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How to find the perfect partner as a SaaS startup, part 2 of 3

In my second article about alliances, I want to have a conversation about building a value-based relationship with accountability at its core. Why am I even writing about this? Shouldn't this be webbed into the fabric of every partnering relationship?

When you’re looking for strategic partnerships, a top motivation is how the alliance creates value for your end customers. Understanding how to build a relationship might seem tangential to that goal, but it is essential. If the partnership mechanics don’t work right, customers will sense it—through poorer experiences, support breakdowns, and incomplete promises.

If you've already analyzed your market and have some potential partners you'd like to work with, here are some things to consider. Remember that business compatibility goes beyond technical fit. Partners should be a good fit culturally, institutionally, and interpersonally to make sure the relationship gets off to the best start possible.

1.

Who is at the table?

 

Strategic relationships don’t need to start with two CEOs at the table—in fact, they rarely do. However, both companies CEOs need to be onboard with the partnership and understand the compromises involved in working together. I’ve seen alliances fail because the CEO was brought in to the discussion too late and wasn’t on board with the relationship. At a minimum, you should make sure that the heads of the departments most affected by the partnership should be at the table. Include early your counterparts or stakeholders from Sales, Product Management, and Strategy.

2.

Who is accountable?

 

Getting the relevant decision-makers to the table is the first step in building a successful partnership — you have to make sure the people negotiating an alliance are authorized to make a deal. Expect everyone involved to come to the table with both personal and corporate agendas. This is part of any business negotiation and something to expect. Your role is to act as a mediator. Keep your company’s best interests in mind and make sure, as you’re finishing the negotiation, that there are clear next steps, target metrics, and timelines. For example, after every meeting I send the meeting minutes out via email no longer than 24 hours after we conclude. Then I use the very same meeting minutes to start our next check-in call.

A few examples of how I set accountability is to tag the agreed upon owner to the task with a straightforward sentence like:

  • "Alice at XYZ Inc. will send the NDA by Tuesday to John at ABC Co."
  • "John will redline and return NDA to Alice no later than Wednesday the following week."
  • "Target completion of full executed NDA: end of March"

To loop the tasks back to a higher purpose, I iterate the goal at the very end so the thread of thinking is consistent and repeated. Having learned this during my senior year in college from Professor Tim Bergin, it is a career lesson that's never failed to keep progress.

3.

Sell the partnership internally

 

Building relationships means selling the alliance both to your potential partner and to your colleagues internally. Just because you’ve done the research and convinced a company would make an appropriate partner, it does not mean that it’s evident to everyone else — your job is to connect the dots for everyone. Obviously, make sure you’re not overselling or revealing anything you can’t legally disclose, but getting the partnership off to the right start means making your team excited about it as soon as possible. One time, I forwarded a formal partnering inquiry to my boss and just happened to copy the head of Corporate Development. Unbeknownst to me, Corp Dev was pulling together an analysis on a tangential position and thought my partnership could prove a strategic test market to prove their hypothesis.

One last comment on this. By giving your new partner access to other parts of the company, they see you as an ally willing to go above and beyond the ink on the legal paperwork. Undoubtedly, your engineering teams have to talk just like I noted in part 1 of this series. Moreover, giving them access to your sales team is gold.

 

Strategic partnerships can provide better customer experiences and improve business outcomes for both partners. Even if there’s a big difference in size between the companies, both partners can and should benefit from the relationship. If you are a small company, don’t assume that you aren’t valuable as a partner, either—you wouldn’t be in business if you didn’t have something of value to offer, and even large, established companies need partnerships to stay relevant. Developing a value-based relationship from the start sets the foundation for these benefits because you already spelled out what many tend to avoid as soft tactics.

Alliances management is not an individual contributor role. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking as much. It is a team sport just, like Sales or Product Engineering. Check out the third set of questions coming out soon, specifically on this topic.

If you are in alliances or business development, I will enjoy reading any of your thinking as well. The more we share then the better we are all for it. Feel free to submit your comments below.

Topics: Partners, Infrastructure Automation, Business Development, Strategic Alliances

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