In the second part of his series on collaborating with competitors, Peter Rouse discusses how to identify and approach a potential partner.
In part one of this series I examined some of the fundamental barriers to collaboration in pursuit of new business and the practice of ‘co-optition’ in which competitors work together for mutual benefit in specific areas or projects while continuing to compete as normal in the market.
I will now look at how to begin selecting and approaching a potential partner. The place to start is of course with your own business and to be clear as to what you want to achieve by collaborating with another business: what’s in it for you and, perhaps more importantly, what’s in it for them?
If you are going to take the initiative then you have to be able to sell the idea, so be honest about what will be involved and what each of you will gain by it. You also need to be sure that yours is a company that you would want to do business with; if you need rescuing or need the leg up then choose a stronger business to approach and be willing to be the junior partner.
If yours is a local business then you should know who your competitors are and be able to make an assessment as to whether they would be suitable partners in a venture. Your relationships are key here and so you will naturally want to start with those you are on speaking terms with; however, those you don’t speak to may be the best candidates so remember that ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’.
There is no need to disclose exactly what you have in mind until after you have established a basic willingness to cooperate. Once that is in place you can make use of a non-disclosure agreement as is now customary. If you need to look outside your area or direct competitors, perhaps because what you have in mind requires different resources, then you will need to do careful research a lot of which can be done online before any approach is made.
You might also consider attending trade shows at which you can find firms looking for new business and often be able to initiate a conversation on the stand that can be followed up later. If you use social media, then look for businesses that might have similar goals and start a dialogue.
It all takes time, however if it is important to your business strategy then you will have to invest that time to work on the business if you are going to make it happen. You can also try any number of business clubs and organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce. One place worth considering is the CompeteFor website that was developed for the London Olympics to better ensure that Olympic delivery contracts were accessible to businesses of all sizes in the UK and continues to be used for major capital infrastructure projects. The site claims over 170,000 businesses registered and allows users to create a business profile and then to post and respond to partnership opportunities as a means of initiating dialogue that might lead to cooperation in one form or another.
Your approach, when you are ready to make it, can be direct and to the point though you may think it best to do so only if there is a specific time-limited opportunity. It may be better however to take it slowly and develop a relationship slowly. To use a romantic analogy, you would not approach someone you find attractive and say outright ‘Let’s go on a trip together’ (well you might, but you get my point I hope). There is a wooing process involved precisely because it is never only about the business opportunity; it is always about people and personalities and if they don’t work no business will get done. Yes, you may be rebuffed; but you have to keep trying until you find the right partner if you want to achieve your objectives.
For a guide to joint ventures, perhaps the most commonly used term in relation to collaboration between businesses, take a look at Scotland’s Business Gateway site here which is particularly well ordered. You will of course be able to find other guidance and comment using your favourite search engine and the terms you can search against include: co-optition; co-venturing; joint ventures; co-marketing; collaboration; and subcontracting.
In the final part of this series I will look briefly at the common forms of collaboration and how they are structured.