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Open Access 01.06.2024 | Original Paper

Navigating paradoxical tension: the influence of big corporations on startup sustainability performance in asymmetric collaborations

verfasst von: Salvatore Ammirato, Alberto Michele Felicetti, Serena Filippelli, Thomas Maran

Erschienen in: Review of Managerial Science

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Abstract

In today's competitive landscape, startups and large corporations increasingly acknowledge the mutual benefits of collaboration. Despite the apparent benefits, collaborations come with their own set of challenges that may affect their success. This research delves into the dynamics of collaborations between startups and large corporations, assuming the startup’s perspective. It aims to explore the paradoxical tensions arising from this asymmetrical relationship and how they impact the sustainability performance of startups. It further investigates how startups manage the pressures of large corporations to prioritise short-term gains over long-term sustainability goals, examining the role of ambidexterity in maintaining a commitment to sustainability when facing these challenges. Through a survey conducted among 189 Born-Sustainable Italian startups engaged in open innovation initiatives with large corporations, this paper seeks to uncover how these pressures influence startups' ability to achieve sustainable performance and balance immediate performance expectations with long-term sustainability goals. The findings are expected to contribute to a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that enable startups to navigate the complexities of collaborations, enhancing innovation, resilience, and sustainability performance, thus fostering a more collaborative and productive partnership.
Hinweise

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1 Introduction

In recent years, innovative startups have become pivotal in driving economic growth, creating jobs, and generating wealth (Klein et al. 2019; Kaczam et al. 2022). Characterized by their agility, flexibility, and bold approach to risk-taking, these companies strive for breakthrough innovations and sustainable business models (Corvello et al. 2023). Their efforts are increasingly acknowledged for addressing global sustainability challenges, marking a significant contribution to the wider societal and environmental goals (Voinea et al. 2019).
The unique characteristics of startups have attracted the attention of various stakeholders, particularly large corporations. These established entities see collaborations with startups as an opportunity to infuse their operations with renewed dynamism and innovative capabilities (Rigtering and Behrens 2021). Likewise, startups recognise the potential benefits of collaborating with larger corporations. In fact, despite their innovative potential, startups frequently encounter financial and material resource shortages. This is where large corporations play a crucial role, offering startups access to essential resources—financial backing, research facilities, market insights, and connections with potential customers (Prashantham and Kumar 2019).
The interplay between established corporations and emerging startups is a critical area of modern business dynamics (Chesbrough 2017). The collaboration represents a symbiotic relationship that is increasingly recognized as a catalyst for innovation, economic growth, and technological advancement (Hora et al. 2018). The fusion of these distinct yet complementary strengths presents a unique opportunity for mutual growth and the acceleration of technological development (Corvello et al. 2023).
The recognition of mutual benefits has recently encouraged both startups and large companies to initiate collaborative programs on open innovation initiatives (Steiber et al. 2020). From a theoretical perspective, collaboration among startups and corporations can be situated within the inter-organizational partnership framework (Williamson 1991). However, as stated by Allmendinger & Berger (2020), these collaborations are notably asymmetrical: collaboration partners have diverse maturity and size (Corvello et al. 2024a) and relationships are often characterized by tension due to the significant differences in culture, resources and objectives (Prashantham and Kumar 2019).
These differences make collaborations particularly challenging for each party involved. Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the above-mentioned advantages, some factors inhibit collaboration. Startups fear opportunistic behaviour by large firms, particularly the exploitation of their knowledge and technologies for short-term goals (Bereczki 2019). Conversely, large companies worry that startups' inexperience might lead to premature failures of these initiatives (Hora et al. 2018).
This dynamic highlights the complex interplay of cooperation and competition that define, and at times challenge, the relationships between startups and large corporations in the landscape of open innovation. Moreover, innovation-focused collaborations allow both parties, startups and large companies, to benefit from external knowledge and capabilities, thereby enhancing innovative capabilities while seeking to secure a competitive advantage. It is widely recognized that The heterogeneity of characteristics exhibited by startups and established firms has a substantial impact on performance (Halberstadt et al. 2021). However, the asymmetry that characterises such collaborations is also manifested in the fact that large companies benefit more rapidly from collaborations than startups.
This gap stems from what has been referred to by several scholars (e.g. Akinremi and Roper 2021) as the collaboration paradox. This paradox stems from the fact that startups, unlike large companies, lack the internal resources and capabilities to effectively appropriate the benefits of collaboration. Simply put, the paradox highlights a discrepancy between the potential benefits that a collaboration can provide and the perceived obstacles for startups to effectively implement it.
