THE BLOG
12/11/2014 03:16 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Business Partnership Best Practices: Creating and Cultivating Valuable Alliances

If you're a business in aggressive growth mode hustling to captivate new audiences, strategic partnerships are the single best way to get quality exposure at a minimal investment. Especially for businesses on a budget, partnerships are everything.

The best partnerships are organic, beginning when you meet someone who approaches business the same way you do, forming an instant connection. It's not always clear how those partnerships will pan out, but building the relationship is always beneficial.

The best new contacts come from existing contacts. As a consultant to entrepreneurs, I depend heavily on my network both for introductions and partnerships that benefit my clients, and do my best to return the favor often.

One such connection is Jeremy Schwartz, startup blogger and business development lead for Squarespace. Jeremy is one of those people who makes doing business even better. He's smart, connected, has a diverse background, and understands that there's a right way to approach partnerships so that everyone benefits.

Our collective partnership experience is distilled here for your benefit - read on for our best practices for building strong partnerships that can build your business.

How do you meet and build relationships with your best partners?

Jeremy: Given that you can't partner with someone who does exactly what you do, it's important to find opportunities to meet people who are different than you. One way to do this is to attend networking events outside of your industry. It's great for an insurance broker to know all the other insurance brokers in her neighborhood; it's even better for her to know all the realtors in her neighborhood.

Once you've met someone, building a relationship will be about developing sincere and long-term connections. Here's how I do it: I ask questions when I meet people, I pay close attention to their answers, and I make notes about the people I meet. Taking notes is the key step in developing continuity in relationships when weeks or months go by between contact.

Ciara: Definitely through my other best partners. Not all audience is created equal; every professional or business should identify its MVPs: the people who go out of their way to connect you, to promote you, to sell for you. These are the people who get personal updates from me, event invites, holiday gifts. Good people run in the same circles as other good people. Then we go out of our way to reciprocate favors like intros or cross-promotion.

How do you make sure business partnerships are equal, especially when there is no money involved?

Jeremy: The key is recognizing that money is valuable only because it is easy to exchange for other things. Put differently, money is a means to a business end; it is not the end itself.

So if you want to do a deal but nobody wants to lay out actual cash you should ask yourself two questions: (1) If I received money from this deal, to which ends would I use it? (2) Is this partner able to deliver any of the ends which I'd otherwise plan to achieve by spending cash?

The answer to question (1) should be an easy one if you have a good handle of your business and your business model. Question number (2) is much harder and you can only answer it when you have a good understanding of who your prospective partner and the types of non-cash value they can provide. Great social presence? They can do some marketing. Great relationships? They can make some introductions. Great design? They can spruce up your logo.

Ciara: It's vital to write out exactly what is expected of each party. When things are in black and white, it's easier to see if one party is carrying more weight. If elements of the partnership carry value, like comped event tickets or advertising, do the math and make sure it's equitable. You can apply numbers to most in-kind products and services, which definitely helps provide clarity.

What are some low-cost or low-effort things you can build into a deal, especially when it seems like you don't have anything to offer in return?

Jeremy: Deal sweeteners will always be case-specific, but there are a couple things to keep in mind as you try to think through what might work.

Remember the cereal aisle. Grocery stores put a lot of time and thought into how they arrange their shelves. For instance, kid-friendly products are at kid-eye level which makes them more likely to be picked up and bought. The lesson is that a partner's performance can be strongly influenced by decisions entirely within your discretion and control. Offering the partner some influence over those important decisions is a truly powerful deal sweetener.

Concierge service. Everybody likes to be treated like a VIP so look for ways to treat the partner or the business opportunities they send your way in a special way. This could range from high-touch on-boarding to a higher level of customer support to early access to new features.

Ciara: Connections are always your most valuable asset. A single introduction could lead to an amazing opportunity. Everyone has connections - put yourself in your partner's shoes and think through your contacts: who might be able to help them move forward? And of course, the best thing is to ASK: what do they need most?

Social media shout outs are always good trades that are easy to do and track. Comps to an event. Dog-sitting. Just kidding. Well, kind of... I've done that before. Don't tell anyone.

How should you handle it if something goes wrong during the partership, like missed deadlines or deliverables?

Jeremy: There are (at least) two ways for a partnership to go wrong. One is where the parties don't deliver what they were supposed to deliver or deliver the wrong thing or deliver the right thing at the wrong time. The other is where everyone does their part but the deal doesn't deliver the benefits that the partners were hoping for.

The only way to deal productively with missed deadlines or deliverables is to be clear on timing and specs before the partnership launches since nothing can be objectively "late" or "wrong" without deadlines and standards. At some point in the deal process the parties need to lay out in writing what will be delivered and when. Having clear benchmarks will simplify conversations about whether things have gone wrong, what can be done about it, and how to value any specific misstep.

If a deal is not generating the type of value that the partners anticipated, the first thing to do is test the assumptions that were made about the deal in the face of real-world facts. If you identify a deal component that's not working as you assumed it would, you can try to come up with fixes. If all your assumptions were right but you actually failed to identify a component, you can try to come up with fixes for that previously unknown component and, as a bonus, you'll learn something valuable about your business.

Ciara:Do the exact opposite of what people normally do. In other words, deal with it proactively. It's important not to be accusational or make assumptions. Instead, ask questions like:

  • When do you expect xyz to happen?
  • Is there anything you need from me?
  • Is there any reason why we couldn't finish that by the end of the week?

Make sure your partner has all the information as early as possible in the process, whether it's assets to design a webpage or being aware of your client's expectation for the project.