My profession is niche: designing and consulting with customers on high-value corporate computer networks. I have chosen not to sell product but to focus on purely professional services. This means that I have a simple business infrastructure, but no relationships on which to find new customers since I could not rely on vendors or wholesalers to introduce me.
Early on, I approached a number of companies whom I knew preferred to to sell product but were less keen on selling services and discussed partnerships where my skillset could help in designing and deploying a solution, thus improving their prospects with some customers. Accordingly, I offered to act as their employee or representative and to support their business goals while working for that customer.
Building these relationships took a lot of time. I needed to contact and establish trust at management level, then work with the sales team to establish opportunities, convince them I could offer something and assist in winning them. I had to put in a lot of work to create trust and demonstrate capabilities to the customer AND my partner. This meant researching and preparing designs, working with the sales team to show how to use services to add value and enhance our offering. Once the business was won, I then had two parties to keep happy, our shared customer and my ‘partner-customer’.
The frustrating part was that a lot of sales process was out of my hands, I had to rely on my partner to attack and win the opportunity. They could control the pricing, their customer approach and, in most cases, the invoicing.
My first partnership was a success, we won a major piece of business and successfully co-operated to deliver the solution to the customer. Partnership meant that we worked to accept what each business needed - I needed cash flow to keep me going, and they needed to invoice the hardware to improve their cash flow. The customer wanted to see everything working before they would want to pay. We worked it out.
We continued to work together and my partners were eventually able to allow me to work with the customer directly, knowing and trusting that I would support their business.
Later partnerships were not such a positive experience. Some partners assumed I was stupid for offering free work and just used me for their own gain. I learned that some partners would reach beyond their capabilities and thus waste my time by chasing business that they were never likely to win. I learned that some people would never trust an external partner, no matter how trustworthy they showed themselves, and no matter what you had achieved for them (and no matter what they say to your face). My business suffered in these cases, and caused me to doubt my strategy.
Not all of these negative experiences were a total loss. Some of the end customers actively sought me out at a later stage and I was able to engage them for paid work (sometimes with, and sometimes without, the original partners involvement). I guess this proves the old adage “even bad publicity is good publicity”.
Now its a few years later, and the partnerships that have endured are a key source of income and we have become symbiotic partners in working with our customer. We help each other to ensure that our businesses are successful. We may have lost some customers, and we have brought business to each other. Some partnerships have been lost, key people have moved, or their business model changed. Most importantly, some of those early customers from failed partnerships have become my customers.
So why the love/hate ? Because I love the outcome, my business is successful and has a solid income with a few new customers every year. But I hate the work, the uncertainty and emotional energy expended in getting the partnerships working. And when they fail, I feel it has all been for nothing.
Symbiosis can be a positive, but when your partner lets you down, you need to make sure you don’t go down with them. On the other hand, you can achieve things that aren’t possible alone. Its a love/hate thing.