A well-thought-out partnerships program can be transformative for any business, but the process of establishing and leveraging these relationships is not always a straightforward one. Of course, this can be especially challenging for early-stage startups looking to make a mark in their respective industries.

In a conversation for Partner School, Firneo co-founder and CEO Scott Pollack sat down with seasoned partnerships professional Cian Wright. With a background in e-commerce partnerships at companies ranging from startups like Juni to established giants like Shopify, Cian is now employed as Swap’s VP of Partnerships. During their discussion, Scott and Cian explored the challenges and opportunities associated with partnerships at up-and-coming companies.

The Uncharted Territory of Early-Stage Partnerships

Since this emerging field is in constant flux, success is often defined by the individuals steering the ship rather than a static set of rules in a textbook. But while building a partnerships program is never easy, early-stage startups face unique obstacles—establishing credibility, building a customer base, and defining a brand identity can be daunting tasks for these businesses.

According to Cian, startups venturing into partnerships cannot afford to hedge their bets. Successful partnerships rely on synergy across various teams, including product development, sales, marketing, and operations. In addition to securing this level of collaboration across the board, any startup creating a partnerships program must provide its new partnerships team with the resources it needs to thrive.

Unveiling the Value of Early-Stage Partnerships

Scott then sought Cian’s insights on the value partnerships can generate for early-stage companies. Cian emphasized that partnerships can help new companies build credibility, particularly when these businesses are able to establish an ecosystem of partners willing to endorse their offerings. Furthermore, he highlighted the immense potential of technology partnerships, citing the importance of a well-thought-out integration roadmap for sustained growth.

The conversation underscored the wide-ranging benefits of partnerships, which offer avenues for new sales channels, customer outreach, and collaborative product development. Put simply, the value proposition of partnerships remains consistent across different stages of a company’s growth.

The Role of Timing in Partnerships

Today’s business landscape is characterized by diverse expectations and varying growth trajectories, so knowing when to initiate partnerships is critical. While the conventional approach to building a partnerships program involves hiring strategic leadership from the outset, Cian challenged this wisdom. 

Instead, he encouraged companies to give a resourceful individual the job of laying the groundwork before they bring in strategic leadership. By following this approach, a startup can refine its partnerships strategy organically as the program gains traction.

Scott and Cian also explored the risks associated with poor timing when embarking on early-stage partnerships. When a startup’s partnerships team is not adequately prepared, or when critical components such as account management and sales processes are not in place, its partnerships program could face severe challenges as a direct result. Cian noted that close collaboration across various teams can lower a company’s risk of encountering these issues.

How to Choose New Partners

When partnerships leaders are tasked with advising potential opportunities, they need to understand the challenges and opportunities they face and the mindset of their company’s leaders. Cian said these professionals should ask themselves questions about:

  • The desired outcomes of their partnerships
  • The role partnerships play in their organization
  • The resources they have access to 

For early-stage companies without an established brand or customer base, Cian highlighted the need for intentionality in partner selection. Startups in this position should begin by identifying their ideal customer profile (ICP) and understanding how it could overlap with potential partners. Then, he encouraged startups to build partnerships with companies providing technology, services, or interactions related to their ICP.

Educating Stakeholders on the Value of Partnerships

In addition to their efforts to build partnerships, experts in this field must be ready to explain the benefits partnerships deliver. According to Cian, they can do this by illustrating the positive impact partnerships could have on their employer’s bottom line, whether that involves securing high-value accounts or accessing a broader customer base. By giving stakeholders concrete reasons to align with their vision, partnerships professionals can lay a foundation for fruitful collaboration.

This educational process extends to demonstrating the reciprocal nature of partnerships—in these relationships, both parties can and should contribute value. Cian underscored the importance of illustrating opportunities and building a culture of positive intent. He also suggested leveraging account mapping to visualize the impact of partnerships on a business’ key accounts (and, subsequently, its trajectory as a whole).

Strategies for Ecosystem Integration

Scott and Cian’s conversation touched on the dynamics of engaging with established ecosystems such as Shopify. Instead of merely integrating into these ecosystems, Cian said startups should aim to develop true partnerships with key players there. 

By strategically aligning with successful partners and contributing to their success, fledgling companies can build credibility and visibility. To this end, Cian encouraged startups to explore opportunities such as co-marketing and co-sponsoring events with partners.

Advice for Early-Stage Partnership Leaders

Finally, Cian shared three vital tips for partnerships leaders at early-stage startups:

  1. Lead with value: Always make an effort to provide meaningful value to your partners.
  2. Set expectations: Be honest with founders and other high-ranking members of your organization about the challenges and realities of your role.
  3. Connect the dots: Reach out to people inside and outside your company in order to create links between teams, gain internal and external buy-in, and foster collaboration.

Mastering Early-Stage Partnerships with Firneo

Early-stage partnerships are built on good timing, sufficient resources, and a shared commitment to reciprocity. For these relationships to succeed, partnership leaders and stakeholders alike must be aligned in their vision and have a mutual understanding of the potential benefits and challenges that partnerships bring. By fostering a collaborative culture, making an effort to choose the right partners, and educating stakeholders on the value of partnerships, early-stage startups can unlock the full potential of this dynamic and transformative business strategy.

But there’s a catch: creating a successful partnerships program is even more challenging than it sounds. If you’re a partnerships leader at an early-stage startup (or anywhere else), there’s a good chance you could use a playbook on how to excel in this industry. At Firneo, we take pride in offering that playbook to both new and established partnerships pros. To get the partnerships knowledge you’re looking for, sign up for our Mastering Partnerships Strategy program today!

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