The simultaneous presence of contrasting forces or principles that, while seemingly in conflict, actually contribute to the effectiveness and success of the collaboration. The literature refers to it under the concept of paradoxical tension (Remneland Wikhamn 2020). Such a tension arises from the conflicting yet complementary needs, goals, and practices between large corporations and startups engaged in open innovation. In the context of an innovative collaboration between a large company and a startup, the paradoxical tensions that arise depend upon the inherently different nature of the two parties involved. On the one hand, large companies contribute with a consolidated market presence, numerous and diversified resources and structured processes (Bronnenmayer et al. 2016). On the other hand, startups are characterised by flexibility, agility, an innovative mindset and greater risk tolerance (Margherita et al. 2020). This collaboration, although beneficial to both organisations in different ways, creates fertile ground for paradoxical tensions to arise, where disparities in resources and objectives can both hinder and strengthen the innovative potential of the partnership.
The complexity increases when focusing on startups that prioritize sustainability (Deyanova et al. 2022). Startups are increasingly aware that a focus on sustainability is particularly crucial as it aligns their growth trajectories with broader societal expectations, ensuring long-term viability and success. Achieving high sustainability performance allows startups to differentiate themselves in competitive markets, meet the growing consumer demand for responsible business practices, and comply with stringent environmental regulations. Furthermore, sustainability practices can lead to operational efficiencies, reduce waste and energy consumption, and open up new market opportunities (Kraus et al. 2020a, b).
However, the involvement of big corporations in collaborations with startups, while providing essential resources and market access, also exerts considerable pressure (Nylund et al. 2021) that potentially diverts focus from sustainability performance. This pressure often manifests in the form of demands for rapid scaling, efficiency, and immediate financial returns. Startups, striving to transform from entrepreneurial ventures into viable businesses, might find themselves prioritizing short-term gains and operational scalability over long-term sustainability goals (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011).
This shift in focus can lead to compromises in environmental standards, social responsibility, and ethical business practices. For startups, navigating these tensions involves balancing the pressure to meet corporate partners' immediate performance expectations with the imperative to adhere to sustainability goals. The ability of startups to simultaneously explore new opportunities and exploit existing capabilities becomes crucial in the context of asymmetric collaborations and paradoxical tensions. Ambidextrous startups are better positioned to navigate the pressures exerted by large corporate partners while maintaining their commitment to sustainability. This dual capability enables startups to innovate and adapt swiftly, turning constraints into catalysts for growth and sustainability (O'Reilly and Tushman 2013).
The successful management of these tensions can lead to enhanced innovation, resilience, and sustainability performance, as startups learn to integrate diverse perspectives and capabilities in their strategic approach (Andriopoulos and Lewis 2009). Recognizing and embracing these paradoxical tensions as opportunities rather than obstacles fosters a more collaborative and productive partnership, ultimately contributing to the sustainable growth of both parties.
In short, startups may face a twofold challenge when involved in collaboration with big corporations. They are required to foster economic efficiency and effectiveness (Jagani and Hong 2022), as well as uphold sustainability in terms of environmental and social responsibilities (Bocken 2015). Nonetheless, these goals may not always coincide, leading to a scenario where competitive forces could promote practices that are not sustainable, or conversely (Venkobarao 2019).
Previous studies on the topic have mainly focused on the dynamics of collaboration between start-ups and established companies. Research like that of Ching and Caetano (2021) has examined the reasons behind such partnerships, outlining a wide range of motivations ranging from the pursuit of innovation to integration into a broader ecosystem.
Other works (e.g. Dizdarevic et al. 2023; Steiber and Alänge 2021), explored patterns of collaboration between companies and start-ups and their effects on business strategies. Corvello et al. (2024a) extended this discussion by examining the economic and technological performance of these collaborations. However, a common theme seen in previous studies is the tendency to adopt the perspective of the large firm, often underestimating the startup viewpoint (Weiblen and Chesbrough 2015; Rigtering and Behrens 2021; Steiber and Alänge 2021).
There is a significant gap in the understanding of the sustainability dimension applied to collaborations between start-ups and large companies within innovation ecosystems, especially in terms of the pressures on sustainable performance and the importance of navigating paradoxical tension to balance short-term and long-term objectives in asymmetrical collaborations. Hence, this article aims to address the following research question:
RQ1: How do collaborations with large corporations impact the sustainable performance of startups, and what strategies enable startups to balance immediate operational demands with long-term sustainability goals?
This study seeks to bridge the existing gap in the literature by examining the influence of large corporations on the sustainable performance of startups within the framework of asymmetrical collaborations and paradoxical tensions. Specifically, it investigates the dual challenge startups face in achieving economic efficiency and upholding sustainability amidst the pressures exerted by their corporate partners. By surveying 189 Born-sustainable Italian startups engaged in open innovation initiatives with large corporations, the research aims to elucidate the mechanisms through which startups navigate these complex dynamics.
The urgency of this research stems from the pressing need to understand these dynamics, which are critical for startups to succeed sustainably in an increasingly competitive global environment. This contribution is vital for scholars, practitioners, and policymakers interested in fostering sustainable growth and innovation within the startup ecosystem (Fernandes and Ferreira 2022). Indeed, the anticipated findings are expected to contribute significantly to our understanding of the interplay between economic pressures and sustainability goals, offering insights into strategies that enable startups to thrive in partnerships. Furthermore, our results contribute to advancing the academic knowledge in the field by exploring the sustainable performance impacts of asymmetrical collaborations between startups and large corporation, a perspective not deeply addressed in current literature.

