Partnerships are a tough field to navigate under any circumstances because there’s already an emergent quality to the industry at large. In fact, partnerships have only matured as a major revenue stream relatively recently, and even mainstream participation can mean encountering many mysterious and ambiguous topics that plague all too many partnerships professionals.

But what do you do when you are in an industry that is itself a budding space full of frisky startups and critical unanswered questions? How do you navigate the ecosystem of companies, customers, competitors, and potential partners when your whole paradigm is in its infancy? In the absence of relative context, it can feel nearly impossible to identify major players and tap into a wellspring of game-changing partners.

These “nascent ecosystems” exist in many burgeoning industries today, and they can put even the most seasoned partnerships experts in tricky positions. At the same time, they represent an extraordinary opportunity to set the tone for your entire business landscape, and cement your company and your career at the forefront of new trends in revenue and reputation. 

At least if you get it right, that is… 

But the good news is, there are partnerships leaders out there getting the job done day in and day out. Jules Birchler is the Head of Business Development at Zapata, a company that is literally creating the flying cars of the future. However, because Zapata is on the cutting edge of future tech, he’s found himself in exactly the position we described: facing a nascent ecosystem and discovering how to create a partnership network out of the thinnest of thin air. 

Firneo CEO Scott Pollock sat down with Jules to discuss what these curious and potentially lucrative ecosystems look like, how to deal with them, and where to find the leads that will guide you to value and revenue. 

Scott: Explain what a nascent industry and a nascent ecosystem are. 

Jules: Nascent industries are, quite simply, industries where nobody’s really making any money yet. In fact, most companies are still in the development stage, and they may not even have a product to sell. It’s incredibly difficult to identify who’s leading and who’s following, or contextualize the relative value of any given player. 

Furthermore, because most aren’t in the market yet, you don’t know who made the right technical choices, and this is where partnerships can become very tricky. When you’re at a tech company like Zapata, you’re going to need a lot of very specialized partners to get the job done, but you’re not dealing with a mountain of proven concepts when you’re making decisions. Of course, you know what people are saying, but as we all know, talk is very, very cheap!

Scott: How do you define an ecosystem in that environment? 

Jules You have to start defining it on your own, and that often begins with a technical breakdown of your product. For us, we know we’re going to need tire manufacturers, EV partnerships—things like that. Everything you’re not going to build yourself will need to be in your ecosystem to get to the finish line. 

That means your first job is mapping out the ecosystem and creating a “value chain”. This is a critical concept, because it’s how you begin to measure the strengths and weaknesses of your company’s model. By establishing a map and identifying value chains, you can see the holes you’ll need to fill and where the company should focus its efforts. And, of course, where your partnerships work has to start. 

Scott: How do you guide leadership’s decisions where to build and where to partner?

Jules: This is where a partnerships pro in a nascent ecosystem and industry needs to know their own company inside and out so they can ask the right questions: “What is the strategy? What exactly are you trying to do? How are you different from the others? What are the choices that have been made in the past and why?” And based on that, “What partnerships are you going to need in the future?” 

Also, you have to accept that this is not a one-off exercise. In nascent situations, you’re going to be operating off hypotheses and best guesses with the available information. You’ve got to be ready to pause, pivot, and pursue on a moment’s notice. 

Scott: How do you manage internal challenges?

Jules: You definitely have to keep your eyes and ears open for pain points various departments are experiencing both commercially and technically. In fact, it may be necessary to begin developing specialized ecosystems of partners just to manage them. 

As an example, at Zapata we had to develop a hybrid propulsion system that required a lot of extremely precise expertise. However, it’s also the most important technical part of the car, so everything that happened with the engine affected every aspect of the business. It was obviously going to be pretty partner heavy, and from a partnerships standpoint, staying on top of their pain points and helping them manage was a company-wide imperative. 

Scott: What’s your process for identifying partners?

Jules: I try to keep an open mind, and I always approach with a partnerships perspective. Sourcing, for instance, can be a very different mindset than partnering, and the partnerships framework tends to make starting a conversation easier and more dynamic. And if it becomes transactional, then it does. 

In nascent ecosystems, you also have to keep in mind that you’re probably looking at revenue down the line rather than immediately, and it’s an opportunity to have a conversation about aspects of a potential partner’s business they might not have even considered. They may walk out of the room with a completely different perspective on their own business than they had before you spoke. So, again, approaching from a partnering perspective is much, much better. 

Scott: How do you differentiate between partners who just want your logo, and partners who can be real game changers?

Jules: There are always signs you pick up along the way, and it usually becomes pretty clear pretty fast. For instance, if they start talking about putting out joint press statements right away or doing a side-by-side at a trade show, you can be pretty sure they just want access to your brand. On the other hand, if they lead with something like “let’s sign an NDA and swap some technical sheets”, that’s probably a good indicator they’re action driven. And in nascent industries, that’s typically an excellent quality in a partner. 

Scott: In your industry you partner with researches and universities quite a bit: how does that work?

Jules: One of the big advantages is that you don’t have to wrestle with all the financials the same way you do with a for-profit company. A university is going to be interested in the research and the project, but they’re not looking to make a pile of money off the end product, right? The appeal for them in the partnership is creating opportunities for their students. Also, they tend to have incredible resources that most stand-alone companies aren’t going to have. 

Scott: Last question: what would you tell other people in partnerships roles to help them be successful in nascent industries?

Jules: Keep yourself up to date with the industry. Things can change unbelievably quickly—both internally and externally—and your ability to make a positive impact will always be limited by the information you have at hand. And that doesn’t just mean within your company’s strategic scope. You need to be connected with people across the partnerships industry, because the lessons they learn and the tactics they develop may just be the way of the future for your own industry. Stay on LinkedIn, check out interviews like this one, and connect with people at places like Firneo. You never know where that magic insight is going to come from, and in nascent industries you just can’t afford to miss it. You may only get one chance!

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