STRATEGY

How to Convince a Big Brand to Partner With You

It's easier than you think, as long as you're willing to lay a whole lot of groundwork.
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Your business idea is solid. You've done the necessary market research, tested the concept, and built out your product or service. The only thing you need is a big brand to notice you, realize the brilliance of your startup, and sign on the dotted line as a partner.

It can seem like an impossible thing. Just how do you get a household name to talk to you when you're--so far--a nobody?

Take some tips from Nick Smoot, co-founder and CEO of Here on Biz, a free iOS app that lets users locate and chat with professional contacts. The company recently partnered with Virgin America and Gogo Inflight Internet to offer the first in-flight social network people can access while in the air from a mobile device.

With the deal comes promotion any developer would envy. Now, whenever you buy a seat or visit Gogo's paywall on a Virgin America flight you'll be encouraged to try Here on Biz to see if any other professionals are on your flight, on any Virgin America Flight, or located at your destination.

Here's how he says you can pursue the huge deal you need:

Invest a lot of time building a relationship with the big brand.

Forget about knocking on a big brand's door and pitching a partnership without first having spent a lot of time--months in the case of Here on Biz--building relationships with people inside the company who will champion your idea with decision makers.

In Smoot's case, he says he and his partner knew from the minute they dreamed up Here on Biz one night in a bar that they wanted Virgin America as a partner because airplanes are full of business people who could benefit from the kind of professional social network they had in mind.

"So then it became this pathway of how do I develop that relationship with them?" he says. "A lot of it became understanding the landscape of their company, who the players were and finding opportunities to start building real relationships with them, complimenting their brands, getting to know what their initiatives were."

Smoot used LinkedIn heavily, reaching out to key people within Virgin America to genuinely compliment them on things he believed the company was nailing. He suggests particularly paying attention to the LinkedIn feature that shows you other people who have viewed a profile.

"Definitely don't spam people. I'm very intentional about who I select to talk to and sometimes if I even identify them on LinkedIn I won't even actually contact them through LinkedIn; I'll find [a different medium] to engage with them," he says.

In other words, he might find the right person on LinkedIn but then engage with her on Twitter, reach out via email or find out what conference he will be attending and make an introduction there.

Target the right kinds of people within the big brand.

Forget about anyone in middle management, Smoot says. A lot of the time these folks are too focused on getting Junior through college and intent on keeping their jobs. Instead, befriend people either really low on the totem pole, or executives who actually have decision-making power.

Another idea: find others who have successfully partnered with the big brand you're going after.

"Go to their [LinkedIn] profile and if they have their connections open I would look at who they know from one of those big companies because they've already built that pathway," he suggests.

Make friends in person.

Smoot says he's a big fan of in-person meetings and reaching out on email to make it happen.

"Just say 'Hey, I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee and talk about some of the things you've done. I'm really intrigued with these specific pieces,'" he says.

He also suggests asking someone at the big brand to attend an interesting meeting. Smoot had success doing this by inviting one of Virgin America's employees to a TED event he was working on.

Don't pitch, yet.

Once you actually manage an in-person introduction, do not use it as an opportunity to suggest a partnership with your company.

"I definitely do not go to hard-sell them at a conference or to pitch them an idea, that's the worst idea possible," Smoot says.

Be Genuine.

Authenticity is a key component of successful relationship building. The conversations you have should be centered around your genuine interest in the big brand's initiatives and goals.

"If you're not, then you're wasting [everyone's time]. You're not going to get anything out of it and they're going to tell you you're fake and there's an ulterior motive. If you truly can say that your goal for this conversation is to learn from them, oftentimes people love to teach," he says.

Make sure your offering really meets the big brand's goals.

Smoot knew Here on Biz and Virgin America could help each other but he still took the time to fully research the airline's needs and figure out how to fill them.

"A lot of entrepreneurs are dreaming. They think 'Oh, everyone needs this.' No, everyone doesn't," he says.

Do Free Work.

Once the big brand is actually considering working with you it can help to solidify the relationship by doing work for the company that furthers its goals.

"I'll actually take my personal time and resources and energy and provide myself like a free consultant to the company," he says.  "I'm not going to do something that's like a six-month project but if it's something I feel I can stay up late and knock out and offer some insight I'll do that every single time because I know it shows them I really do care and showcases the integrity of our company and our desire to make things a win for everyone."

Hire or find a "people person" if that's not you.

Unless your offering is amazingly tight and getting tons of traction on its own, the likelihood of a big brand approaching you is pretty much nonexistent. That means the onus is on you to make the behemoth fall in love with you.

You may be the brains behind your great idea but what if you're lacking the social skills to do all this relationship building?

Hire someone who can, Smoot suggests. Or better yet, convince persuasive and prominent people outside your organization to do it for you.

"We've actually identified influencers in an industry that we want to go after and then ask them to help us and we incentivize them in some capacity with a business deal with us and we give up a small piece of equity or some kind of commission on sales," he says. "And sometimes people don't even want anything."

Don't be discouraged if your pitch flops at first.

When Smoot finally raised the idea of a partnership with a newfound buddy within Virgin America the person wasn't very enthusiastic so he backed off.

Later, however, the company invited him to attend an inaugural flight from Los Angeles to San Jose, along with representatives from Twitter and other large tech companies.

"We did kind of a champagne mimosa toast, flew in, met Richard Branson, hung out for a bit, did a photo shoot on the plane together and just had a lot of fun," he says. "Funny enough, the gentleman that I had originally said "Hey, you know I think there might be something here," started promoting me, saying [to others inside Virgin America] 'Do you know what Here on Biz does? They connect business travelers. Wouldn't it be cool if we could do this in the air?'"

Be patient.

You may be running on a shoestring budget and worried that your company might not be alive in a month, but that's probably not the case with the big brand you want as a partner. And while you may be tempted to push hard to get a deal done, Smoot says it's better to take a tactful temperature check with the personyou're closest to inside the company.

"I'm working on a deal right now that has massive national ramifications if it goes and we're really excited about it, things have been moving nicely [but] I hadn't heard from them in about two weeks. I emailed them once and then nothing. So then I followed up again and said 'Hey, should I just take this as you guys are not interested? I'm just curious, not trying to be rude.' And immediately [the person] responded 'No, we're in the middle of a massive audit, please be patient. Let's set up a time, here's the day that works for us,'" he says. "You have to ask in the right way to the right person."

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 28, 2014




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