2 Theoretical background and hypotheses development

2.1 Interorganizational collaboration between sustainable-oriented organizations

Interorganizational collaboration refers to the process in which two or more organizations pool their strengths to achieve a shared goal or address a common challenge. This type of collaboration involves the sharing of knowledge, resources and capabilities to create synergies that benefit all parties involved, leading to the achievement of goals that would be difficult or impossible for a single organization to attain (Wilkinson and Young 2002; Sharma and Kearins 2011). In the literature, interorganizational collaboration can be classified according to its orientation along the supply chain (vertical vs. horizontal) or externally oriented. In the former case, it is called vertical collaboration when it occurs between entities operating at different levels of the supply chain, while it is called horizontal collaboration when the collaborating entities occupy the same position in the supply chain.
External collaboration, on the other hand, does not involve organizations located along the supply chain, but concerns collaborations with actors outside it (e.g., universities, research bodies, governments, institutions, etc.) (Walker et al. 2021). In this context, startups, suffering from the liabilities of smallness and newness (Gimenez-Fernandez et al. 2020), are ideal candidates to take part in inter-organizational collaboration processes. The scarcity of assets, financial limitations, and intensifying competitive landscapes often forces startups to seek external partners who can provide support during the development and commercialization phases of their ideas (Usman and Vanhaverbeke 2017).
Among collaboration partner options, the choice often falls to large companies due to the potential benefits they can reap (Primario et al. 2024). Partnering with large companies affords startups access to complementary resources, assets and expertise, as well as financial backing and experience in the large company's industry, along with an established customer base and distribution channels (Giglio et al. 2023).
In addition, the large company acts as a sponsor for the startup to potential investors, helping it overcome problems related to its novelty and perceived financial unreliability (Gutmann & Lang 2022). At the same time, large companies are increasingly keen to initiate collaborations with startups, seeing more and more potential in them. Motivations for large companies to initiate collaborations with startups include breaking inertia by disrupting current organisational practices (Steiber et al. 2020), bringing fresh perspectives and an agile problem-solving approach (Gutmann and Lang 2022) or gaining access to new technologies (Jackson and Steiber 2019).
This phenomenon becomes more pronounced and intense when startups are "born sustainable" (i.e. “originally conceived to develop a new business model leveraging sustainability at its core” Todeschini et al. 2017, p. 765) or aim to integrate sustainability practices into their business models or operational strategies (i.e., oriented toward sustainability). An increasing number of companies are now committing to sustainability goals by boosting their investments (Corallo et al. 2023; Crapa et al. 2024).
In these cases, a partnership between a startup and a large company that also prioritizes sustainability occurs with even more probability. For the startup, collaborating with a company guarantees benefits not only in terms of sustainability but also competitiveness, while for the large corporation, a significant margin of benefit exists, making the collaboration highly attractive. Although each collaboration is mutually advantageous for the involved parties, when it comes to achieving sustainability goals, these benefits become even more pronounced (Audretsch et al. 2024). Indeed, as highlighted by Glasbergen et al., (2007), integrating sustainability into an organization poses a challenge for any entity, necessitating a multidisciplinary approach and expertise.
The scholarly literature emphasizes that it is uncommon for organizations, even large corporations, to independently enjoy all the necessary skills and resources for such initiatives, thereby underlining the crucial role of collaboration (Sharma & Kearins 2011; Castellani et al. 2024).
Interorganizational collaboration between startups and large companies, particularly those focusing on sustainability, is a critical area of study in collaborative innovation and sustainable development. However, as the relationship between these two entities is asymmetrical, the unique resources and capabilities of big corporations can significantly influence the strategic direction and operational capabilities of new ventures (Volkmann et al. 2021; Giglio et al. 2023). A new venture's commitment to sustainability and the subsequent decisions it makes in this direction is driven by the resources and competencies available (Amankwah-Amoah et al. 2019). Large companies actively engaged in corporate sustainability can provide both the resources and strategic frameworks that encourage startups to reinforce sustainable goals within their business models (Cacciolatti et al. 2020).
Thus, we formulated the following hypothesis:
  • H1: The sustainable orientation of big corporations positively influences the sustainability goals of collaborating startups.
For startups, a focus on sustainability is inseparable from the pursuit of growth outcomes, as scalability is a prerequisite for success. This is true for both traditional and "born sustainable" startups, where economic outcomes are closely intertwined with social and environmental outcomes. From the natural resource-based view, as proposed by Hart (1995), it is indeed possible for an organization to operate sustainably and still achieve excellent performance. Contrary to the idea that sustainability practices can hinder an organization's growth, this approach suggests that such practices act as performance catalysts. It is argued that adopting initiatives to create environmental and social value not only increases a company's efficiency but also significantly heightens its competitive advantage. In fact, several scholars, such as Bocken (2015) and Cacciolatti et al. (2020) have highlighted the strong influence of sustainability goals pursued by startups on their sustainability performance.
The identification of clear sustainability goals encourages startups to innovate in ways that improve resource efficiency, which can reduce costs and enhance environmental performance (Di Vaio et al. 2022). As market demand shifts towards more environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible products, startups with strong sustainability goals gain a competitive edge and attract a growing segment of conscientious consumers (Kraus et al. 2020a, b). Setting sustainability targets practically means integrating startups’ business strategies and operations with triple bottom-line principles (Elkington 1998), thus enhancing their sustainability performances.
Therefore, we formulated the following hypothesis:
  • H2: Startups’ sustainability goals positively impact their sustainability performance.

2.2 Paradoxical tension arising in inter-organizational collaborations

Despite the potential advantages for both startups and big corporations, the asymmetry that characterizes their collaboration may pose a significant challenge to their success (Ten Buuren 2017; Aaboen and Aarikka-Stenroos 2017; Chappert et al. 2024). Although collaboration has the potential to create superior outcomes with respect to purely competitive relationships, many collaboration fail to deliver the intended results due to its paradoxical nature (Gernsheimer et al. 2024). As Emden et al. (2006) point out, for the success of innovative collaboration, such as those found in Open Innovation contexts, mere complementarity of resources among participants is not enough. Instead, technological, strategic and relational alignment is needed. While technological alignment and fostering relational harmony are relatively straightforward, achieving strategic one poses a significant challenge in partnerships between startups and established companies due to organizational disparities. Indeed, strategic alignment requires that the motivations for collaboration and the goals set by both entities are not only aligned but also noncompetitive.
As for the collaborations between startups and large companies, where different organizational structures and cultures can lead to conflicting goals and motivations, it becomes particularly hard to reach. Startups look for partnerships for innovation with established firms to mitigate the potential negative consequences of being new and small (Spender et al. 2017). In contrast, established firms typically aim to leverage startups' proprietary technologies or innovations to gain competitive advantage and market power, thus using startups as catalysts to boost their innovation efforts (De Groote and Backmann 2020). The occurrence of seemingly opposing but complementary forces within a collaborative effort has been identified in the literature as paradoxical tension (Remneland Wikhamn 2020).
As a result, organizational asymmetry turns into power asymmetry, understood as the unequal distribution of influence or control between two business entities involved in a collaborative relationship. This imbalance occurs when one party (i.e. the big corporation) holds more power than the other (i.e. the startup), thereby significantly influencing the decisions, operations, and outcomes of the collaboration (Hao and Feng 2018). The presence of power asymmetry might lead to opportunistic actions or enable the more powerful entity to secure a larger share of the relationship's benefits (Nyaga et al. 2013). As a result, the concept of power asymmetry acquires the connotation of pressure exerted by big corporations on the startup, which may cause further divergence in their goals, reinforcing the emergence of paradoxical tensions.
Hence the following hypothesis:
  • H3: The pressure perceived by startups from big corporations is positively related to the degree of paradoxical tension experienced in the collaboration.
According to the paradox perspective, the term paradoxes refers to "contradictory yet interrelated elements” (Smith & Lewis 2011 p. 389) present in inter-organizational collaborations, such as that between a startup and a big corporation, regardless of whether the actors involved are aware of them (Papachroni et al. 2016). Trust and opportunism have a joint effect on sustainable-oriented collaboration. Adopting a strategy that embraces paradoxes can foster synergies that enhance the management of inter-firm relationships and contribute to obtain high performance (Blome et al. 2023).
In the literature, paradoxical tensions of inter-organizational relationships involve multiple aspects (Fortes et al. 2023), such as long-term vs short-term orientations (e.g. (Chou and Zolkiewski 2018), coopetition (Runge et al. 2022), exploration vs exploitation (Rey-Garcia et al. 2021)or goal congruence vs goal divergence (Galati et al. 2021). Fortes et al. (2023) highlight how paradoxical tensions occur in two consecutive phases in inter-organizational collaborations, referred to as “pre-tension” and “post-tension”.
The pre-tension phase is characterized by a slightly conflicting relationship between the two entities, while the post-tension phase reveals the negative consequences of such manifest or latent conflict. These outcomes manifest as poor performance of one of the entities involved, typically the startup. The level of complexity increases when the startup involved has a sustainability orientation, pursuing sustainable performance (Deyanova et al. 2022). In such cases, the big corporation may exert its power to divert the startup's focus from sustainability, negatively impacting its sustainable performance (Nylund et al. 2021). Thus, paradoxical tensions, if not effectively managed, can hinder the ability of startups to achieve their sustainability performances, as the pressures may lead to prioritizing short-term gains over long-term sustainability commitments.
Hence the following hypothesis has been formulated:
  • H4: Paradoxical tension negatively impacts the sustainability performance of startups.

