Strategic Partnerships: The View From The Other Side

As an entrepreneur, your partnership with BigCo might be the most important thing your company has going right now. Chances are BigCo doesn't see it that way.

For some entrepreneurs, this is the dream: Find a tiger – a large, global company that can provide sales, distribution and branding for your product or service – and ride them to the promised land.

What the entrepreneur often fails to see, of course, is how this relationship looks to the tiger! We picture ourselves as important, helpful, a meaningful contributor. But to the tiger, we may be a flea, an annoying gnat, or just a chatty spider monkey bouncing up and down for attention.

To avoid being ignored or worse, eaten, the entrepreneur needs to understand the tiger’s perspective.

Beth Bronner, managing director of Mistral Equity Partners, has a tiger’s perspective. She spent decades as an AT&T executive, guiding multiple strategic partnerships. Bronner is blunt: “It is unusual that the partnership is as important to the global player as it is to the startup.” That’s not to say the partnership doesn’t have value, Bronner, emphasizes. “Large companies need help with creative solutions. They often have problems with innovation and need the partnership.”

She advises startup entrepreneurs to cultivate patience – a trait often lacking in the average startup CEO (self included) – and be ready to wait. By planning long lead times into any partnership plan, you can avoid the pitfall of being too optimistic too early.

In March, I participated in a panel discussion about strategic partnerships hosted by the State University of New York Levin Institute. Here’s what I’ve learned – from my own experience, from Bronner, and from my fellow panelists.

1. Large, global companies are not nimble and tend not to move fast. Don’t set the relationship up to fail by insisting on unrealistic deadlines or trying to convey a false sense of urgency.

2. When waiting for a response, try not to go around your contacts. Chain of command matters, and someone who feels like you’ve attempted an end-run can easily get you blocked from the account.

3. Be prepared! Come to your meetings armed with detailed questions that will help you quickly asses how the partner has worked in the past with other startups similar to you.

4. Do not give out too much information too early. Invite more interest by providing tantalizing tidbits and highlighting the possibilities.

5. Make sure to get the right non-disclosure agreements in place early on and have them reviewed by your attorneys. Without diligence here, you can give up valuable rights and even intellectual property in the NDA.

6. Make it easy for your sponsor to help you. Clear and direct requests show that you are considerate of their time and understand their pressures.

7. Be likeable. People help those they like. And if you don’t like them, chances are that they don’t like you either. Find a new contact or move on. Otherwise, you are wasting your time.

8. Your sponsor is only one window into the organization and may not be aware of forces working against you. Try to triangulate your relationship quickly as possible in parallel. (See #2.)

9. Share good news along the way, and do it often. A partner will be more interested if they can see tangible progress over time.

10. Cultivate a pipeline. Partnerships work a lot like customer acquisition. Not every one works out. Make sure that you have multiple partners at the table.

11. Do your homework. If you show up asking basic questions about your partner’s business, consider the relationship over. Fortune smiles on the prepared.

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