Launching a brand has never been easier. If you have a great idea (or arguably, even a mediocre one), you can turn that into a business and enter whatever market your entrepreneurial heart desires. Unfortunately, that means the competitive landscape is more crowded than ever.
No matter the industry, chances are high that your niche is absolutely saturated. If even a great concept is not backed by powerful branding, growth hacking expertise, and a highly effective marketing strategy, it’s bound to go unnoticed.
The good news is, you don’t have to do all of this on your own. Yes competition is fierce, but success often involves, not crushing all other businesses, but teaming up with some of them. For a modern startup to succeed, it will need to form great partnerships, and doing it right is what will separate winners from losers.
Over the past five years, I have worked on multimillion-dollar partnerships, from working with one of the largest sports sponsorships between Bud Light and the NFL, to launching partnerships with major automotive technology players. From big to small, I’ve learned how to find a business partner and properly tap into partnerships to propel a business forward.
I’m going to break down what I’ve learned about creating great business partnerships here, and if followed properly, it can dramatically transform the trajectory of your business.
The Partnership Mindset
Most definitions of partnerships include terms such as cooperation, collaboration, relationship and alliance. But if there’s one word that matters when it comes to finding a business partner and securing long-term relationships, it’s mutual. There needs to be mutual benefit, mutual interest and mutual cooperation, otherwise it’s transactional.
The reason we start with this distinction is to understand the essence of what a true partnership is not. Too many brands see partnership as self-serving, and with that comes disappointment and frustration. As we begin this journey to discovering how partnerships are formed, we must accept and commit to finding mutual value in everything we do. Otherwise, hire someone and pay them.
You’ll need to think of a partnership as a marriage, with both parties bringing something new, unique and different to the table for mutual benefit. Understanding your leverage and position in this equation is extremely important towards finding long-term, successful partnerships. This exercise requires self-awareness, critical thinking, and resilience, especially as a new brand.
Get the exact email swipe templates Foundr used to pitch and connect with hard-to-reach influencers like Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin and Sir Richard Branson!
Two Approaches to Finding Business Partnerships
There are two ways of approaching partnerships, top-down and bottom-up.
Top-down partnerships are where you start with a list of partners you want to work with, and then fill in the foundation later to find the fit. Essentially, you’re plotting an end point, and finding the right roads to arrive at your destination.
The bottom-up approach is when you start with an internal reflection, figure out what your brand or product has to truly offer, agnostic of potential partners, and then execute from there. We’ll explore both options and the trade offs.
In the top-down approach, we start by identifying brands that we want to partner with, regardless if they want to partner with us. There may be a synergy in terms of their audience, targeting and scale—regardless, we want to be invited to the party and sitting at the same table.
The benefit of this approach is you have some clarity over your endpoint and can manifest that destiny. While that might be attractive, the con is that you’ll now need to “piece together” a story of why it makes sense for them to partner with you, which may be difficult to achieve, at which point you’d move to a bottom-up approach.
To illustrate this approach, I’ll use a hypothetical example of “Quench Coffee.”
Quench Coffee is looking to connect with affluent, 45-60 year-old males living in California. In order to reach this audience, they’ve identified golf as a major passion point for their audience, and have decided to approach TaylorMade, Titleist, and Ping, three major golf brands, about a partnership. Perhaps they even approach golf courses to feature Quench Coffee on the course.
In this approach, Quench Coffee is selecting partner targets based on who already is talking to their audience, versus what they have to offer. Their job will now be to convince these parties why it makes sense for them to be there, likely a challenging task.
Bottom-Up partnerships, on the other hand, start by looking within. It’s introspective work, starting with the DNA of the company to understand what we have to offer. You’ll want to ask yourself questions like, “What makes my product different?”, “Who cares enough about my product to tell a friend?” and “If my brand were to disappear tomorrow, who would care? And why?” By understanding these questions, you start to map out what role your brand plays in the world, and why other brands and potential partners should connect.
This is an exercise in self-awareness and differentiation. TIP: Ask a neutral third-party to validate what makes your brand unique and different, since often we assume a unique trait that is actually a point-of-parity.
