Start-ups live and die by their collaborations - here's how to survive

At Peppersmith we live and die by how well we collaborate. Whether that’s our own team working together as a tight-knit unit, projects with our suppliers to develop new products, engaging and enabling our consumers to help spread the word or forming alliances with like-minded businesses.

As a small company on a big mission we need all the help we can get.

We collaborate with a lot of other brands. At its most basic, that means spending time hanging out with other start-ups. Regardless of whether there’s potential for a mega joint marketing initiative, it’s always good to meet people for a cup of tea or a beer. Something beneficial will come of it; be it practical tips (the name of a friendly accountant, good t-shirt printers, etc), some inspiration, some mutual therapy or just a few laughs. We get together with other companies at round-table dinners, joint Yammer groups, tradeshows, Dodgeball leagues and local pubs. It’s fun and useful - a winning combo.

Now and again these relationships develop into bigger partnerships that have been a major influence on our success. We really believe in our products. Our mints and gum taste good (having won five Great Taste Awards) and do you good (they’re made with xylitol so are proven to reduce plaque). But as a small company with limited resources, sampling at scale is very hard. Alliances with other brands have made it possible to get our products into the hands of lots and lots of new people. We’ve done projects with Virgin Atlantic, TED, Denplan, Wahaca, Dorset Cereals and many others and it’s transformed the number of consumers we reach - and dramatically reduced the average cost of each sample.

1. Choose wisely. Affiliate marketing has exciting opportunities and there’s a temptation to rush out and find heaps of companies to work with. But an important lesson we’ve figured out - which can be applied to all areas of business - is that it’s better to do a few things very well than lots of things badly (or even just OK). Every period we’ll identify a handful of perfect partners who have the same consumers, a complimentary product or service, a suitable channel to distribute our mints and the scale to justify our  time. And very importantly, do they share our values and will they do the right thing by our products or our consumers? As someone smart once said, you are judged on the company you keep.

Read: Is collaboration the new competition?

2. Share your passion. To get anywhere as a start-up, you need to be able to inspire people to want to join you on your mission. That applies to potential employees, investors, suppliers, customers, consumers and brand partners. Having a passionate, engaging story is the most valuable thing you have and it’s essential for convincing other brands that they want to associate with you. And that’s not about spinning them a yarn - it has to be real and you have to be natural, credible and likeable. If you’re disingenuous, too pushy or too 'selly', people will worry you’ll behave the same way with their consumers.

3. Begin with the end in mind. Make sure you and your potential partners are clear on each other’s objectives. Things can get tricky further down the road if you realise you have misaligned expectations; you may think a joint project will be a quick win but they have it down as a major undertaking that will require more resource than you’re prepared to commit. And if you’re not totally clear what you want to achieve then it’ll be tough to decide on the right activities and measure whether the partnership has been a success.

4. Mix it up. We’re very fortunate to be working with Virgin Atlantic at the moment. They hand out our mints to everyone who flies with them to help keep passengers fresh. For us this is the nirvana of brand alliances, reaching so many people through a very highly regarded partner.

It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the fact that Virgin are a big company with a small company attitude but it still took time. With the smaller partners, all it can take is a brief chat but for the big guys, be prepared that it could take months or maybe years to lay the foundations. A sensible approach is to have some smaller, quicker wins and then maybe a couple of bigger targets that you know will take time to develop and may never happen at all.

5. Don’t mess up. After all the groundwork you’ve put in identifying and bringing on the right partners, you better make sure you do a good job and deliver the best possible experience to their consumers. Consider every little detail, go that extra mile, don’t disappoint. Think of it like Donnie Brasco. They’ve vouched for you so don’t screw up as you’ll be damaging their reputation as well as your own. And it’ll be unlikely you’ll get a second chance.

That’s my top five tips, but if you have any questions feel free to get in touch. Good luck and I hope you make lots of new friends along the way.

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