The Power of Partnerships

Let me tell you a story. It’s about a chap called Tony.

I first met Tony in 2002.

He was one of a group of international businessmen I met when I was presenting my business and concept, Retail Profile.

There was a Spaniard from Spain, a Swede from Scandinavia and a German from Germany – all running different outdoor poster media companies across Europe. And then there was a New Yorker from Russia. And that was Tony.

He’d moved to Russia and built a neon sign company, way back when Russia was just coming out of Communism and he now ran an outdoor poster business in Moscow.

Tony was a great guy, a big personality – you probably need a big personality to move to a place like Russia and go into business for yourself. And be successful and survive.

Anyway, I didn’t think too much about the meeting. I did my presentation and talked to everybody and then went on building my business.

I saw Tony every so often when he came to London for business, and we were always friendly.

Then five years later, in 2007, I got a phone call from Tony, who was in Russia.

He said: ‘Julia, I’ve never forgot that day that you presented to us in 2002 in that room with all those European media owners.

‘I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I really think that your business would do phenomenally well in Russia. Malls are being built like crazy and I think it’s the right time.’

So suddenly, here was a phone call out of nowhere from someone who wanted to partner with me to expand and export my business to Russia.

Of course setting up a business in Russia comes with unique and interesting challenges. We had to hammer out a lot of details: what did our investors think, what was the right type of partnership, would it be a joint venture, how would we make sure the new business was profitable and would we need to invest a lot of money upfront and maybe not get our investment back?

After facing and solving all these problems, Tony and I convinced our investors and his partner it was a good move. We concluded the best option was to license the concept and so in 2008 Retail Profile Russia was born.

This has been one of the best partnerships. It’s not been easy, it’s taken a lot of hard work. We’ve had to overcome a lot of challenges and persevered in a difficult business environment.

Today it’s doing $28 million and still growing. Russia is one of the few places they’re still building shopping centres so there is growth both in the market and for the business.

We have both learned from our partnership and the licensed deal. We have Retail Profile Russia a business concept, philosophies, theory and process and we have developed our internal processes and ways of doing business as a result of the shared experience working in Russia.

The key lessons from this story are: ‘you never know where your next partner will come from, and find a partner that will really propel your business forward and take it to another level.’

Typically it’s very difficult to build your business client by client, deal by deal. Finding the right partners can have a multiplier effect because 1 + 1 doesn’t total two, 1 + 1 can total 5, it can multiply the effect.

Every partnership is different, so there are no hard and fast rules about the best model or structure, however if you want to cultivate successful partnerships to build and grow your business, here are six things to consider:

1. Build your network before you need it

You’ll never know who your next partner is or where you might find them so don’t hang with people you know. Open yourself to meeting new people, and be generous. Think about how you can help others, who can you connect or refer them to? When you give to others, they are more willing in turn to help you.

2. Partnerships can take time to cultivate

With Tony, I met him in 2002 and we didn’t come partners until 2008. Be patient, be open and nurture and cultivate your relationships as you never know when you’ll get that call from Russia.

3. Look for partnerships in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely people

Open your mind and your creativity to potential partners. Who in my network am I overlooking that can multiply my business? It might be the New Yorker from Russia. And it might be even be your largest competitor.

When we were working out how to multiply our business, we had the crazy idea of looking at our competitors. Initially you might not think that your competition would be a good partner. However, we looked at our largest and most fierce competitor, which at the time was Space and People, and realised that we shared some clients, a similar market and space in the industry, and the two business models were different but complementary. On an annual basis I used to touch base with one or the other directors of Space and People just to check in and nurture the relationship. So when I picked up the phone to request we meet and talk about the possibility of partnering, they were open and interested.

4. Don’t pick a partner who is just like you

There is no multiplier effect in partners with the same skills, expertise, client base, and business model as you. Select a partner who is different or opposite and offers unique qualities and attributes that would add value to your business – and yours to theirs. Think about the value chain in your business or sector and look at where you might be able to partner with a distributor, a brand partner, a product partner or an investment partner that complements but at the same time brings something exceptional and different.

5. Make sure you are aligned

While each partner brings different qualities and attributes both from a human capital resource and also from a business model perspective, you need to make sure that you and your partner are aligned on the strategy, goals and outcome which you both want to achieve.

Alignment is one of the greatest challenges businesses face and this is especially magnified when you join two companies with different cultures and histories. Take time to work on a common mission, vision and core values of the combined partnership, so that everyone is working together to accomplish the same goals.

6. Think tactically and strategically about what a partnership will bring

At different times in a partnership – inception, growth, maturity – each partner may contribute unequally in one or more of these stages. Know what’s important in the long-game and what you want to achieve so if you have to accept trade-offs in the short term it’s balanced in the overall strategy. It’s a case of balancing short term tactics and the long term strategy. You may have to give more in the beginning but in the long run the gain will be greater and the win bigger.

In 12 years I’ve had four sets of partners. Not all of my partnerships have ended successfully however I have learned a great deal from all of them and I would not be where I am today without taking those partnership risks. Take time to look at your network, identify the unique abilities and offerings of your contacts, and consciously cultivate and be open to interesting combinations.

The least likely person could turn out to be your best partner.

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