Building real partnerships with the right companies is something we emphasize in the StartupYard program. But what is a “real partnership” are all about? Many startups aren’t too sure.
Partnerships and “Partnerships”
A startup in our 2016 cohort approached me this week, with a simple-sounding problem. Could they prioritize a meeting over StartupYard mentoring sessions, if the person couldn’t meet at a time when mentors weren’t here?
Yes, they could if it is was really important. But what was the meeting about?
The meeting was about a potential “partnership,” with the CEO of a company that provided a key piece of technology that this startup was going to need. This was not a huge company, which is why the founders got a meeting with the CEO. But it wasn’t a startup either.
What did they want to get out of the meeting?
“Well, we’re hoping that he will be willing to let us use it for free or for a discount.”
And why would he do that?
“Because we’re a startup.”
Partnerships in Name Only
In a way, startups have become trained to expect this kind of thing from bigger companies. They assume that companies are willing to sponsor them just because they’re a startup, and they’re not always wrong. Many of StartupYard’s partners do give an amazing value in services to startups for free.
But those are our partners. While we have real, and thriving partnerships with some of these companies, this is not because we get free stuff. It’s because our organizations share complementary goals. In this case, it’s getting early access to the best startups in Central Europe, and helping them grow (us as investors, our partners as future providers of a paid service).
But this level of partnership, which looks more like sponsorship than a real relationship between equals, is probably not what many smaller corporates and other startups have in mind when they agree to meet a startup.
Based in Mutual Interest
It’s very easy to agree to partnerships that don’t require a lot of work or follow through. So it’s tempting to do this whenever possible. Many partnerships boil down to two companies putting their logos on each other’s websites.
This happens because in the course of exploring a partnership, one or both of these companies comes to realize that they don’t share a real mutual interest.
This is why it’s so important to pursue partnerships in the same way you pursue your sales goals. Partnerships are a part of your sales strategy.
Partners should have the same sorts of customers you have, but not be directly competing with your offering. Ideally, your partnerships should make the offering of both companies stronger, so that a customer who uses one, gets even more value from using the other.
At the core, a business partnership is about both sides developing their indirect sales channels, sharing, and better serving your mutual clients. It is a force multiplier for sales, because in a true partnership, much of the sales activities that the two companies undertake support the sales funnels of both companies.
This finds its most pure form in online affiliate partnerships, which is essentially an “automated partnership.” But that is only one form of partnership. You can base your partnership on sharing know-how and technology, but ultimately a partnership that lasts is one that makes the two companies interdependent, and stronger as a result, and that means both companies having a stake in the same pool of clients.
What A Company Needs to Be a Good Partner
Again, agreeing to a partnership is relatively easy in theory. It doesn’t take all that much. But in order to be a good partner, a company needs to have a team (or at least one person), dedicated to building and maintaining partnerships.
SendGrid, a StartupYard partner, is a great example of this. Instead of sponsoring accelerators and events directly, they have a dedicated innovation team that travels around the world, meeting with and advising startups and accelerators on issues involving transactional and marketing email infrastructure.
Every company they meet with gets at least a year’s worth of service with SendGrid for free, which is an enormous value for startups. And for StartupYard, it’s of great value to have a skilled and knowledgeable mentor team visit and do a workshop with our startups too. That builds the value of the accelerator and gives our startups a greater chance of success down the road. Meanwhile, SendGrid gets access to potential clients who could be worth thousands of Euros a month in a few short years. Win, Win, WIn.
Companies that have strong partnership programs also know what to look for from startups, which isn’t always just another client. They may be interested in sharing data, or even investing in certain kinds of companies.
A good partnership manager bridges a gap between sales and marketing, and has the pull necessary to bring your company to the attention of executives, even as a prelude to an acquisition, or sharing clients. They aren’t incentivized the way a salesperson is, so they’re more flexible about what they’re willing to bring to the table- it’s not about the bottom line for that person, which frees them up to explore other ways of seeking mutual benefit.
Preparing For a Partnership
One of the key mistakes that startups make when they approach partners, aside from the “gimme gimme” attitude described above, is by trying to “sell” them. A partner isn’t necessarily a customer, and you can’t approach them in the same way. You have to sell them on the mutual benefit of working together, and on your ability to do that; not on your ability to sell your product to their clients.
A good partner in indirect sales offers a few things. One is added value for shared clients, and another is defense against competitors. If you can make a partner’s offering to its clients stronger than its competitors, and if your partners (and competitors) know this, they will be willing to work hard to keep you as a partner, rather than see you support someone else’s sales pipeline.
So when you meet with partners, you need to ask questions. What do your customers need that you can’t provide? Why do customers choose competitors over you? What would make more of your clients stay with you? These can all open up opportunities for you to partner with that company, and those opportunities will be based on what that company needs, not only on what you need from them.