All Together Now
How to get beyond bootstrap by harnessing the power of partnerships
A healthy dose of independence is an essential ingredient in the startup world. After all, the very nature of entrepreneurship assumes a determination to do something better than the rest, find opportunity where no one else is looking, and pave one’s own way. While this is certainly not a new concept, charting new territory requires a generous amount of autonomy and nerve of which I had plenty when founding my company. However, this maverick instinct to differentiate our product and our brand from the pack was actually a barrier to significant growth.
To my surprise, unleashing our full earning potential would require a significant pivot of our go-to-market strategy — to develop close alliances with key players and sometimes even industry competitors. After years of separating our brand from the pack, how could I admit there were companies in the same industry that were worthy of our allegiance? Were my killer instincts going soft? Since this concept was counterintuitive to the entrepreneurial mind and everything we had done before, my first challenge was to change my own perspective on how I saw the company. Here are some simple concepts that helped me consider what I would do differently if I could do it all again.
Find your core strength and focus on it. Know your game and be the best at it. This could take years, but whether you build software, provide services, or manufacture products, it’s crucial to ensure you can first stand on your own two feet. When it comes to partnerships, unless you have total confidence in your company’s speciality, you don’t bring much to the table. This self-possession is essential for approaching the broad playing field of partnerships with integrity rather than desperation and allows you to enter negotiations on equal footing.
See through the eyes of your customers. Partnerships and integrations are a great way to solve problems for your customers without having to change your entire business model. Take into account the typical workflows that make up your line of business and examine each of those areas from the customer’s point of view — especially those that are outside of your focus and scope. Reach out to the best in the business in each of those categories to develop partnerships that offer practical solutions to their greatest pain points. When alliances are built with both empathy for the customer and strategy for your brand, the results will be far more effective than any Adwords campaign.
Don’t be afraid to commit. It’s no coincidence that this concept solidified for me during the same period that I proposed and got married. After a certain amount of time as a lone wolf, whether choosing a collaborator in life or in business, it helps to be brutally honest with yourself about what life would be like without that relationship. If that narrative includes either repeated solo dinners conversing with a bottle of sriracha or informing your employees that you won’t be making payroll this week, you may want to consider popping the question to said partner. For richer or poorer, business commitment that involves co-branding or marketing sends a positive message to the industry: “We’re a powerful team and we’ve got each other’s back.”
Be better, together. It took me quite some time to realize that the world in which my company operates at full capacity is one where it joins forces with complimentary specialists in the same industry. When we each bring our best products, our strongest features, and our specific expertise, we’re far stronger and provide better service to the customer. What’s more, we each come with our own set of customer personas, which deepens the profit pool many times over. For example, the ecosystem of my industry, e-commerce, includes but is not limited to: platforms, marketplaces, accounting, email marketing, payment processors, shipping providers, fulfillment systems, CRM systems, and the list goes on. By joining forces with the best in class in these categories, my company stands a far better chance of long-term customers than it does by itself.
Appreciate the strengths of your competitors. Over the years I’ve learned that as easy and satisfying as it is to look for the shortfalls of a competitor, my company has much more to gain from searching out their best qualities. In doing so, I’ve found that in a lot of cases our products are not actually in direct competition but rather complementary. Without territorial distractions or defensive blinders, I’ve been able to see how my company can actually align with its peer businesses so we can all benefit on a much larger scale. In the end, we better serve the customers, we expand our market, and advance the industry. And in those few cases where there is no partnership opportunity to be found, there is always something for me to learn about how my own company can better handle a particular product or service.
In order to bring my company into its next phase of growth, I’ve had to dig deep to find the same passion and creativity that was so easily accessible when first launching the company. While evolving toward a strategy that involves partners and allies hasn’t always felt natural for this startup CEO, it feels right. To those looking for a way to find new customers, improve their offerings, or inject some much-needed revenue into their business, I recommend shifting your gaze outward. In doing so, you just may find yourself surrounded by allies you didn’t know you had.