2.3 Ambidexterity

The power asymmetry and the resulting pressure exerted by large corporations on startups force an organizational response from the latter to balance the demand for short-term performances from the former with the startup’s willingness to achieve sustainability. Scholarly work points to ambidexterity as a viable strategy to resolve this misalignment (Feng et al. 2019; Galkina et al. 2022). Startups' ambidexterity refers to the ability to effectively integrate and balance two conflicting aspects: the exploration of new opportunities and the exploitation of existing capabilities (Balboni et al. 2019; Rojas-Córdova et al. 2023).
This dual approach enables startups to survive in a competitive environment by adapting quickly to change and making the most of the resources at their disposal (Utomo and Kurniasari 2023). Accepting and managing the inherent complexity becomes a crucial factor to achieve ambidexterity (Schindler et al. 2024). In asymmetrical inter-organizational relationships, where a big corporation exerts considerable pressure on the startup, the latter is compelled to develop ambidexterity not to give up on the achievement of its sustainability goals.
Developing ambidexterity allows us to simultaneously pursue divergent goals, arising from the conflicting interests of the parties involved. Given the power asymmetry between startups and large corporations, unsuccessful management of such conflicts would penalize the startup, overwhelmed by the firm’s pressure and unable to scale (Hao and Feng 2018Being ambidextrous means transforming divergences and constraints into opportunities for growth. Balboni et al. (2019) highlight that ambidexterity is often necessary to adapt, survive, and scale in dynamic and complex contexts.
For these reasons, we posit:
  • H5: The pressure exerted by a large corporation on the startup positively influences the startup's ambidexterity.
According to ambidexterity theory, organizations can achieve superior performance by simultaneously addressing and integrating opposing but complementary demands. Research suggests that firms engaged in both the exploration of new opportunities and the exploitation of existing competencies through a balanced approach are likely to outperform those that focus on only one aspect (Junni et al. 2013). This view, drawing on March's (1991) study, emphasizes how important such a balanced approach is to achieving both short-term and long-term goals. Ambidexterity is widely recognized as a source for achieving higher levels of firm performance (Khursheed and Mustafa 2024). As for born-sustainable or sustainability-oriented startups, the concept of ambidexterity can contribute to the achievement of sustainability performance. As stated by (Yu and Zhu 2022), pursuing sustainability goals means pursuing economic, social and environmental goals at the same time, adhering to the "triple bottom line" principle (Elkington 1998). However, initiatives in the direction of social and environmental improvements are often perceived as detrimental to profits, giving rise to a fervent academic debate concerning the tension between economic prosperity and the pursuit of sustainability goals (Harangozo et al. 2018).
In the context of startups, entities that by definition are growth-oriented, this debate could take on the connotations of a real conflict, trapping them in a situation of inertia and immobility in which they fear that the pursuit of sustainability goals will limit their growth potential (Hoogendoorn et al. 2019). In this regard, being ambidextrous represents a capability that enables the startup to solve this struggle and break out of the impasse. It ensures the ability to embrace divergent goals of whatever nature they may be, thus including environmental, social and economic ones (Ciasullo et al. 2020).
Identifying effective and stable strategies to navigate the complexities of a cooperative-based approach is crucial for the long-term success and sustainability of these organizations (Sánchez-Robles et al. 2023). Startup ambidexterity promotes sustainability performance of these startups by ensuring that they can effectively balance the management of opposing goals, such as organic growth and sustainability(Fortes et al. 2023). In addition, ambidexterity encourages companies to explore new market opportunities related to sustainability while at the same time leveraging existing resources to optimize environmental social and economic performance simultaneously.
Hence the following hypothesis is derived:
  • H6: The startup’s ambidexterity positively impacts its sustainability performance.
The research model we propose is reported in Fig. 1.

