What Successful B2B Partnerships Are Not

Real, effective partnerships in the B2B world can be a game changer for startups, granting them access to target audiences and unlocking trust. But they’re also vastly misunderstood. If you go about partnerships the wrong way, or buy into some extremely common misconceptions, you’re going to waste time. You might even lose money or tarnish your reputation. Here’s some guidance to help you avoid these outcomes.

Not a Person or a Program 

Many times, I’ll talk with a startup founder and ask if they have any partnerships. Almost as many times, the founder will say, “Oh yeah, I handle our partnerships.” Or, other times, they’ll say, “Sure, we have a partner program in place.” Even though the intent is there, these sorts of responses indicate to me that the business owner doesn’t understand what partnerships really are.

They’re not a person or a program. Partnerships have to be a clearly defined strategic priority for the organization, starting with the leadership. They have to have key performance indicators (KPIs) and action items attached to them, throughout the organization, so it’s obvious what the partnership means at every level. If this isn’t what you have, then it’s not the kind of partnership that’s going to yield you any meaningful results.

Not One-Off Activities

Another misconception is that engaging in surface activities with another company makes a partnership. For example, maybe you’ve hosted a joint webinar with another startup. Boom. You’re partners, right? No, actually–and if you’re unsure why, revisit the paragraph above.

When startups introduce referral programs, revenue shares and co-branded marketing activities, they often think they’re creating a partner ecosystem. But all they’re doing is forming rather rudimentary relationships, which often tend to drop off after a shared initiative takes place. It’s not to say that you can’t do these things or that they’re going to hurt your company; it’s just that these paths are not what lead to revenue-driving, startup-optimizing partnerships.

Not Confined to a Box

As humans, we often seek out the easy way. This translates into the partnership equation because many founders and their teams look to plug into partners who already have existing programs. They figure if they just slot into the established setup, they’ll get returns without having to do too much work themselves.

But, as with most things in life, you get out what you put in. Don’t hitch your wagon to a cookie cutter partner program without really considering all the pieces of a partnership that matter most.

An Entrepreneurial Exercise

Before you start to think through creating partnerships, define what this means to your organization. Why do you want to have a partnership? This is also the time to flesh out your vision for these types of relationships, followed by connecting it to a real business impact.

Done all that? Be prepared to be the entrepreneur in the room. Don’t be someone who seeks partnerships and then simply comes up with rules and processes. Color outside the lines. Create partnerships to break the rules and create an outsized outcome.

Think of it as a very entrepreneurial exercise. If you need to break the mold, be the piece of the organization that goes away from stale corporate efforts. Go beyond the box of “blah,” and think outside of joint webinars, referral programs and rev shares.

Forming Meaningful Partnerships 

When you’ve got your vision nailed down, what next? First, avoid hiring someone to own partnerships. Instead, find a partner who matters to your organization. Ask yourself:

  • What will you do for them?
  • What will they do for you?

From there, ingrain the partner into the business. This means really thinking through all levels of the organization, what that partnership means to both sides, how its success impacts your KPIs and your partner’s KPIs, objectives and key results (OKRs), bonus structures and so forth. It needs to be granular and from every angle of the organization, or it won’t be as effective as it can be.

You need to get this partnership off the ground really successfully before you think about having someone own partnerships. Then, when you’ve proven success with one partner, do it two more times. Once you’ve gotten three partnerships under your belt, you’re actually ready for a partner program, one that is clearly defined, has a clear value exchange and has metrics tied to it.

Partnerships in B2B can be one of the most powerful tools to get you in front of the right audience, earn their trust and grow your business. But they can just as easily fall flat, fizzle out or fail if you approach them the wrong way. Make sure you understand what great partnerships require, so you can be ready to bust through the boring relationship molds that go nowhere.