When we started FamilyEducation Network in 1990, we understood that we would have to build our business on carefully chosen and sensitively nurtured strategic alliances. That's precisely what we have done. And along the way, we have learned many valuable lessons about what makes strategic partnerships work. What's most important, we have found, is that they're all about relationships.
Our company aims to build the largest K-12 community on the Internet, bringing together parents, teachers, students, and schools. We started with a newsletter, and in 1996 we launched our first Web site.
Today, FEN is a network of Web sites serving the K-12 community, which includes FamilyEducation.com (parents), TeacherVision.com (teachers), and Infoplease.com (students, teachers, and parents). FEN also serves as a host, linking participating schools through their own customized Web sites directly to parents and students in local communities. More than 2.5 million individuals visit our sites each month.
Over the years, we have joined in strategic alliances with such organizations as the National PTA and the National Education Association, and such corporations as America Online, textbook publisher Harcourt General, and microchip manufacturer Intel. Each has added to our credibility and moved us closer to achieving our vision.
We found that with each successful alliance, others followed. When AOL saw that we were working closely with the PTA, it wanted to invest in us, and with AOL's participation, other nonprofit groups wanted to get involved, too. As they joined in, Intel and Harcourt became interested.
A strategic alliance means that the two partnering organizations are involved in something that is of deep importance to both. It's an ongoing relationship. We've tried hard to stay clear of two mistakes we've seen many other entrepreneurs make:
Tips for Building Effective Strategic Alliances
Our first strategic partner was the American Association of School Administrators. When we first approached the association's people, we were thinking just in terms of a national Web site. But they were looking for a way to support parent involvement in schools. They told us, "We really ought to think about how you do this at the local level." That led us to thinking about hosting school Web sites.
It's through AASA that we reach school superintendents. AASA sends a letter, signed by its executive director, introducing us to superintendents throughout the country. Now more than 7,000 schools use our Web publishing tools and services, thanks in part to the credibility AASA has given us. And through us, AASA gets visibility for its support of parent involvement in education.
Our relationship with AASA is what every strategic alliance ought to be: win-win for everybody.
Any relationship, to be successful, requires mutual trust and patience, and a commitment to seeing that both sides come out winners. Choose your partners with these goals in mind, and you'll quickly discover how much more you can accomplish within a strategic alliance than you could ever do on your own.
Jonathan Carson is chairman and CEO of FamilyEducation Network, a Boston-based business that he cofounded with Carroll T. Miller in 1990.
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