This is the story of a small, innovative SaaS startup that fought above its weight class, built a meaningful relationship with several multi-billion dollar industry leaders, made millions of dollars, and achieved a spot on center stage.
Yep, that startup is a company I led as the CEO for over 5 years called Redbooth, and we made task and project management software for teams.
But, those successes didn’t happen by accident. How did we do it? In a nutshell, we followed three simple rules. And if you follow these simple rules, you’ll increase the odds of partnering your small business or growing startup with a heavy-hitting Goliath.
If you are skeptical, I coached my team at a 50 person startup using these principles and we went from relative obscurity to being featured in front of over 400,000 people in a keynote presentation by Cisco CTO, Jonathan Rosenberg and EVP Engineering, Jens Meggers at Cisco LIVE and went on to license our tiny startup’s product to CA Technologies for millions of dollars.
But first, let’s look at what partnerships are — and what they’re not. Here in Silicon Valley, it seems like there are thousands of companies all trying to partner with large, public companies with deep pockets. This creates a lot of noise and confusion. Quite frankly, it makes it harder every day to rise above the noise.
The internet is flooded with announcements touting new products, integrations (“our product now works with theirs”) and — let’s be honest here — completely meaningless partnerships. I like to call them “Barney partnerships,” as in “I love you, you love me . . . “ Nothing is as meaningless as the dreaded Barney partnership! Yet, these are announced every day.
So, the challenge we faced is the same as the one that you may be facing now: How can we break out and score a win with an industry giant? By using the techniques I’m about to describe, I have been able to raise visibility, gain recognition from Gartner and Forrester, license technology, co-sell products and receive a letter of intent for an acquisition for over $300M.
1. Understand that it’s not about you.
This first rule is by far the most important one. Before you try to partner with a company, you must seek first to understand them.
Countless meetings still begin with entrepreneurs telling a potential partner how great their product or technology is — only to have the message completely miss the mark, or fall on deaf ears. As you would imagine, this is about as effective as emailing your resume to an HR department: everyone does it, and nobody stands out.
The most important thing you need to do is to work really hard to understand their business. It’s not easy. But, it’s essential. What are their challenges? What are their business priorities for this year? How is the executive you’re talking to measured? What does success look like for the company as a whole?
If you don’t completely understand the answers to these questions, stop, go back, and do not waste your time with any further discussion about what you do or how you think you can help. Your message will not likely be heard, and you will have wasted your only chance to make a meaningful first impression.
2. Commit to solving real-world problems.
Once you have a sense of these challenges, you’re in good shape — but you’re also just getting started. Now you need to figure out if you’re able to solve a real and challenging business problem.
Your partner may need to get into a new market. They may want to penetrate a new vertical. Maybe they want to get to market faster. You’ve got to understand which specific real-world problems keep them awake at night and how you can directly solve that problem.
The good news: If you can solve that problem, you’ve shortened your path from a mile, to feet or maybe even inches to success.
The bad news: Despite good intentions, most people get tripped up by focusing on solving a problem that is interesting to them, but in the partner’s eyes, it’s not meaningful. And that’s understandable — people think about their own needs. It’s human nature.
But, you’ve got to be less self-serving if you want to succeed at this. You need to figure out not only their biggest problem, but how to build a solution, and joint value proposition that addresses those issues. Extreme as it may sound, I recommend that you almost think of yourself as an extension of the potential partner’s team. Prioritize their interests, and it can lead you to a long-term outcome that’s good for both companies.
3. Take the time to form strong relationships.
The first two steps here are crucial. But, without this last one, all of the logical problem-solving and brilliant analysis in the world isn’t going to get you very far. You need to build strong personal and professional relationships with the executives at the company you want to partner with. These relationships need to be authentic and based on a personal connection as well as a shared professional interest.
Back when I was the CEO at Redbooth, we actively cultivated our relationships. We loved to invite the people from our partner companies to a baseball game, go out for a drink, send a personal note when they had a child. We tell them to have a great weekend on Friday and send a friendly email about something fun that’s not about business. Resist the urge to add a note about business and always keep it personal to ensure that it becomes an actual relationship, not just a business interaction.
Once these relationship-building habits become part of your company culture, it really opens up the door to a whole realm of possibilities that you don’t otherwise have. This is a lesson taught by Barry Rhein, one of the most strategic people I have ever met in the Silicon Valley. Barry trained the highest performing business development and sales teams from companies like Salesforce, Bloom Energy, Tripwire and Ariba.
Hang on, though! It’s not about expensive tickets or fancy dinners. It doesn’t have to be a Rolex watch. It could be a handwritten note congratulating someone on a promotion. It should be inviting them to your company happy hour and introducing them to the team.
For instance, we were building a relationship with someone who had always wanted to try skeet shooting and had never done it. It’s something I do for fun, so I was happy to take this person out and show how it’s done, and that helped to build that personal relationship. The shared experience turned that person from a moderately interested partner to an advocate for us. Our connection has evolved into a broader, deeper relationship to this day.
It’s not transactional. It’s getting to know each other and then following up. And, once you get to know someone better, you’ll come to understand their priorities better, and you’ll be able to think up solid win-win solutions.
There are no shortcuts.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can skip these steps. There’s no amount of online research or guessing that can compare to good old-fashioned paying attention and putting someone else’s interests first.
On the other hand, once you and your management team commit to investing in these simple steps, you can start building a truly strong foundation for your small or growing company. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, as strong as a company may be alone, it’s our partnerships that ground us, give us context, inspire some of our best ideas and bring the biggest financial opportunities.
And before you know it, you may find yourself becoming a Goliath, too — getting ready to take a meeting with an ambitious young startup.
If you would like to discuss your own go to market, please reach out to me and my team at Hightide Advisors. We help software companies dramatically improve their go-to-market by providing an outside-in analysis of your company. We help identify gaps and limitations in your marketing, sales and partnership strategy and execution, which limit growth. Our approach has helped companies improve market positioning and differentiation, develop strategic partner ecosystems and increase conversion, resulting in dramatically higher growth.