Partnerships with early stage ventures

“When is the right time to think about partnerships?” is a question often asked about early stage ventures. Often, in turn, the frequent advice is to first get your own shop in order, before thinking of collaboration.

Although there is some truth to this advice, demanding a fully validated business model before starting with partnership strategies is bullshit blanket advice. There are more nuanced ways to address early stage partnering risks!

My advice to early stage venture partnerships, or to established companies that want to work with early stage ventures is to sense-check the potential of a collaboration. Here’s some pointers for doing this, covering the biggest risks:

  1. Know your X-factor. You could have a technology, a hard to access user-group or community, and unique expertise that might be a resource for others to leverage. Scan for that something you have, which you can amplify, and which also has the potential to amplify someone else.
  2. Mingle with the right people to sculpt the collaboration. There are people with specific mindsets for exploration, and those with a mindset for exploitation. Either persona strongly impacts the type of conversation you’ll have about your partnering. The former might be blunt, and start with saying things like “it’s a joint venture or bust!”. The explorative mind is a better prospect for shaping the early stage venture collaboration. Seek out the people who are willing to invest the time with you in defining a joint hypothesis for the partnership, things to experiment on, and discover.
  3. Causality is king! Figure out a theory what the business value of the partnership could be. Define testable ways for how the partnership could change the customer experience in both partners’ business models! And remember, it’s never about the experience the partnership causes to you, making a splash in the media, standing besides a big name brand on a press release. It’s all about the experience the partnership causes to your customer.
  4. Keep money out of the equation. You don’t know what value the partnership creates yet. On top of that, a partnership works best for you when you can capture its value within your own business model. Build a narrative for an equitable business case, where both sides stand to gain from the partnership’s created value, and work from there. The money equation will reveal itself when you’re testing, and seeing how revenue from the partnership will actually distribute over both partners.
  5. Be prepared. The law of partnership design says that for every 1 hour of making great ideas with your partner, you’ll need to spend 2 hours convincing your own team of their merit. Make sure you involve the right decision makers, and apply the partnership design process in a simulation before engaging with the partner. That way you anticipate many of the “yes buts” from your own team on design decisions. It shifts the process from a drudge of iterating on partnership meetings, to constructive creativity of iterating on partnership execution.

There is no clearly defined graduation moment for your business to start partnering. Play with partnering strategies as early as you think it makes sense to do so. Tools like the business model, and partnership canvas are made to explore such what if scenario’s. By applying them in a short strategy session with your partner, your team, or even just for yourself, the tools give you enough sense to determine whether you’re at the right time to partner, or to determine when you will be.


Keen to learn about innovating with early stage venture partnerships? Join us in the Partnership Design Masterclass on September 19th in Amsterdam.

You can also join the Partnership Design Linkedin group to interact with the Partnership Design Community.

Moving partnerships: from cutting costs to creating experiences

The first thing that comes to mind when partnerships are mentioned, are ideas of getting access to a partner’s scale of operations, or to some unique competence they have. Both could have implications for making your business run more efficiently.

You look at your production process, and figure out what parts of that process are lagging on your end, and can be taken over by a partner.

Pharma companies like Johnson & Johnson for instance, outsource parts of the process for clinical trial in this way. They leverage patient organisations for mobilising testing subjects, or universities to support and combine research and analysis.

Although it’s effective, this is still a conventional application of partnerships. These activities, make Johnson & Johnson run better, creating, and shipping products at a higher pace. But they don’t make the business run any different in a sector that is challenged by rising insurance costs to patients, and increasing dissatisfaction over the quality of medical care.

The other way
Things are changing in the world of business collaboration. It’s becoming easier to experiment with partnership linkages and coordinate them through new technology, even when crossing over industry boundaries. Companies forging partnerships like Spotify & Uber, or Yummly & Instacart are doing just that, hunting for new opportunities to bring their existing products into new customer experiences. These partnerships enhance existing products and services in new ways: Personalise your taxi experience with the music of your choice, or get within-the-hour home delivery of the ingredients you need for that recipe you found.

In order to enable partnerships to create value through new customer experiences, partnership design needs to shift away from conventional thinking in terms of the production process, its associated steps, and then determining who can do it more efficiently, and effectively.

The alternative is to look at the full customer journey: from how customers discover your product or service, to how and when they use it, to when they finish with it. From this overview the partnering question becomes different. It turns from “where can you make our company run more efficiently?”, to “where can you add to or deepen our customers’ experience?”. A decisive change in reasoning that can overhaul a business model.


Interested to learn more about using the Partnership Canvas for transformative business collaboration?
Check out our upcoming Partnership Design Masterclasses