To illustrate this point, let’s imagine the brand “Renegade Gin.” Renegade Gin is a craft alcohol brand that is looking to grow and tap into partnerships. Before identifying potential partners, the brand team considered what makes them unique. Through careful work, the team finds that the wild ingredients sourced, craftsmanship, collaboration with local artists and grab-life-by-the-horns attitude is what makes them different from the myriad of alcohol options.
The brand can now start looking for other brands that are missing that authentic and refreshing identity. In this case, Renegade Gin starts finding brands that are in related markets (food and beverage, etc.), are targeting a similar age demographic, but are missing that authenticity.
In this example, they might start to look at larger and more established apparel brands that have lost touch with a younger audience, etc. In this scenario, Renegade Gin has something to offer (authenticity, youthful attitude) and can trade that value for exposure, reach, and connection with a larger audience through partnership.
These two approaches are meant to direct your thinking, however what ends up generally happening is a combination of the two. The partnership process is iterative, especially for smaller brands that are in weaker positions. Start with one approach, then the other, and you will ultimately end up with a hybrid that points you toward success.
Compile Your List of Potential Brand Partners
Now that you’ve mapped out your strategy, it’s time to put together your ideal list. This list should have approximately 10-15 target partners, with contact names, contact info, and notes on key initiatives.
LinkedIn, Hunter, and Blogs/Industry Forums are great places to find this information. It’s important to find a wide enough set of early partner targets so compare the responses and not pigeonhole your brand into one space. Additionally, brands talk, so you want to ensure your overlap isn’t too tight.
Create the list and answer this question for each lead individually: “What would make the recipient jump out of their seat and take your proposal to their boss?”
Shock, Surprise, and Awe
At this point, you’ve done everything right and you’re excited. You’ve started the process to tap into the power of partnership, you’ve taken a top-down or bottom-up approach and developed a list of brands to reach out to. Get ready, because now we’re leaving the comfort and safety of your desk and spreadsheets, and reaching out to the real world. The training wheels are coming off.
When it comes to partnerships, especially big ones, the contact you’re reaching out to is likely inundated with offers and opportunities on a daily basis. There’s no shortage of brands looking to “collaborate,” especially with major players.
So how do we stand out? The answer depends on your style and your target, but it all comes down to this one outcome.
Whatever you do, you cannot let yourself be ignored. And you won’t be ignored, if you come to the partnership with something unique and valuable.
Pre-Seeding and Getting Your Foot in the Door
The best ways to get the right people’s attention starts by pre-seeding. Not too far off from the movie Inception, you want to start planting the idea and building brand awareness with your target before the outreach.
To do this, start swimming in the same circles as your target. Attend the same events, advertise on the same platforms—essentially get on their radar without making direct contact. This is imperative to help balance the scales and have them become more receptive once you make the outreach. If done right, they might beat you to the punch!
While not always an option, having a mutual contact open a door for your partnership discussion goes a long way towards beginning the conversation or not. Contacts are much more likely to hear you out when a mutual contact makes the introduction. Dig into your network, friends, family and classmates, etc. to find someone who can open the door.
Foot in the Door
Now that you have an intro through this mutual contact, it’s time to build relationships, and that is done over the phone and in person. Ask to connect on a quick call or chat over coffee to validate a few assumptions and learn. Your job is to better understand where they are coming from and what their needs are. You also need to understand the structure, who is the decision maker(s), and what it will take to get this partnership over the goalline.
This is a fact-finding mission, during which you want to know your audience and learn what’s important to them (it will help you become convincing when it’s finally time to pitch). Emails and PDFs are very ignorable, but you are not.
Find Your Champion
As you’ve developed some rapport with an internal ally, often described as a “champion” who can help promote your plan within. However excellent your opportunity is, if you don’t have internal support to make it happen, it won’t. Develop a strong internal ally by building trust, showing them how they can benefit from bringing this program to life and aligning it with their goals and incentives.
