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Medium-sized companies and start-ups: Partners for the future

The established management – whether in family businesses or in listed companies – is afraid of entering into partnerships with the newcomers even after a short founding decade (although several tens of thousands of start-ups have emerged). Management and project management prefer to stick to the proven method of seeking cooperation with well-known partners: from their own industry and preferably from their own supply chain.

The eternal middle class mantra applies that only connoisseurs from the industry really know what the industry really needs. Those outside the industry are viewed with suspicion and restraint, rejected and refused. As a customer-driven company, it is fundamentally right to have an ear on the market and thus follow the needs of customers. But also these results come from the own industry environment and are usually evolutionary advancements in smallest steps.

A classic example of this attitude is the automotive industry. For a long time, the automotive industry has tried to gradually move towards electric mobility and autonomous driving by means of a cautious and hesitant model policy. Model by model, it has sold off even the smallest product innovation before taking the next step in innovation. First challenged by Tesla and other start-ups, they overturn with announcements about hybrid and electrified “connected cars”.

This disastrous shyness towards start-ups and newcomers also exists in the information economy. In addition, there is a massive “not-invented-here” syndrome, which makes people shy away from tools, methods and solutions from third parties. Applications are continuously being expanded with their own resources, without paying attention to the technology offerings of the start-ups.

The IT managers support them in this behavior because they prefer to get stuck in proven partnerships with their software suppliers rather than try out new ones. Or as one CIO once put it: “Failure with SAP is better for my career than being successful with a startup.”

The Institute for Family Businesses at WHU Otto Steinbeis European Business School has now investigated the cooperation between owner-managed companies and start-ups – and worked out precisely these mechanisms. The clash of cultures, which is raging in unequal partnerships between SMEs and start-ups, has its causes in completely different methods of procedure and thinking. Some are risk-averse and think in terms of long-term strategies, others are willing to take risks and have short decision-making paths. Some want the evolutionary further development of their business models, others want to disruptively undermine industry rules.

We at actesy experience this “clash of cultures” almost daily as a startup when we are confronted with the resentments of IT managers in presentations and projects. We have developed a process model around the actesy metadata framework for application modernization that offers both partners the opportunity to get used to each other’s methods. To do this, we use agile methods by first developing a common vision, but then breaking the whole thing down into small tasks – so-called sprints – which can be implemented and evaluated within a few days. If the result meets the expectations, we move on to the next sprint. In this way, we not only approach our common goal, but also each other. Our experience with this method is quite positive. After the work is done, the follow-up project usually beckons.

We look forward to hearing from you at

See you in your next digital project!


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