundreds of calls every year for American Airlines, where I’m a strategic partnerships manager. In addition to supporting startups with travel benefits through our Innovators Initiative, we scout for new companies to integrate into our business model in hopes of expanding our product offering.

As a result, I have a good idea of what innovation scouts are looking for in startups, where they’re searching, and how to grab their attention.

What Innovation Scouts Look For

First and foremost, startup scouts seek unique ideas from flexible teams that can work quickly to solve a company’s unique problem. Beyond that, it mostly comes down to product alignment and timing. Innovation scouts see many startups with great ideas, but their partnership decisions are usually based on timeliness.

An idea must coincide with the business areas they’re investing in at the time — unless it carries a certain amount of buzz or the possibility of new business.

People often assume our team only targets travel apps for partnerships, but our scope is actually much wider. We’ve worked with numerous companies to serve our customers in different ways. For instance, we’ve worked with Rocketmiles to provide hotel discounts, Unmetric to track our social metrics and customer segments, and Tatcha to provide airport facials.

Where Innovation Scouts Look

Scouts are always looking for emerging technology trends and innovative ideas. You just need to be discoverable. Every company has a different process, but there are a few commonplace methods.

Companies generate leads through external searches, Google research, and partnerships with startup connectors like SwitchPitch, Evol8tion, Pilot 44, and Partnered. These services list partnership opportunities that allow teams to browse and match with other profiles.

Some innovation teams host competitions or hackathons to generate new ideas and test-drive potential partnerships. Corporations sometimes partner with YouNoodle, a service that facilitates and hosts these competitions.

How to Be Found

Securing a partnership with a big corporation can mean the difference between years of rocky uncertainty and fast-paced growth for your business.

To increase your chances, make sure you list with all of the major startup connectors, participate in startup competitions, pitch to partners with brands focused on your industry, and get your name and idea out on the web where scouts can find you.

If your phone doesn’t ring, be aggressive. Create a wish list of ideal companies you’d like to connect with, and make it happen. Determine whether your potential partner has an innovation team — and connect. See every “no” as one step closer to a “yes.” If you have a creative idea and follow these tactics, you could land the partnership you’ve been dreaming of.


Aleda Schaffer is a strategic partnerships manager at American Airlines. Through the Innovators Initiative at American, her team supports startups with travel grants, marketing exposure, and partnership opportunities.

Categories: Best Practices Coaching LEADERSHIP Partnerships


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