LivingLens is one of the businesses taking part in the Platform-X accelerator that Virgin StartUp and Virgin Trains East coast have partnered to create. For the next weeks the businesses will be working closely with innovation experts to scale up and develop their ideas. Here Kat Hounsell of LivingLens describes how the experience is going so far - click here, here and here to read about previous weeks.

It’s what you know AND who you know. Based on the final formal session of the Platform-X programme, the biggest takeout from both sides of the fence – Virgin Trains East Coast and the startups, is that engagement with the right stakeholders is key to success.

Have you ever tried to learn something that just didn’t click?

You’re sat in a maths classroom (for me, more years ago than I care to reveal). You get relatively good grades. But, there is that one calculation that you can’t get. It’s a struggle. Painful even. Then one day, it’s like a blindfold is lifted. It’s like the Wizard of Oz going from black and white to glorious technicolour. You’ve mastered it. And it was all down to the right person showing you the way.

Making the connection to the right stakeholder is that transformative, everything becomes that little bit easier. Not finding them is equally as frustrating.

Many corporates talk about putting the customer at the heart of what they do. For start-ups, this reads stakeholder. Finding the right person in a large organisation can feel like a daunting task. Multiple departments and gatekeepers can feel like endless hurdles. However, getting to the right stakeholder can make all the difference. Doors can be opened and real progress can be made. In the best cases, conversations that might have felt awkward or energy sapping become a swirl of excitement and full of possibilities. If this doesn’t happen, it may be time to walk away.

So how do you identify the right person?

Being part of Platform-X has made this infinitely easier. Having a dedicated innovation team within Virgin Trains East Coast has meant we can lean on their knowledge and be super charged by their influence. Relevant stakeholders have been involved from the beginning and have given up their time to make the initiative a success. Trying to get to this level of collaboration on our own would be challenging and time consuming. 

We know that these programmes are few and far between, and chances are you won’t have the full support of a dedicated innovation team, but being part of the process has helped to identify 5 tips:

  1. It’s an obvious one, but a good’un. Find out the problems that people want to solve. If you’re solving a problem that’s top of mind for an individual and they have influence, you’re onto a winner. If not, you’re making things more difficult for yourself.
  1. If you can’t get to the right person directly, look for an indirect route. This may take longer, but will be worth it. Other contacts can help build awareness and provide recommendations and referrals. Being recommended will get you further than a cold email.
  2. Start with organisations that are open to innovation or have been involved with past programmes and projects. This way you don’t need to sell them the benefits of innovation, just what you can bring. Once you’ve nailed the target companies you can start to narrow the focus to the individuals within them.
  3. Think laterally. If your end goal or end person feel out of reach, can you start smaller? Is there a different use case which could form a proof of concept? Lessening the sense of risk, and the ‘guinea pig’ feeling will help.
  4. Unfortunately, organisations can be very different. If an individual with a certain job title is the ‘right person’ in one organisation, there are no guarantees that they’ll be the right person in another. But it’s a good place to start.

In our last Platform-X session we were thanked for taking a risk on Virgin Train East Coast and we thanked them for taking a risk on us too. The truth is, we both have a lot to be thankful for. With a collaborative approach, it’s amazing what we collectively have managed to achieve in just 5 weeks. Hopefully this is a successful template that can be used again by Virgin Trains East Coast, expanded out by Virgin Startup to other Virgin Group companies and developed within other organisations too.

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