3 Methodology

This study utilized a structured survey approach to evaluate the impact of large corporations on the sustainability performance of startups engaged in asymmetric collaborations. The methodology was designed in distinct phases, each contributing critically to the comprehensive understanding of the research question. Figure 2 provides a graphical representation of the methodological approach adopted.

3.1 Survey design

We developed a structured questionnaire, consisting of 30 questions to capture the nuances of startups' sustainability performance under corporate influence. Each question is paired with a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree". In addition, a specific section of the questionnaire was dedicated to gathering general and demographic information from startups participating in the study.
The original scales were in English; thus, we created the Italian version by adopting the standard translation and back-translation procedures and tested the survey readability and clarity (Podsakoff et al. 2003) through a pilot test to ten startups before the formal collection of data through large-scale quantitative research. This step allowed us to correct the potential issues identified by them (e.g. in terms of grammar errors or comprehension). All the measures employed were adapted from previously validated scales from extant research. Appendix 1 reports the details of each scale and the items included in the survey.

3.2 Sample identification and data collection

We surveyed born-sustainable Italian startups. We decided to focus on the Italian context; it represents a case of considerable interest in the startup landscape since it involved specific regulations and government support (Decree Law 179/12), and a specific classification of this type of company (Troise et al. 2022; Corvello et al. 2024b). For our survey, we identified potential startup participants through the special register for innovative startups, accessible at https://​start-up.​registroimprese.​it/​. Data were collected through a self-report survey (Ren et al. 2015). The questionnaire was disseminated in the period between December 2023 and January 2024 through Google Forms. Answers have been anonymized and items were intermixed, to reduce social desirability bias, retrieval bias and common method bias (Fisher 1993; Podsakoff et al. 2003). In total, 232 questionnaires were collected. At the beginning of the questionnaire, respondents were asked if sustainability represented a fundamental aspect of startup mission. Therefore, we discarded responses from startups not founded with declared sustainability objectives. As a result, for this study, we considered the responses from 189 born-sustainable startups. Table 1 presents a description of the sample, highlighting the characteristics of the startups participating in the study.
Table 1
Sample description
  
No
%
Number of employees
1–9
128
67,73
 
10–49
53
28,04
 
50–249
8
4,23
Turnover (k€)
Less than 100
4
2,11
 
From 101 up to 500
92
48,68
 
From 500 up to 1,000
43
22,75
 
More than 1,000
50
26,46
Industry sector
Agricolture and Food
12
6,35
 
Arts, entertainment and recreation
4
2,1
 
Biotech
3
1,59
 
Consultancy services
13
6,88
 
Construction
5
2,65
 
Engineering, Research and professional services
12
6,35
 
Education
4
2,12
 
Fintech
3
1,59
 
ICTs
76
40,21
 
Manufacturing and production
32
16,93
 
Marketing & Communication
7
3,71
 
Wholesale and Retail Trade
6
3,17
 
Tourism and hospitality
4
2,11
 
Transportation
3
1,59
 
Other
5
2,65

3.3 Data analysis

We employed Partial Least Squares Structural Equation Modeling (PLS-SEM) as a statistical method to empirically test the proposed research hypotheses (Dijkstra 2014). PLS-SEM was selected due to its suitability for small sample sizes (Willaby et al. 2015), its applicability in exploratory studies (Hair et al. 2019) and high recommendation for datasets with a limited number of indicators per latent variable (Hair et al. 2017). For the analysis, SmartPLS4 software from SmartPLS GmbH was utilized (additional information about SmartPLS4 can be accessed at https://​www.​smartpls.​com). The analysis started with the evaluation of the measurement model to assess the reliability of the constructs utilized in the study. Following this, the evaluation of the structural model was carried out, to conclude the hypothesized relationships between the research model constructs and their statistical significance.

4 Results

4.1 Measurement model results

We started the evaluation of the measurement model with the assessment of the indicators' reliability (Hair et al. 2021). As shown in Table 2, none of the items had an outer loading lower than 0.6 (Chin 1998; Henseler et al. 2015).
Table 2
Outer Loadings
 
BCPP
BCSO
PT
SA
SSG
SSP
BCPP1
0.870
     
BCPP2
0.826
     
BCPP3
0.642
     
BCSO1
 
0.733
    
BCSO2
 
0.852
    
BCSO3
 
0.928
    
BCSO4
 
0.896
    
PT1
  
0.888
   
PT2
  
0.891
   
PT3
  
0.758
   
PT4
  
0.774
   
SA1
   
0.733
  
SA2
   
0.795
  
SA3
   
0.701
  
SA4
   
0.783
  
SA5
   
0.703
  
SA6
   
0.693
  
SSG1
    
0.710
 
SSG2
    
0.763
 
SSG3
    
0.773
 
SSG4
    
0.722
 
SSG5
    
0.802
 
SSG6
    
0.843
 
SSG7
    
0.789
 
SSG8
    
0.767
 
SSP1
     
0.782
SSP2
     
0.850
SSP3
     
0.842
SSP4
     
0.833
SSP5
     
0.734
We also assessed the Cronbach's alpha (Hair et al. 2017), Dillon-Goldstein's rho (Chin 1998) and the composite reliability (Hair et al. 2017). All constructs under examination fall within acceptable ranges, indicating that the internal consistency and reliability criteria are met (Hair et al. 2021). Moreover, we used the Average Variance Extracted (AVE) to assess convergent validity, All constructs exhibit AVE values surpassing the threshold limit of 0.5 (Hair et al. 2021), confirming the model's validity. The results of the construct reliability and validity analysis are reported in Table 3.
Table 3
Construct reliability and validity
 
Cronbach's alpha
Composite reliability (rho_a)
Composite reliability (rho_c)
Average variance extracted (AVE)
BCPP
0.679
0.697
0.826
0.617
BCSO
0.876
0.899
0.915
0.731
PT
0.850
0.877
0.898
0.689
SA
0.830
0.830
0.876
0.541
SSG
0.903
0.909
0.922
0.596
SSP
0.867
0.870
0.904
0.655
Discriminant validity results are reported in Table 4. Results show that each construct is truly distinct from other constructs in the model, by demonstrating that it shares more variance with its indicators than with other constructs in the model.
Table 4
Cross loadings discriminant validity
 
