"Be respectful, consistent and communicate!" former head of partnerships at Antler, HuiLin Chin shares the importance of building strong relationships with key partners.
No man is an island
Nobody operates in isolation, especially when you're building a company. It's a challenging journey that you're not going to accomplish if you try to go it alone. That, plus the fact that we increasingly function in homogenous ecosystems rather than isolated one-to-one relationships, makes partnerships a much-needed aspect of any business. It is important to work with partners who are aligned with your goals in order to survive, let alone grow.
Set your priorities
It is important to determine which partnerships are necessary to deliver value to your customer. For instance, you may need certain local partners to access a key market to begin with, or you may need to access capabilities that you can't build entirely on your own.
As a general rule, prioritise avenues where value goes both ways without having to deviate from your focus and execution. It's important, especially at an early stage, to build a sense of how your business can also be of interest to other partners and leverage off those strengths. I personally follow the 80:20 rule: if you're knocking very hard on the door of a non-committal partner, I would suggest you focus your energy on those where the mutual interest lies - those who could mutually share and benefit from your vision.
Where to begin
Fundamentally, it comes down to knowing the problem you're solving. Which VCs are relevant? Who are the players? What is the market like? What do you want from these partnerships? Once you do know, it's pretty straightforward. Reach out through events, networking, ask your existing contacts to connect you. When you meet someone, always remember to ask if there is anyone else you could be introduced to who is relevant. It's not rocket science. And then make sure you follow up and remember that how you interact with these contacts reflects on your brand.
It is also worth considering working with other startups, as they will be more forgiving of your constraints and unpredictable journey. Furthermore, they stand to gain more from your complementary skills. Another category of partners you shouldn't overlook is investors. Think of them as partners rather than as sources of capital. They want you to be successful and can have a very significant impact on your business strategy and key decisions. Work with them, not for them, tap into their connections and networks and get introduced to the right people.
Consideration, Consistency, Communication
You need to establish yourself as trustworthy in the way you engage and communicate with partners. Basic consideration and respect for their time are important. Be clear and concise with your reasons for the partnership, be on time and be transparent. Be clear what your ask is.
Consistency is the other really important thing because sets the standards for what others can expect from you. For instance, if your company branding and story says one thing but that's not reflected in how you present yourself, or if what you're saying to partners is inconsistent with what you say to investors or clients then there is a problem.
Communication is also really important - find a way to engage your partners even if there's no immediate collaboration. Follow up on key developments relevant to them, send regular updates, and if you don't hear back, don't take it personally!
Partnerships are especially important when you're starting out because they plug you into a system that will give feedback and maybe even evolve based on what you're doing and help along with the problem you're trying to solve. Even larger, more established companies need to work with key clients and partners in developing relevant solutions. As an added caveat, working with governments and institutions can ensure that your business goals fit into the long-term narrative of the operating environment you are in - ensuring you stay relevant for longer.