Many sales-led organisations have come to the same conclusion at some stage in their business growth life-cycle: In order to build a sales-led business for scale, you need to adopt a multi-channel sales distribution strategy. In our world, this means a combination of direct sales (boots on the ground), digital marketing and strategic partnerships.
After five years we had grown Merchant Capital as far as we could organically. We needed a much larger sales distribution channel. Understanding the need for a multi-channel sales distribution strategy is one thing, execution is something else entirely. After paying significant school fees, our strategic partnership distribution strategy was crystallised, and off we went to bring our chosen partners on board.
1. Finding strategic partners
Re-calibrating our sales strategy led us to the conclusion that we needed a strategic partner who could bring us ‘one-to-many’. In other words, we needed to identify potential partners (‘one’) who have ‘many’ sweet spot clients who are also our target clients, and whom they are already servicing with other products daily.
The end result of this three-year process has been strategic partnerships with Standard Bank and Discovery Insure. In the case of Standard Bank, every business that utilises a Standard Bank point of sale (POS) system can apply for a cash advance from Merchant Capital. Thanks to the partnership, Standard Bank POS merchants can access a cash advance within less than 24 hours of application.
It sounds incredibly simple and straightforward, but the process of identifying the right partner, creating the value proposition and then building a relationship that can result in such a partnership is anything but.
The most crucial element in this process was identifying partners who could benefit as much from a relationship with us as we could from them — in other words, ensuring a strong mutual value proposition.
When you have a business need, it’s easy to convince yourself that your prospect or potential partner needs you as much as you need them. Unless you are absolutely sure that this is the case however, there’s a strong possibility that you end up having a life-changing initial meeting and then never hear from them again.
This can happen for one of two reasons: Either you haven’t found the right partner who will also benefit from a partnership with you, or you haven’t been able to adequately distil that value. If this happens, very often you’ve missed your opportunity and won’t get a second chance.
We therefore had to be extremely disciplined in identifying which partners we wanted to approach. We focused on removing any subjectivity from the process by building an objective ‘partner scorecard’ that allowed us to weight certain attributes of the partner (such as a large client base, deep client relationship and mutual value proposition) with what we could offer them. This empowered us to make educated decisions.
2. Making first connections
Identifying the right partners is only the first step — now you need to make contact. By design, the partners we had identified were behemoth corporates with much larger priorities than meeting us, and convincing them on the upside of a strategic partnership needed to be robust and well-articulated.
Step one is getting your foot in the door. We began the process by identifying ‘champions’ within the partner organisation. This process takes time. We were able to secure meetings and found that running pilots was a good way to provide demonstrable evidence of the proposed ‘win-win’ proposition.
Early on in a business life-cycle (before any traction and brand equity exist), we found that leveraging off our network of shareholders and mentors to make introductions to the appropriate decision-makers within the organisation was of great assistance.
When we signed our previous investment deals, this was actually a key consideration for us. For obvious reasons, growth funding holds value, but the network and mentorship that the right board and shareholders bring to the table can be much more valuable.
Until you’re able to build brand equity and gain traction with a partner (or client), the right networks, introductions and referrals help you secure the meetings you need to prove yourself. And then you need to start small. Don’t expect a meeting with the CEO. Start with someone who could be your champion within the organisation.
3. Finding your champion
Finding a business sponsor to champion the partnership within the corporate partner is fundamental to your overall success. They will understand the internal friction and potential hurdles in navigating the naysayers within the organisation.
There will always be people, and rightly so, who challenge the partnership and ask why they can’t just do it themselves. If you don’t have an internal champion who is engaged and passionately buys into the partnership, then the initiative will most likely fall over and die.
Being the first mover in a partnership with an innovative start-up has many advantages if the product takes off. Often, these people want to be involved on the ground floor.
That said, big corporations are still taking a chance teaming up with young companies (brand risk and financial losses, to name a few). The upside of having already landed a smaller partner where significant traction can be demonstrated goes a long way in softening the initial concerns and risks from the large corporate’s perspective.
4. Nothing worth having can be rushed
The one word that comes to mind when thinking about this journey and the past three years is grit. In our experience, landing great partnerships takes many years of relationship-building and demonstrating solid business metrics and track record.
As I’ve already mentioned, our discussions with Standard Bank began three years before doing the deal. What we found useful in the early days of the partner discussions was communicating that in the next quarter we were going to achieve certain results and then coming back the following quarter and presenting the fact that we had hit our milestones, or hopefully exceeded them.
Just as you would do with an investor, this built a track record and credibility. The rhythm of checking in every few months and reporting back on progress is a great way to build the relationship over time without being too pushy as well.
Pulling it all together
There are two types of growth: Organic growth and scale. We’re an organisation that wants to scale. We’re aiming for exponential growth. This wouldn’t be possible without exponentially increasing our access to market.
We identified that the best way to do this was through the right strategic partner, but there are many channels that business owners can consider.
The important thing is not to just do what you’ve always done, unless you’re comfortable with organic growth. Evaluate your current model, and critically examine what you need to do to increase your sales, distribution and access to market. There is no one right way to do this. It took us time, and we needed to learn a few tough lessons before we were confident in the direction we wanted to take.
Related: My Business Is Growing… What Now?