SAP's billionaire founder Hasso Plattner outlined the company's start-up strategy this week as small firms warned the enterprise software goliath that it will have to be agile if it wants to work with them.

Speaking on a panel this week at the opening of the SAP Innovation Centre in Potsdam, Germany, the SAP chairman said: “We do not develop software on our own anymore. This was an introverted approach and we thought isolation was good.

“I think there’s a huge risk that successful companies become introverted. That’s why we're taking the HANA platform to start-ups. It’s so that we stay in contact with them." 

SAP claims that more than 1,200 start-ups are building applications on HANA  the in-memory computing platform at the heart of its growth strategy

In addition to collaborating with start-ups through the aforementioned Innovation Centre, SAP is also looking to attract young companies to its new HANA cafes, which are set to start opening around the world later this year, with the first set to open its doors this summer in Palo Alto, California. 

However, while SAP clearly wants to work with start-ups, a number of remarks made by Plattner suggest that the company is cautious of letting start-ups get too close to the SAP core. 

"One warning I want to give to them: don’t come too close to the tanker," he said, adding that the "tanker" isn't flexible and will carry on going straight ahead, regardless of what start-ups want. "The [SAP] special forces that are supporting these companies make them successful. This has to be carefully separated. If they are successful then fine we can work together and co-innovate."

But start-ups speaking on the panel alongside Plattner had warnings of their own for the 41-year-old German software firm. 

Kevin Dykes, co-Founder and CEO of Berlin analytics start-up RetentionGrid, said SAP is a big daunting bureaucratic company that can be challenging to work with.

Catalin Voss, a student entrepreneur at Stanford University and founder of face-tracking application Sension, said that his firm can't afford to wait around for big companies to get their act together. "If we spend too long in sales cycle or too long trying to make a collaboratin happen, you have to move on," he said. "There’s no other way. We’re fully bootstrapped in doing this. We look to someone who wants to support what we want to do at that stage. If they don’t want it, they don’t want it."

But the Stanford entrepreneur did approve of the new Innovation Center. "It seems a lot more welcoming," he said. "It kind of looks and reminds me of Startx - the Stanford University incubator."

However, Dykes pointed out: “There are a whole tonne of companies now doing innovation programmes, partnering with accelerators or getting involved in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting to see those but you often don’t see those bringing innovation back in. They’re kind of peering and looking."

When asked if SAP is as entrepreneurial as it wants to be, CEO Bill McDermott said: “We have a lot of work to do. But what’s wrong with embracing these companies, having them standardise on a platform called HANA, build their ambitions and their future dreams on something that has the R&D, the maturity and the quality? And why not be partners? Why be afraid?"