BCPP
BCSO
PT
SA
SSG
SSP
BCPP1
0.870
0.154
0.446
0.380
0.293
0.162
BCPP2
0.826
0.129
0.427
0.305
0.229
0.170
BCPP3
0.642
0.297
0.445
0.191
0.187
0.177
BCSO1
0.131
0.733
-0.104
0.117
0.351
0.423
BCSO2
0.246
0.852
0.083
0.137
0.342
0.344
BCSO3
0.222
0.928
0.118
0.119
0.428
0.347
BCSO4
0.219
0.896
0.039
0.095
0.487
0.389
PT1
0.553
0.051
0.888
0.202
0.101
-0.186
PT2
0.527
-0.027
0.891
0.142
0.034
-0.200
PT3
0.410
0.142
0.758
0.117
0.101
-0.107
PT4
0.319
-0.004
0.774
0.082
-0.022
-0.268
SA1
0.285
0.108
0.252
0.733
0.133
0.133
SA2
0.291
0.122
0.193
0.795
0.086
0.032
SA3
0.253
0.020
0.087
0.701
0.118
0.100
SA4
0.230
0.082
0.043
0.783
0.080
0.172
SA5
0.291
0.084
0.075
0.703
0.026
0.115
SA6
0.307
0.158
0.092
0.693
0.179
0.150
SSG1
0.227
0.326
0.018
0.172
0.710
0.386
SSG2
0.240
0.310
0.057
0.157
0.763
0.392
SSG3
0.203
0.321
0.044
0.084
0.773
0.403
SSG4
0.306
0.383
0.075
0.098
0.722
0.374
SSG5
0.245
0.403
0.039
0.110
0.802
0.521
SSG6
0.234
0.431
0.053
0.092
0.843
0.523
SSG7
0.233
0.389
0.063
0.045
0.789
0.468
SSG8
0.201
0.365
0.072
0.151
0.767
0.386
SSP1
0.215
0.360
-0.106
0.147
0.535
0.782
SSP2
0.105
0.410
-0.227
0.114
0.483
0.850
SSP3
0.161
0.334
-0.181
0.201
0.445
0.842
SSP4
0.187
0.382
-0.202
0.072
0.396
0.833
SSP5
0.206
0.275
-0.204
0.110
0.410
0.734
Discriminant validity was further tested, using the Fornell-Larcker criterion (Table 5). The results show that the square root of the AVE of each construct is greater than its highest correlation with any other construct, verifying the Fornell-Larcker criterion (Hair et al. 2017).
Table 5
Fornell-Larcker Criterion
 
BCPP
BCSO
PT
SA
SSG
SSP
BCPP
0.786
     
BCSO
0.240
0.855
    
PT
0.558
0.044
0.830
   
SA
0.379
0.134
0.170
0.736
  
SSG
0.305
0.478
0.068
0.143
0.772
 
SSP
0.215
0.437
-0.226
0.162
0.565
0.809
Finally, we performed the HTMT (Heterotrait-Monotrait Ratio) analysis. As reported in Table 6, the constructs are all below the threshold value; therefore, the discriminant validity between pairs of reflexive constructs has been confirmed.
Table 6
Heterotrait-monotrait ratio (HTMT) – Matrix
 
BCPP
BCSO
PT
SA
SSG
SSP
BCPP
      
BCSO
0.321
     
PT
0.726
0.133
    
SA
0.494
0.162
0.197
   
SSG
0.388
0.525
0.094
0.175
  
SSP
0.285
0.503
0.269
0.197
0.627
 

4.2 Structural model results

We performed the structural model assessment by examining the presence of potential collinearity issues. The Variance Inflation Factor (VIF) was used for this purpose (Hair et al. 2011). Table 7 reports the VIF values for each construct. None of them exceed the threshold limit of 5 (Hair et al. 2011), confirming the absence of collinearity issues in the structural model.
Table 7
The variance inflation factor (VIF) – inner model
 
VIF
BCPP1
1.850
BCPP2
1.768
BCPP3
1.123
BCSO1
1.507
BCSO2
2.622
BCSO3
4.397
BCSO4
3.047
PT1
2.719
PT2
2.791
PT3
1.652
PT4
1.751
SA1
2.676
SA2
3.125
SA3
1.576
SA4
2.412
SA5
2.141
SA6
1.397
SSG1
1.898
SSG2
2.441
SSG3
2.528
SSG4
1.731
SSG5
2.269
SSG6
3.230
SSG7
2.440
SSG8
2.071
SSP1
1.790
SSP2
2.321
SSP3
2.428
SSP4
2.499
SSP5
1.824
A bootstrap analysis with 5000 subsamples was performed (Hair et al. 2017) and the related path coefficients (reporting the significance levels), as well as hypothesis testing, are reported in Table 8. These values are displayed in Fig. 2. Finally, the R2 values have been evaluated and reported in Fig. 2, confirming the model’s predicting power. The PLS-SEM algorithm confirmed the formulated hypotheses.
Table 8
Hypotheses testing
Path coefficient
β
Supported
H1
BCSO→SSG
0.478***
Yes
H2
SSG→SSP
0.566***
Yes
H3
BCPP→PT
0.558***
Yes
H4
PT→SSP
-0.286***
Yes
H5
BCPP→SA
0.379***
Yes
H6
SA→SSP
0.129*
Yes
***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05
The path coefficient between BCSO and SSG (β = 0.478, p < 0.001) indicates a substantial and significative impact of BCSO on SSG. The path value between BCPP and PT (β = 0.558, p < 0.001) also illustrates a positive and significant impact. BCPP has also a positive impact on SA (β = 0.379, p < 0.001). Concerning SSP, the PLS-SEM algorithm affirms the influence of all the hypothesized antecedents (SSG, PT, and SA) on the actual outcomes and impacts of a startup's sustainability efforts. The SSG construct exhibits the most substantial impact on SA (β = 0.566, p < 0.001). Results confirm also that PT has a significant and negative impact on SSP (β = -0.286, p < 0.001). Finally, we found that SA has a moderate impact on SSP (β = 0.129, p < 0.05).
Concluding the evaluation of the structural model, the assessment of the model's explanatory power was carried out through the coefficient of determination R2 (Shmueli and Koppius 2011). Figure 3 reports values showing the explanatory power of the proposed model (Hair et al. 2011).

