Innovation through acquisition

Years before it dazzled the marketplace with world-beating products like the iPod and iPhone — and many market cycles before it would become the world’s first trillion-dollar company — Apple staked its ground as the company that thinks different.

While Apple’s Cupertino-based R&D team is justly celebrated for their pathfinding, paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, a less heralded part of the company’s success — and one of the ways it thinks different — boils down to knowing a great idea when it sees one.

Apple, it turns out, contains a lot of little seeds. That’s because many marquee, company-defining technologies like iPhone’s multi-touch, Siri and flash storage were enabled or given a big boost thanks to acquisition — Apple’s purchase of entrepreneurial startup firms and their products, patents and talent.

That innovation-through-acquisition model isn’t unique to Apple — or even the tech industry. And if Mike Bechtel, general partner at Chicago-based venture capital firm Ringleader Ventures, has his way, it will be more prevalent and more profitable for large, established companies as time goes on.

Connecting oaks with acorns.

Founded in 2013, Ringleader Ventures set out to uncover, establish and invest in profitable partnerships between established enterprises and fast-thinking entrepreneurs. The firm sees itself as a conduit of sorts between Russell 3000 companies that recognize the need for fresh thinking and startups offering the solutions these big companies seek who have been unsuccessful in attracting big-time attention.

“Most venture capital firms take a supply-side approach,” Bechtel says. “They spray money around at startups and hope they land on something great. We start by talking with C-suite executives at Russell 3000 companies to see where they’re feeling stuck — what their pain points are. Then we go looking for early-stage startups who’ve intentionally or unwittingly solved their problems.”

After painstaking due diligence, Bechtel says, Ringleader will take an investment in the startup and make an introduction to the corporation with the need.

“People think it’s counterintuitive to invest first,” Bechtel says. “But it’s a sign of seriousness. Our corporate partner looks and says, ‘it’d be a real shame if I didn’t profit off of this good idea, too.’”

Corporate partners can invest in a startup alongside Ringleader, but they might also choose to acquire it outright or simply engage with the startup commercially.

“We’re looking for acorns, not oaks,” Bechtel says. “The acorns are where you get the superior growth trajectory and profitability. Ringleader’s beating the bushes to uncover them.”

McGuffin helps startups put their best face forward.

McGuffin Creative Group is a partner in Ringleader Ventures, as well as its go-to for marketing and creative services to help its startups define and refine their stories. During its relationship with Ringleader, McGuffin has helped several small, ambitious companies craft compelling, breakthrough communications designed not just to attract potential customers but to entice potential suitors, as well.

“McGuffin plays a huge role in what we do,” Bechtel says. “Startup founders are often too close to their own business to effectively explain it to others. McGuffin comes in with fresh eyes, the gift of artistry, language and design. To the founder, McGuffin’s work is sweet ambrosia: Founders take great pleasure seeing McGuffins bring their business messages so vividly to life.”

In recent years, McGuffin has worked with a number of Ringleader prospects, helping these fledgling businesses craft narratives that bring energy and excitement to their mission stories. Here are a few examples of the ways McGuffin works alongside entrepreneurs to develop the communications that allow these startups to stand out and stand apart:


TORO was a platform  that allowed the freelance community to share input on the companies that hired them, providing a forum and sounding board for independent contractors. TORO asked McGuffin to produce a short explainer video. McGuffin’s intent was to galvanize freelancers from disparate occupational fields with common experiences both good and bad. So the video depicts three characters both before and after TORO. Before TORO, their comments are bleeped out because they don’t have a real voice. Then, the video shows simple interface shots of how to use TORO to share reviews. After TORO, our three characters verbally thank TORO. We end with the tagline we developed for the brand, “Many voices. Better choices.”

IRL Trivia

IRL Trivia is a team-building participatory trivia game for groups. Played in-person using phones, the game includes different categories of trivia questions along with spontaneous team challenges. Our client, RocketSled, asked us to produce a demonstration/sales video that showed the game in action and highlighted key features. Under the theme, “Trivia just got real,” we combined the game interface, instructional text and video to bring the gaming experience to life.

Seat Leap

Seat Leap is an innovative app for sports fans that enables them to upgrade their seats by taking advantage of last-minute deals on unused tickets at live events. McGuffin crafted messaging for the nascent company, including positioning, tagline and promotional materials. Beginning with the competitive-sounding tagline, “For the win,” we developed initial promotional concepts playing off the headline, “What’s heckling when the other team can’t hear you?,” which reinforced the company’s promise of seats closer to the action.

“What these and other startups have going for them is a point of definition,” says McGuffin President and Chief Creative Officer Chris Sculles. “They have something that makes them genuinely different in the market. We’re able to refine that, distill it down, make it exciting and turn it into a brand message that speaks to all their audiences.”

A conduit between the establishment and innovation.

As a partner in Ringleader Ventures, McGuffin is witness to and a participant in the process through which innovation is being actively and successfully introduced into large organizations looking for new avenues for growth, expansion and market penetration. By pairing entrepreneurs with industry leaders, Ringleader is creating win-win opportunities at every level of the business opportunity chain. Russell 3000 names get access to the fresh-out-of-the-box thinking. Scrappy startups get access to the resources, capital and customers of a veteran business partner.

Is this the future of business innovation? Maybe what’s good for the apple will prove good for the oaks.

Innovation needs communication.

Whether you’re a startup or a large, established company with an urge to shake things up, telling your story simply, persuasively and convincingly is essential to attracting and converting the people you’ll need to embrace your fresh, bold thinking. If you need help getting started, give us a shout.