Obtaining Strategic Partnerships
While I was building SaveOhno.org’s 1.0 beta, I had the challenge of finding, reaching out, and landing strategic partnerships with relevant corporations and nonprofits for the platform. My credibility was low as a 19-year-old college student, but I ended up getting 6 partnerships in time for launch, and I have passively grown that to 15 since. Most of these are smaller organizations, but I’ve also managed to sign agreements with huge players in cleantech like Connect4Climate, and hot startups like Yeloha. Here’s how I did it, and how you can too.
Identify what you’re looking for. There are a lot of companies out there that can provide value to your startup, but what are you looking for? Looking back on our 15 partnerships, some of them are users of our platform, some help bring in users to our platform, and some provide rewards to (and therefore boost engagement of) users of our platform. But each time I secured a batch of one of those three partnership types; it was a deliberate, focused attempt. If you don’t know what you’re looking for in a partnership, identify what your biggest problem is. For my first 6, it was about getting nonprofits that would post their petitions (and other initiatives) on SaveOhno.org for our users. For the user acquisition partners, it was about bringing in more users to interact with those 6 partners. For the reward providers, it was about keeping those users active.
Find and rank potential partners by relevance, potential impact, and attainability. Once you’ve decided on what you’re looking for, put in the research to create a list of potential partners and rank them by their relevance to your company, potential impact they’d provide on whatever metric you’re looking to improve, and attainability. So if I were to create a list of potential partners for SaveOhno’s rewards system today, I might rank Patagonia as the highest relevance and potential impact with a low chance of attainability, and an awesome startup like Constant Simplicity (currently live at SaveOhno.org/store) as high relevance, medium potential impact, and high attainability.
Go out and get meetings.
- Cold email until you can’t type anymore. If you’re dealing with a bigger company (and therefore likely higher potential impact), get on LinkedIn and search for someone in their partnerships division or marketing department. Find a decision maker, and send them a short but intriguing message. They get a lot of these, so you have to stand out without exceeding 3-4 lines. If you’re dealing with a smaller company and you can’t find out who the founder is or core team members, find them on Twitter and just send them a DM. Startups are very responsive to opportunities like this.
- Attend industry events and shake hands until you can’t shake hands anymore. I had the amazing opportunity to attend Web Summit this year with the help of Babson’s Blank Center and Professional Accelerator Fund, and it opened me up to a new way of getting partnerships that I hadn’t yet explored: attending relevant events. Web Summit is a bit of an anomaly with 41,000 attendees and hundreds of startups across every sector of tech, but the point remains the same: people who make decisions on partnerships are networkers, so go to networking events. Find a relevant event, find a way to finance it, and then find the right people once you’re there. This is a huge shortcut in an otherwise lengthy digital process – you skip right to the meeting!
Follow up. This is a small point, but an important one. Particularly after attending something like Web Summit, get people cards (don’t just give out yours) and send them a follow up email. And also if you’re taking the non-event, digital approach: send a follow up email a week after your original (if they haven’t responded yet). There’s nothing abrasive or annoying about sending a follow up message, just send a 1-2 line reminder to get your email back to the top of their inbox. A lot of people appreciate the persistence – just don’t get crazy with it.
If they agree to a meeting, come prepared. You’ve put in a TON of work to get this point, so make sure it was worth your time. Identify the points you want to communicate about why this opportunity matters to them, the questions you need answered, and the action you want to get out of the conversation. Have an agenda to fall back on, but don’t force the conversation through it or say ‘this is the agenda for today…’ You just want some level of organization so you can make sure you’re hitting the points you need to.
Learn from the interaction, apply that to the next one. Sometimes, especially early on, things just don’t go as planned and the opportunity falls through. Make sure you identify why and fix it moving forward. If it’s about your actual value proposition, you’ll likely hear that directly from multiple independent people and be able to alter the details of the partnerships you’re seeking based off that feedback. Otherwise, you probably won’t hear a direct, consistent reason and there’s something wrong with the companies you’re choosing to target (e.g. relevancy or attainability), or something in your pitch (not interesting enough, small fish). Being too young or early stage typically isn’t a valid reason, because you wouldn’t here that from your high attainability potential partners, who are often as young and early stage as you.
I think strategic partnerships are pretty under-utilized by startups, so put some serious thought into this. Ask yourself how your business could be brought to a whole new level, “if only _______ partnered with us and we did _____ together,” and most importantly, enjoy the struggle.