5 Discussion and conclusion

The article aims to understand better how asymmetric collaboration with large corporations impacts the sustainability performance of startups. The research extends the existing literature by elucidating the mechanisms through which paradoxical tensions, arising from such collaborations, influence startup sustainability performance. We studied the role of startups' ambidexterity in managing these tensions and achieving sustainability goals.
As hypothesized, collaboration with large corporations has a profound impact on the sustainable performance of startups. It is widely recognized that these partnerships offer startups the capital and expertise needed to innovate and implement sustainable practices effectively (Bocken et al. 2015). Of note, exposure to the corporate partners' sustainability agendas and practices can instil a stronger orientation towards sustainability in startups (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). However, while offering valuable resources and opportunities for growth, these partnerships also present challenges in balancing short-term operational demands with long-term sustainability goals (Pan et al. 2023).
Startups can navigate these challenges through strategies that promote ambidexterity, strategic alignment, leveraging of corporate resources for sustainability, maintaining sustainability as a core value, and effective negotiation and boundary setting. Building on the theoretical framework of paradoxical tensions (Smith and Lewis 2011), our findings attempt to shed light on the role of startup ambidexterity in navigating the complex dynamics of collaborations. This aligns with recent studies highlighting the importance of ambidexterity for startups (Chang et al. 2022) and, in particular, those engaging with large corporations (Muller et al. 2019; Khursheed and Mustafa 2024). Our research extends these insights by specifically linking ambidexterity to sustainability performance.
Paradoxical tensions are inherent in asymmetric collaborations between startups and large companies; they can dilute a startup's sustainability efforts if not appropriately managed. Startups may divert resources from long-term sustainability projects to meet the immediate operational demands of the corporate partner, potentially compromising their sustainability goals (Smith and Lewis 2011). The pressure to conform to the corporate partner's expectations and processes may stifle startups, limiting their ability to explore new sustainability opportunities. The cumulative effect of these tensions can lead to a strategic drift in startups, where their original mission and sustainability objectives become sidelined in favour of short-term gains (Karani and Mshenga 2021).
Ambidexterity may offer a pathway through which startups can navigate these tensions, by enabling them to simultaneously address immediate demands and pursue long-term sustainability goals. Ambidextrous organizations are more adaptable to changing environments. They can navigate the cultural and strategic differences between themselves and their corporate partners, reducing the likelihood of misalignments and conflicts (Weiss et al. 2023). By maintaining a focus on both exploratory and exploitative activities, startups can sustain their innovative capabilities, ensuring that their sustainability initiatives continue to evolve and improve over time (Yu and Zhu 2022). Effective negotiation strategies and setting clear boundaries with corporate partners are crucial. Startups need to negotiate terms that allow them to maintain their sustainability objectives while meeting the operational demands of the collaboration (Smith and Lewis 2011).

5.1 Theoretical implications

Our findings are in line with previous literature supporting that startups have to balance stakeholder’s requests in terms of operational efficiency (Bouncken and Kraus 2022) and sustainability (Ye et al. 2022). This adaptation ability reflects startups effort to align their behaviour with external expectations (Davidsson et al. 2006). In this way, sustainability and operational efficiency objectives can be compatible. Previous research (e.g. Horne and Fichter 2022) confirms this, demonstrating how growth and operational efficiency objectives are strategies that startups pursue to respond to the increasingly pressing need to obtain sustainability objectives. In the first instance, operational efficiency involves less waste of resources and therefore greater environmental and social sustainability (Parrish 2010). Moreover, treating sustainability as a goal represents a way for early movers to develop skills that guarantee a significant competitive advantage (Nidumolu et al. 2009).

5.2 Practical implications

The exploration of paradoxical tensions and ambidexterity in the realm of asymmetric collaborations between large companies and startups should lay the groundwork for actionable insights. Balancing operational efficiency with the ambition for long-term sustainability requires a nuanced approach, where startups can navigate the pressures exerted by their larger partners without losing sight of their sustainability ethos. Maintaining sustainability as a core value ensures that startups permeate tall strategic decisions and operations, thereby safeguarding their innovative edge and commitment to sustainability despite external pressures. Results suggest that, if appropriately addressed, sustainability goals do not necessarily conflict with the pressure for operational efficiency and economic growth. Startups should implement strategies that address both dimensions simultaneously. This approach may enhance a start-up's ability to adapt to stakeholder expectations and foster positive performance outcomes.
Overall, our findings suggest a practical roadmap for startups striving to maintain their sustainability commitments while leveraging the resources of large corporate partners. This is particularly relevant in light of research indicating that startups often struggle to balance the immediate benefits of collaboration with their long-term sustainability goals (Bocken et al. 2020). For corporations, our study underscores the strategic importance of fostering a sustainability-oriented culture that supports their startup partners' sustainability initiatives, aligning with insights from Schaltegger and Wagner (2011) on corporate sustainability. The implications of our findings extend beyond the immediate stakeholders to policymakers and innovation ecosystem architects. By demonstrating the value of ambidexterity in sustaining innovative and sustainable growth, the research supports the call for policies that nurture these capabilities in startups. This aligns with the European Commission efforts to enhance innovation through startup-corporate collaboration (European Commission 2018), emphasizing the need for sustainability-oriented policy frameworks.

