As a small business, attracting the interest and attention of big name companies can seem like a high hurdle. Strategic partnerships are a powerful way to raise awareness about your startup, cultivate a positive reputation, and most importantly, attract new customers. The challenge is that even with impressive technology and innovative ideas, it’s difficult to stand out.
However, developing strategic partnerships with big players is a more accessible goal than many entrepreneurs think. By building a brand and product experience that resonates with the customers of those companies, you demonstrate that working together will result in a mutually beneficial relationship. I’m sharing with you some tips that have helped me land partnerships with big companies including Equinox, NFL and Apple.
Know their audience
Major corporations don’t partner with startups out of the goodness of their hearts. These relationships have to be mutually beneficial, providing value to the bigger brand. This means startups and smaller companies have to make a clear case for how they will enable the potential partner to accomplish a goal. When identifying opportunities, the first question you should ask yourself is whether your company and your desired partner have an overlapping customer base. If so, how can you prove it to them?
The best way to build your case is by having data that supports the partnership. Understanding the overlap of your consumers’ habits, influencers, attitudes, practices and behavior will greatly increase the chances of a collaboration. Conduct both qualitative and quantitative consumer research to understand their motivations, how they make their decisions and why they are using certain products. The research doesn't have to be expensive, but you have to start somewhere. Have conversations with customers to understand their motivations -- how they make their decisions and why they use certain products. Surveys are also a useful tool. What are their habits, attitudes, practices, and behaviors? Where do they shop? What are their hobbies? You also want to understand who influences them and who they influence.
Answering these questions will enable you to create a consumer construct that aligns with your brand’s mission, vision, visuals, and voice, and are critical for figuring out who your most desirable partners would be. Having a holistic understanding of your consumer enables you to surprise and delight them with experiences they didn’t know existed.
Take Equinox, which was the first national fitness chain to partner with Apple and launch a Healthkit app. Equinox understood that its members tend to be affluent and tech-aware “luxury consumers.” This overlap enabled the company to partner with Apple in an effort to deliver a better customer experience and get ahead of the fitness tracking/digital workout trend.
Another example is Virgin America’s partnership with Here On Biz, a location-aware social app centered on business connections. Virgin attracts (and wants to attract) business travelers while adding a little fun and flare to the travel experience. Here On Biz aims to “allows flyers to take advantage of those serendipitous travel moments where people with complementary business interests are in the same place at the same time.” This partnership enables the startup to reach far more consumers and helps Virgin carve out the desirable niche as a fun, yet business-friendly airline.
Be true to your brand and to yourself
In addition to overlapping customer bases, it’s also important to consider your brand promise and points of differentiation when evaluating partnership opportunities. Know how you are different and where you excel versus your competitors. What are the things that you own in the marketplace and who are the big players that are likely to care? You have to understand the goals and objectives of potential partners, and seek out key connections, to know whether your company is a good fit. Don’t force yourself to align with a big brand just for the sake of the partnership!
Like many relationships, companies react to communication that is confident and consistent, and they will respect entrepreneurs who understand the value of branding. It’s important to communicate your brand vision with passion and belief. It may seem daunting for a startup to approach a big name, but remember that your size does not define your stature. Don’t think that just because they are bigger, they have all the power. Bring your vision to life through the brand and have that passion be so evident that companies take notice. Remember, the best marketers make you feel that the product sells itself.
Big brands work with those who can further their mission and their bottom line, period. While a partnership may not always seem like a perfect overlap, it’s imperative to proactively help potential partners realize how your product can be an asset to them. The value may be short term (financial) or long term (brand equity), but at the end of the day, it helps them succeed.
The Hustle vs The Hustler
The hustle and bustle is an unavoidable aspect of startup life. Startups generally don’t have many resources. They do a lot with a little and make the most of every opportunity, finding ways to create opportunities that do not already exist. However, there is a difference between “the hustle” and being “a hustler.” Success is all about effectiveness through efficiency. Investing time and effort in knowing your consumer, developing your “brand bible,” and understanding what a potential partner needs will enable you to capture their interest. Don’t just be a part of the hustle, constantly doing work even if it doesn’t have the most fruitful results. To ensure all your efforts are maximizing your brand’s resources focus on opportunities that will support your vision and have a high ROI.
Another way to be efficient is to leverage your connections and network. Don’t be afraid to reach out to and develop a plan for connecting with them, whether it’s through your college alumni network, a friend, LinkedIn, a former colleague, etc. Find and build advocates within the companies you would like to work with.
In today’s fast-moving world, large companies need to be innovative in order to keep up. If they do not move fast, they will be left behind. This is good news for startups because it means that big name businesses are actively seeking out opportunities to be innovative, tech-forward, and ahead of the curve through strategic partnerships. Entrepreneurs who can demonstrate why the partnership is a good fit and how it will impart value will be able to catapult their business forward.