How to Partner with Much Larger Companies

As an entrepreneur you most likely want to partner with the big players in your space.   OPC (other people’s channels) can be a very profitable way of scaling your venture.  But how do you go about it?   Here are some important considerations in securing partnerships with much larger companies.

  1. Paint a vision and make them feel like entrepreneurs - Most large companies don’t innovate all that well.   But many senior people at larger enterprises have entrepreneurial instincts or enjoy living vicariously through the “high” you can bring them as an entrepreneur.   If you invite them to co-create with your company, you can tap into that aspiration and bring them along the journey.  In striking deals with much larger companies when you say things like “let’s innovate together”  it can really struck a chord and create a dialogue that leads to partnerships.   But to make it happen you need to a paint a vision—and help them envision it.  
  2. Make sure you are strategically aligned first.   Too many startups make the mistake of going into their pitch with large companies without first asking some basic questions.  You need to first understand the strategic goals of your potential partner.  Get them talking.   You’ll get some critical strategic context and better understand their hot buttons.  And then you can more effectively tailor your pitch to them.   Next week I’ll be flying to a corporate HQ to address the senior management team of a large company…and my prep work includes speaking to as many people as I can beforehand to know their big initiatives and hot buttons.  It works.
  3. Share - don’t hoard - your ideas.   Many entrepreneurs are reluctant to share their ideas with the big guys out of fear that the 800 pound gorilla might steal it.  You do need to be careful, but as an early stage venture your main goal should be to get feedback from the market and ensure tight product/market fit.    One way to make this happen is to share…and do so liberally.  Get your ideas out there quickly with as many smart people as you can meet so you can get the feedback and iterate.   As someone who has run divisions of both large and small companies, I can tell you that the big guys are generally way too busy running their core business to create new ones.  And even if they were so inclined, the key to any venture is execution, which you’re much closer to for your ideas anyway.  That said, it is best to selectively have a secret sauce that you keep tight to the vest.
  4. Get some partnerships under your belt first.   Very few big companies like to be the first partner in.   They can be risk averse and want to see some traction.  One way around this is to partner with some solid, second tier players.   They can be easier to get on board.  And then once you’ve proven that you have a viable partnership model, you may have more success approaching the big players.
  5. Be transparent about your size.   Sure, you want to seem larger than you are.  That’s the natural tendency.   I’ve met with countless entrepreneurs who have tried to convey the traction they’re getting by saying “we’ve talked with X company…we’ve also met with Y company..”   Stop it.  Because what larger companies often wonder – but don’t say – is “ok you’ve spoken to them.  So what?  Do you have a signed agreement?  Are you working together?”  Talk is cheap.  Actual results matter.   Being transparent can only work in your favor.  It inspires trust, which is the key to any partnership.   Admitting that you’re small – if expressed the right way - can also work in your favor if you follow rule #1 in this list (making your partner feel like an entrepreneur).  
  6. Have a professional pitch.   Being a small company is no excuse not to have an excellent, professional presentation.    It should reflect an expertise in your space and a demonstrated understanding of the partner’s business.

And most of all, remember that business development is a strategic exercise too.   Only do all of the above after you’ve reviewed the landscape and determined target partners based on some thoughtful criteria.

Brad Mehl is CEO of Boundless Markets, a marketing and business development firm that accelerates growth for startups and mid-market companies.  It provides outsourced, hands-on CMOs who develop and execute plans to dramatically scale companies –  with new programs, processes and technology - and gain new channels through partnerships.