3 tips to make better corporate-startup partnership decisions

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While winning the Tour the France is an impressive personal result, it is impossible to realize without the support of a world class team. When all goes well, eternal fame is yours, however when one part of your team is not able to deliver or tactics are not aligned, it all comes crashing down. Take the example of UAE Team Emirates, a team with the largest budget and runners that collectively won nine stages throughout their careers, not being able to secure a single win at this year’s Tour. They could take the example of Egan Bernal, Tour winner 2019, and one of the youngest Tour winners ever.

Business partnerships can be like that. You start the race with a carefully selected team, you have decided on your tactics and have prepared yourself diligently. Your budget is secured and you have just signed a deal with that promising company you met at the last tech conference you went to. Midway through the partnership it all comes crashing down, and you need to abandon the partnership before more harm is done.

In order to prevent a crash midway through the race, we recommend getting your selection strategy straight, as we can learn from any professional sportscoach. You need the sprinters, the climbers and time riders – and the ones to close the gaps that will inadvertently fall. And then you need to make sure everyone is aligned on the tactics and performs at the highest level. It’s about finding the best match, and for that you need to screen widely to build and understand your alternative options.

Below, our three tips to improve your partner scouting and selection process.

1. Move beyond serendipity in partner selection

Knowing for sure you have selected the best partner out there, means that you know the alternatives and why you have decided against them. In order to mitigate risks associated with bad partnerships, both financial and reputational, we advise you to do a broad scan of the potential partner companies out there, and compare them on a list of predefined criteria in order to make the best match. You need a high volume of potential partners to find the needle in the haystack, and then have an efficient and smart way to sift through the data and pick your winners. Executing this is time consuming, requires good data and goes against human psychology (confirmation bias and overconfidence). So typically the odds are stacked against an objective market scan if you don’t have a rigorous & disciplined process in place. So even though the company you met at a conference might seem like a match made in heaven, take a pause to research the alternative.

Realizing a successful partnership is dependent on many aspects and could go wrong in many ways. You need to do a broad scan of the market as well as in-depth assessment of fit, moving beyond a quick Google search, in order to ensure you made the right decision.

2. Make sure the match is holistic

In order to realize full potential, you need to move beyond the product-market fit that made you fall in love with each other, and ensure that there is a match in strategy, team and company values. 

Partnerships may sound like a walk in the park compared to investing, yet we know that in order to realize full potential, you should regard a partnership as if you are investing your own money. Any mismatch in corporate values or strategy might seem small in the beginning, but can lead to large conflicts when the pressure is on.

So ensure that you are aligned on multiple levels – speed of working and decision-making, clarity of what you want to achieve jointly and what not, ability to execute on both sides, and what constitutes success (a contract may be a huge deal for a start-up but insignificant to a corporate). A golden rule is to keep it simple at the beginning – complexity and overambitious plans are a sure way to set yourself up for failure. Building on the success of smaller projects gives partnerships momentum and allows you to educate each other and scale.

3. Take ownership of the results

A lot of partnership discussions get stranded in corporate bureaucracy, overly complex business cases and endless discussion on how to approach end customers. Making partnerships succeed is tough, and you need to be the one that owns the result. Enthusiasm for partnerships tends to die off quickly when the results are not showing, and determination and grit are the only way to win the race in the end.

Tour de France takes three weeks and knows many winners and losers. The fame associated with winning is forever, yet many teams bite the dust and return home with broken bones and broken dreams. 

There are many ways to guarantee a good result. But even the best bikes and coaches in the world won’t give you the right results if the cycling team is not running smoothly or if the individual specialists in the cycling team aren’t strengthening each other.

Want to know how to improve your partnership scouting and selection results?