How To Dance With A Gorilla: Partnering With The Big Guys

According to Wikipedia, the proverbial “800-pound gorilla” is a person or organization so powerful that it can act without regard to the rights of others.

Most entrepreneurs know the 800-pound gorilla as the market leader or unbeatable competitor in a segment that their startup or small business is trying to survive in. But it need not be so. Small companies that learn how to dance with the gorilla can transform their businesses.

When I co-founded a venture capital-backed startup I was asked what gave me the audacity to think that a “newbie” could take on incumbents with up to $100B in annual revenue. The answer to that question is not to compete but to partner. You see, the larger the “gorilla”, the slower it moves. In the software industry, where products are sometimes named for the year they come out, you get a hit parade of how long it takes a big company to churn out new releases – sometimes to the tune of three to five years. So a smaller business with a focused product niche can co-exist just fine in a crowded market.

Even better, a smaller player can mitigate its lack of financial and human resources by tapping a larger partner. In the dot-com glory days, travel & boothing expenses were picked up by an obliging bigger partner. Even in the current climate, joining partner marketing programs provides (sometimes free) access to co-branded logos, product and staff certifications, joint press releases, and shared exhibit space at trade shows.

At one trade show I not only had my booth in with my partner, I was given their branded shirt to wear so that I appeared to the 18,000 attendees like their employee flouting a third party solution (i.e. my own solution).

What good is marketing without sales, right? I typically will map out the org chart of my partners’ field sales teams and follow them to their customers, sometimes pitching my product alongside theirs. In one partnership, the “gorilla” gave its key sales execs a bonus for helping us sell our solution.

When we started to monetize all this partner goodwill and could afford to hire more staff, again we turned to leverage our partners, using the same HR recruiters so that we brought on high quality talent that understood our common market.

Of course all good things must come to an end. For a startup, the best end is the exit, and the best acquirers are the partners. I was told by one industry leader that shareholder demand for earnings growth forces them to acquire twenty to thirty companies annually because they just can’t innovate fast enough.

Partnering can be an effective, inexpensive, smart way to grow your small business. And one day if that gorilla starts stepping on your feet, it may be time to exit and hold merger and acquisition talks – after all the best way to dance with a gorilla is to lead yourself.

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