5.3 Final remarks

This research investigated the collaboration dynamics between startups and large corporations, focusing on factors influencing the sustainability performance of startups. Through a comprehensive survey of 189 Born-Sustainable Italian startups engaged in open innovation initiatives with large corporations, this study highlighted the critical role of paradoxical tensions and the startups' ambidexterity in navigating the pressures exerted by large corporations. Our findings provide compelling evidence that, despite the challenges, startups can leverage collaborations to enhance their sustainability performance, provided they skillfully manage the paradoxical tensions and maintain their ambidextrous capabilities.
This research reveals that the sustainability orientation of large companies influences the definition of startup performance goals and, consequently, the sustainability performance of startups. However, when large companies exert excessive pressure on startups, they generate paradoxical tensions with a negative impact on performance. Startup ambidexterity is one approach to mitigate these negative effects. Successfully navigating these collaborations requires startups to balance the competing demands of cooperation and competition, leveraging both to foster innovation and sustainability. The study underscores the importance of startups maintaining their agility and innovative capacity, even as they engage with larger, resource-rich partners. For large corporations, there is a clear indication of the benefits of supporting startups' sustainability efforts, suggesting a mutual growth opportunity that aligns with broader societal and environmental goals. Policymakers are encouraged to foster an environment that supports such symbiotic relationships, emphasizing the critical role of ambidextrous capabilities in driving sustainable innovation within the startup ecosystem.

5.4 Limitations and further studies

This study exhibits some limitations, Firstly, the study is restricted to a specific geographic area, namely Italy, and the findings may be influenced by this specific context. Different cultural, economic, and regulatory environments could impact the dynamics of startup-corporate collaborations and their sustainability outcomes. Future research avenues could address these limitations by exploring startup-corporate collaborations in various geographical locations and industries to understand the influence of cultural and sectoral differences. Self-reported survey data may introduce potential biases, as respondents may overestimate their sustainability performance. Further studies using specific and measurable performance indicators for startups could provide more useful insights. Finally, the cross-sectional design of the survey limits the ability to observe the evolution of these collaborations and their impact over time. Longitudinal studies could provide insights into the long-term outcomes of these collaborations, while qualitative case studies could offer a deeper understanding of how startups navigate paradoxical tensions and manage ambidexterity. Investigating the role of digital technologies in these dynamics could also unveil new strategies and challenges, enriching our understanding of sustainable innovation in the startup ecosystem.

Acknowledgements

This research has been partially funded within the framework of the PRIN – PNRR 2022 Project INSPIRE: Digital INnovation EcoSystem DeveloPment for the CIRcular Economy: the startups' perspective- P20224A38A, CUP H53D23008240001, funded by EU in NextGenerationEU plan through the Italian " Ministero dell'Università e della Ricerca - Bando Prin 2022 - D.D. 1409 del 14-09-2022").
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://​creativecommons.​org/​licenses/​by/​4.​0/​.

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Anhänge

Appendix 1. Measures

 
CONSTRUCT
VARIABLE
ITEM
SOURCE
BCSO
Big Corp Sustainable Orientation
BCSO1
Our partner feels that social responsibility is a critically important issue facing the world today
(Lisi 2018)
BCSO2
Our partner is very concerned about social problems, e.g., work-related injuries, human rights violations, corruption
BCSO3
Our partner is increasingly providing healthier and safer products and services
BCSO4
Our partner expect our firm to be socially responsible
SA
Startup Ambidexterity
 
–- exploitation –-
Chang & Hughes, (2012)
SA1
We improve our provisions efficiency of products and services
SA2
We increase economies of scales in existing markets
SA3
Our company expands services for existing clients
 
–- exploration –-
SA4
We aim to quickly adapt our company to changing external conditions and market dynamics
SA5
We aim to provide new-to-market products or services
SA6
We aim to introduce new generations of products leveraging on ongoing technological advancements
SSG
Startup Sustainability Goals
SSG1
Improving health and well-being
Muñoz and Dimov (2015)
SSG2
Creating and distributing economic value amongst all stakeholders
SSG3
Improving the quality of life in a particular community
SSG4
Creating employment opportunities
SSG5
Protecting or restoring the natural environment
SSG6
Creating ethical and fair products
SSG7
Establishing fair trading with suppliers
SSG8
Promoting democratic business models
SSP
Startup Sustainability Performance
SSP1
We are the first that offer environmental-friendly products/services at the marketplace
(Gelhard and Delft 2016)
SSP2
Our competitors consider us as a leading company in the field of sustainability
SSP3
We develop new products/services or improve existing products/services that are regarded as sustainable for society and environment
SSP4
Our reputation in terms of sustainability is better than the sustainability reputation of our competitors
SSP5
Compared to our competitors, we more thoroughly respond to societal and ethical demands
BCPP
Big Corp Perceived Pressure
BCPP1
The large company partner recommended us to reduce operational costs
Wang et al. (2010); Ilin et al. (2017)
BCPP2
The large company partner requested us to increase our operational efficiency
BCPP3
The large company partner encouraged us to streamline our processes
PT
Paradoxical Tension
 
In the relationship with a big corporation, you perceive that it is difficult to…
Raza-Ullah (2020)
PT1
Both cooperate in some areas and compete in others
PT2
Both build a close relationship and keep some distance
PT3
Both share knowledge and protect important knowledge
PT4
Both learn from each other and win the learning race
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Metadaten
Titel
Navigating paradoxical tension: the influence of big corporations on startup sustainability performance in asymmetric collaborations
verfasst von
Salvatore Ammirato
Alberto Michele Felicetti
Serena Filippelli
Thomas Maran
Publikationsdatum
01.06.2024
Verlag
Springer Berlin Heidelberg
Erschienen in
Review of Managerial Science
Print ISSN: 1863-6683
Elektronische ISSN: 1863-6691
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11846-024-00777-7

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