The partnership design process (understand, design, compare, evaluate)

This article the second in part of a series, which was published on LinkedIn (read the first one here)It comes from a collaboration between:
Bart Doorneweert (Partner at Source Institute, and Guest Lecturer Entrepreneurship, Business Model Innovation at Wageningen University)
Wim Vanhaverbeke (Professor at Hasselt University, and Visiting Professor at ESADE Business School) 

When working on changing a business model, partnerships are one amongst an alternative of paths you can choose. In this blog post we will discuss when it starts making sense to pursue the path of a partnership as a way forward. We’ll also discuss how to structure the design process. We’ll do that, by using the partnership canvas in combination with the business model canvas. Lastly, we’ll close off with thoughts on how to define some of the critical hypotheses around impact to your business model, and setting the balance right for value capture for both partners.

First questions about partnership intent
The drive for business model innovation always starts with the customer. The question is how the customer experience can be expanded, or deepened through changes to the business model, eg. new features to the product, convenience in delivery, new pricing/payment options, etc.

Based on this idea, the next question is how to operationalize this change. Does the company go for it alone, or will it require a partnership to best effectuate the business model change? To consider whether having a partner on board makes sense or not, we’ve designed the partnership intent puzzle. The following questions need to be asked:

Functionality: do customers expect you to create and deliver it?
Market sizing: is your addressable market large enough?
Time to market: is time to market pressing, and can you launch quickly enough?
Resources: do you have the skill set, time, and budget to develop the functionality internally?

These are the essential 4 factors you need to consider, to determine whether you’re in the most suitable position to launch an innovation yourself, or whether you need a partner. By defining the type of innovation you’re looking for, and the need for a partner, you have a solid definition of intent for your partnership.

The partnership design process
Defining intent will be the starting point for searching, and shortlisting potential partners. These partners will need to meet the initial criteria you have defined around the innovation you want to achieve for your customers (eg. a new channel to reach a new audience, a new production resource to make your product more affordable, or ramp up production volumes, etc).

Based on this shortlist, your design process will start to find out whether you can make a match with a partner. This partnership design process consists of four steps, which we’ll go through below:

You will need to map out each business model of your potential partners to understand how their business currently works. Then, in the same way that you have defined your intent, the question is what could be the intent for your partner to collaborate. What can you spot regarding constraints they’re struggling with, or an opportunity they can’t quite grasp? By taking time to analyze each of the partners’ business models, both sides of the table will have an understanding where each party is coming from.

Business Model Value Exchange
Value exchange between two business models

Once you understand your intended partner’s business model, and they understand yours, then you can begin to design a partnership structure. This explains what you think is your perspective on a potential partnership. Your partner will also create their version of the story.

You can use the partnership canvas for designing the partnership story in combination with your, and your partner’s business model (leaf through the slides above). Your value offer should be based on what’s present in your business model. The desired asset is a quality that your partner would possess. Created value relates to what you need for your business model (it is already defined by your intent definition). Lastly, to round off the partnership logic, you need to define how you will make these values mutually accessible through the transfer activities.

The critical phase in the partnership discussion is to create alignment between your partner and yourself on the partnership. Is the value that you offer something that your partner is looking for in you, and is the value you desire from a partner something that this partner is willing to offer? And, lastly, can you come to an agreement on how you will grant mutual access to these values through the transfer activities?


By mirroring the partnership canvasses, each representing a perspective from each partner, you will have that critical discussion to see if you can reach alignment. It is also a step where you might surprise each other about some new idea to add to the collaboration, something you wouldn’t have conceived of on your own.

After alignment has been created on the partnership structure, an evaluation needs to take place about the impact that the partnership will have on each partner’s business model. Without a satisfactory impact to both partners, the partnership will likely dissipate. Therefore, doing the check to define clear hypotheses about the partnership, and making sure that both partners understand them, is crucial.

To understand the impact of the partnership, you need to lay out both partners’ business models, and the partnership. With this overview, the following aspects need to be evaluated, namely (1) the value check, and (2) the cost check:

    1. Where does the created value from the partnership add to each business model? What will its effects be? For instance creating an additional channel will bring in new customers, and likely generate an increase in revenue. Or creating an addition to your value proposition enables you to upsell your products, and command a higher price in the market. Trace the upside for each partner, and make these assumptions explicit
      Created Value CheckLikewise you will also need to evaluate the flipside of the partnership. The partnership might entail that you need to do something extra to activate the new value that is created for your business model. Will you require extra investment or incur extra costs on your end to activate this value, or not?
    1. Running a partnership can sometimes require significant costs for a business. These costs are located within the transfer activity of the partnership. To estimate this cost-effect, you have to ask yourself whether the transfer activity will have a significant effect to your business model’s key activities, and resources. If so, will you bear the full costs for it? Or, can you get your partner to compensate you, or is there some other way you can share the load? Important questions for creating an equitable relationship.Transfer Act Check

The power of the partnership canvas
If the exercise mentioned above comes out positive, you will have arrived at a foundation of your partnership agreement. Both sides of the table will have a clear conception of what their contribution will be, how it will work, and what they will get out of it. Innovation can now be achieved through making two business models operate in interdependence.