From Pitch to Close
Now that you’ve found someone to support you within the walls of the company you want to partner with, it’s time to get your pitch right. Pitching is about listening and tapping into the sense of imagination. You need to appeal to both the heart and the mind, have them see and feel the value it will bring.
Developing the right assets will be essential to convey the material and gain interest when you’re not in the room. This is why you want to create a “pitch deck,” or a tight presentation that details the partnership. The deck is often emailed and passed around to management and will have to tell the story for you. It’s important to make these materials easy to understand, visual, and effective at storytelling. The narrative must be clear and leave the reader with a great impression of your proposal.
Key figures, processes, team members, and goals should also be outlined. We create decks like this for our clients and watch their partnerships and investor interest grow. Here’s a great example from TechCrunch, showing Uber’s first deck.
Learning how to pitch takes years and experience, and is not something you will master your first time around. But by applying these techniques you can tip the scales in your favor.
We won’t be able to dive into too much detail here on creating a partnership pitch, so here are some resources:
One thing that is important to remember is that bringing the pitch to life visually goes a long way. Here’s a couple slides from a successful pitch with AutoTRADER. You’ll notice the company offered explanations around why the partnership makes sense, along with how it benefits both parties. This helps to bring the concepts to life so the potential partner can visualize what the partnership will look like:
There are some key areas to focus on that will improve your chances of securing a partnership. If you can’t tick all of these boxes, consider seeking professional support on pitching and collateral development.
Your pitch should have all these partnership questions answered:
- Why the partnership makes sense
- How the partnership can work (outline the details but leave it open to flexibility and feedback)
- How the partnership can grow and evolve over time
- What resources will be required to develop the partnership and how much time investment is required
- What both parties stand to gain by moving forward (ROI); what the major benefits are to working together
- What you stand to lose by not working together (nobody likes losing)
Get the exact email swipe templates Foundr used to pitch and connect with hard-to-reach influencers like Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin and Sir Richard Branson!
Host a Work Session
Once the initial pitch is accepted and the potential partner has started to buy-in, the next step would be to host a work session.
A work session should happen once you’ve begun engaging in talks with your potential partner and want to figure out the scope. It’s all about listening, collaborating, and understanding their vision as well as sharing yours. My advice: get a boardroom with a whiteboard and order in some great Thai food. Beers can also help loosen the mood and get those creative juices flowing.
A critical mistake brands make is coming to a partnership thinking and communicating like everything has been figured out. That would be like arriving on your first date, and telling your companion how you will be spending the rest of your lives together. It just doesn’t work. Instead, work together and understand what’s important to them and to you. You can then design a solution and a blueprint for how this partnership can materialize.
During this worksession, your job is to build relationships, trust, and listen to their needs along with yours. Come prepared with an agenda, plan of attack and potential approaches for your counterparts to react against.
A good work session should end with clear objectives and next steps, with both parties involved to ensure mutual buy-in. The more time they invest and meet you halfway, the more likely they are to push to make a deal.
Closing the Deal
Depending on the size of the partnership, what is required on their end, and the complexity of the program, partnership deals can take weeks if not months before they materialize. Closing is key.
Commit to having check-ins and a schedule to ensure things move according to plan. There are common roadblocks, including needing upper-level buy-in, tech problems, and budget and resources changes, which can derail the plan. Be sure to address these early on to avoid losing a partnership deal that was exciting several months back but has since lost steam. Momentum and timing are everything in forming partnerships.
How to Find a Business Partnership
Partnerships can be extremely effective for small and large brands alike. How you find, structure, and execute on those partnerships makes all the difference.
You need to be methodical about your approach and follow the steps outlined above. Start by defining your goals and making a list of brands you’d want to work with. Consider what matters to them and how you can make it appealing. Pre-seed the idea and then work collaboratively to ensure buy-in on both ends.
And most important—embody the spirit of partnership and make sure each move is well understood as being mutual.
Inspired? Now’s the time to get started. Start by creating your list of potential partners today. Stick to the plan and you’ll be hitched before you know it. Any questions? Shoot.
Good luck friends.