Two Female Corporate VCs Share the Nuts & Bolts of Moving Start-ups Through the Funding Pipeline

Shannon Beeman
October 20, 2015

Whirlpool Corporation and Robert Bosch are two vastly different companies. Each has its own goals, culture and products. Yet, these two global corporations share one thing in common: a laser-sharp focus on fostering innovation and developing entrepreneurial ventures both inside and outside the four walls of the company. At the Women Who Fund conference on October 8, Noel Dolan from Whirlpool and Maximiliane Straub from Bosch shined the spotlight on different channels of innovation and offered tips for moving more women-led start-ups through the pipeline.

“We see innovation coming into Whirlpool through four different avenues,” said Dolan, who is responsible for the company’s North American Open Innovation Strategy and Strategic Partner Alliances. “These avenues include our internal employees; our corporate and academic relationships; emerging growth companies; and the crowd (ordinary consumers).” Although Whirlpool has limited relationships in the start-up community, and has “yet to physically write a check to fund a start-up,” Dolan and her team are pushing the 103-year-old company to fund and grow entrepreneurial companies rather than acquire them or shunt them into the supplier pool.

“I need to bring these opportunities to leadership for them to ultimately write a check,” Dolan explains. “But in my role, there is a big disconnect. We love start-ups because they are fast, agile, creative and courageous ─ but they are also reactive, chaotic, starved and deprived. They look at us the same way. They like us because we are disciplined, strategic and business focused and can help them scale. But they also can’t stand us because we take forever, have bureaucracies and are risk averse.”

As a potential corporate investor, Dolan said, Whirlpool is looking for visibility on a start-up board, an opportunity to learn, a path to recognize revenue and information about other investors’ interests and timing. She offered these words of advice to start-ups that have been identified for potential investment and want further consideration:

  • “Help me understand how your technology and product can apply to my business.”
  • “Help me become comfortable with your personnel, whether it’s your team or partnerships, and help me understand why I should feel good about the work you’ve done.”
  • “We’re a financial company, so help me understand the lifetime value of your company and where the capital is going to hit your pro forma.”
  • “Don’t be a one-hit wonder. Help me understand where you’re thinking beyond this. Don’t be a QVC. Help me understand how you’re going to do more things.”
  • “Go to market with realistic assumptions. You’re not going to be a $100 billion company in three years. Be realistic and help me understand how you’re going to get there.

Straub, who is CFO and EVP of Finance, Controlling and Administration at Bosch, told the audience that the company’s product slogan, “invented for life,” requires continuous innovation. “We get that innovation in several ways,” she said. “Bosch is a venture capitalist and has its own division that invests venture capital in high technology or services in the technology area. We also have our own start-ups.”

Straub drew on her professional experience with Bosch’s “innovation framework” to offer some generalized tips to entrepreneurs seeking to promote their ideas and procure seed and early-stage funding:

  • “Fall out of love with your technology. If you want to pitch, you have to pitch a business and be confident about that business. You have to be clear about your idea, know it well and show passion ─ then stop there. Ten percent is technology and 90 percent is other things.”
  • “When you pitch, be clear about what you actually want: resources, advice, market channels, money and timing. Spend time thinking about what you are asking for.”
  • “Do your homework. Know your market, how it is defined and who your competitors are. Do an analysis of other patents and determine whether you are competing with any of them.”
  • “User experience is important. Test your products with users early on and get live feedback from your future customers.”
  • “Financials are also important. It’s difficult when you start-up a business or enter a new market. Think in terms of scenarios ─ what happens if. For investors to see a scenario and realize you have thought about competitors and things that could happen in a market helps to support the business.”
  • “Secure support early. File for a patent very early. Get people who fill your gaps. And don’t go for the nice people. You need very clear feedback from people who are critical but also willing to help you.”
  • “Develop a milestone plan, so you can identify places where you’ll need more money and You have to give investors the opportunity to fail fast, fail cheap.”