One of the first things I set my sights on after setting up my firm in 1995 was striking smart, strategic partnerships. I did so because I knew the right partnerships would increase awareness of my nascent firm while also imparting enhanced credibility.

And, as is my wont, I took the road less traveled. I didn't try to create win-win partnerships with the largest organizations in my field of public relations: WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic. Nor did I reach out to our bank, insurance firm, or real estate agent for introductions since I knew every business they represented was doing the same.

Rather, I cherry-picked established firms and invited the CEOs of each to meet for coffee. My goal was two-fold: to let them know we existed and to ask them to refer any lead deemed too small or in direct conflict with their firm. The gambit paid off handsomely, and we won some nice clients. I also struck a unique partnership with the leading trade publication of the time.

Then, as now, we excelled in strategic positioning and ended our positioning audits by asking client executives what I call the Barbara Walters question: "If your company were to come to life as a person, would it be male or female, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, what kind of car would it drive and what music would be playing?

Having perfected this art, I pitched the trade journal editor and offered him an exclusive to perform the Barbara Walters audit with a different industry each month (at my cost).

The subsequent publicity was pure gold. Large organizations in search of their inner selves asked us to conduct positioning audits that would enable them to capture the exact tone they sought.

While there were lots of other smart, strategic partnerships, I also blundered badly by partnering with a global firm for one of our U.S. clients in need of Asian and European capabilities. Long story short, the big guys stole my client.

Turning to the expert

While I could write a book about my partnership adventures and misadventures, I turned, instead, to a client of ours, i2c Inc., a global payment processor that has struck gold at creating huge partnerships with Inc. 5000 brands, becoming an established business in the highly complex payments industry.

Amir Wain, their founder and chief executive officer, believes that aside from the occasional Uber, Airbnb or SpaceX, smaller companies can't be successful just by being disruptive, especially within an established industry. To help, he has provided a definitive roadmap any small business owner can follow to create a strategic partnership:

1.) Build and know your unique value. It's critical to be different from your larger competitors and to know why your differentiation matters to them. When doing business with large companies (or "BigCos", as Amir calls them), a "me too" product or service offering is a weakness. Smaller companies have no business being in a commodity business.

2.) Don't sip the Kool-Aid. Should a large company approach you, tread lightly. Ask yourself: "What's in it for them?" Avoid being part of their market research project. When you do meet with them, hit them with really hard questions (i.e., "Why are you interested in working with us?"). If they can't tell you why, walk.

3.) It's a cold world. Large companies aren't striking partnerships with you out of charity. They want something that you are better at than larger competitors. Negotiate from a position of strength and be prepared to defend your own interests within the larger organization.

4.) Who's the real decision-maker? It's hard to navigate a large company and figure out who's making the decision to partner with you. So get them to sign a check, even a tiny one for a small assignment. It's a great way to test the waters and figure out what internal processes or controls must be surmounted to strike an even bigger deal.

5.) The right choice. As I noted earlier, we made a very poor choice partnering with a global firm that stole our business. Wain warns to not hook up with just any hot brand that knocks on your door. Do a reality check and assess if there is a good fit. Otherwise you may end up investing your scarce resources to sign a partnership with a BigCo that generates no revenue.

I'm still striking partnerships with all sorts of people and organizations who can help Peppercomm. But, I've also become more aware of the many minefields littering the battlefield.

In the final analysis, partnerships can make, or break, your brand. Strike the right one and it may leapfrog you past the competition. Pick the wrong one and it just might permanently damage your brand and reputation.