Ideally a partnership will not require too much cost or investment from either of the partners to operationalize it. However, it could turn out that there is an in imbalance between the partners. One partner could turn out to require a lot of investment in the partnership or is not able to capture much of the value, while the other partner has comparatively little costs, and investment to make, and stands to gain a lot from the deal. Such imbalance could break the partnership opportunity.

Regardless of the outcome, the key asset of the partnership canvas is that it allows you to figure out these details at an early stage. You can design experiments, and judge the potential of a partnership, even before it has been formally negotiated and implemented. The exercise above can be done as a simulation session with your team, preparing for a partnership discussion. But you can also do this with your actual partner in the room, and jointly sculpt the deal. For the full summary, you can download the partnership design process slides.

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Business model iterations. Crucial points for gradual business model design

Ambition is what drives many of the entrepreneurs and researchers I work with in creating new business models. And ambition creates the right kind of energy to start shifting boundaries in the thinking of possibilities. Yet ambition is also what can create problems with business model innovation, particularly in overestimating idea potential overlooking the need for critical testing, over-hypothesizing business model mechanics, and last but not least underestimating the long run and grit that is needed to pitch up a business model in the wild. I recently did some research on an interesting case that shows just how complex it is to achieve a promising business model, and how modesty in approach, and incremental improvement paved the way to a highly robust business model for a platform in the medical sector.

I had to advise a consortium of organizations on the joint development of an app for (pre) diabetic people. The first thing I do in these kind of cases is to look for a compelling precursor, and that was an app named Glooko. Digging into the history of how this app developed, I found 4 very powerful lessons to learn for entrepreneurs facing the business model challenge. These lessons regard points I usually see going wrong because people take to their business model designs overzealously.

The Glooko iPhone app

1. The parsimony of the initial value proposition
All diabetics are requested to keep a logbook of their blood sugar levels, caloric intake, and exercise. Glooko started off with just that, the simple hypothesis that its users would find more value in keeping their logs on a smartphone (launching initially on the iPhone) instead of on paper. They started with something simple, which could be validated and expanded on, rather than starting with a feature-laden product for a too wide a range of customers that would swamp learning and iterative development.

At the time there were a couple of competing logbook apps on the app store, but they all required manual input. So, the innovation with which Glooko launched in 2010 was a glucose meter synchronisation cable that could read data from blood glucose meters, making registry more easy and accurate. The app was free, like the other apps, but the cable cost 40 dollars. Glooko thus bypassed the most common innovation myth that you need to create something completely new and unexpected to build an invincible product. Rather they built something users were already familiar with, and solved a major problem at launch that they could immediately start generating revenue with.

2. Gradual refinement and expansion of features
Based on the initial value proposition, Glooko started building additional functionalities. The first was becoming more sharp about its metrics and analytics by making the glucose synchronization cable connectable to a wider range of commonly used glucose meters. This turned the app into a prime data aggregator through synchronization over various metering devices. Also they linked to actual supermarket and restaurant food product databases, to feed into the app’s caloric consumption input registry. This way the app could provide more accurate data input and readings overall.

When Glooko achieved FDA approval on the cable in 2012, they were allowed to provide data analytics and graphing, so that patients now could better monitor and plan their regimes, and share their data with their clinician. Launching the app on the Android platform at that time also expanded the reach. And currently they are taking things even further into predictive analytics. The beauty is that everything expands based on gradual learning, rather than cluttering the learning process with too many learning objectives at once.

3. Taking time to create a platform community
Before FDA approval, users could share only their data with clinicians via email or PDF’s. Even though this wasn’t ideal, it was the first step towards creating a platform. After FDA approval, Glooko enabled clinicians to access their patient’s data through a web app that used analytics. Patients and doctors could now have a better conversation on the patient’s health status and progress.

But this was apparently only the beginning of the social mechanics that this app could achieve. Currently, Glooko is exploring the possibilities for predictive analytics in partnership with a renowned diabetics research organisation, to help insurance agencies and hospitals estimate the local prevalence of diabetics. This helps these customers to better optimise their service and staffing capacities, based on the needs locally, and could be the big revenue stream that will turn Glooko into a profit making machine. This development of social functionality is very much in line with the excellent advice that was recently posted by Andrew Chen on building platforms. The irony is that you don’t build a platform by starting with building a platform!

4. The lean approach to customer acquisition
Currently Glooko has 20 people on board, with only a couple in the sales force. I think there are two factors that can keep their sales force this lean. For one I found Glooko myself by using Google, prompted by a notion that “there must be an app for that”. That’s all it took. Secondly, I suspect that they can ride a wave of clinician referrals to real in new hospital accounts and insurers. What also helps here is the recent partnership with the diabetics research organization to bolster credibility on the analytics of the value proposition. However this may turn out in the future, it is an incredible feat that they have come so far with minimal acquisition activities. It will be interesting to see how far they can take it.

The Glooko case is a very rich learning case on business model innovation. I will use it often when trying to explain about the business model innovation process, and syncing everybody’s expectations on what will be required to search for and develop a new business model. If you’re interested to use this case yourself, I’ve included it in a presentation below, visualising the business model iterations. I’m keen to have any further thoughts and reflections!