Startups: understand your partners and clients


Putting yourself in your clients' and partners' shoes

If you're at a tech or social media startup, have you ever wondered what your partners and clients at larger companies might be thinking? I spent many years helping lead consumer research and brand strategy at Viacom Media Networks. For me, the promise of working with a hot tech or social media startup always had a bold, courageous ring to it. Smart minds and fresh eyes tend to do long-established businesses good for renewed inspiration.

Over the past two decades, I've had a front-row seat to how things really go at a large company when working closely with startups. When it's good, the business really thrives. But, when little things start to go wrong here and there, it almost invariably leads to a wave of discomfort between internal teams and the startup -- in particular, when there is a lack of shared understanding and open communication between the two teams.

To avoid this, a little prior planning from the startup goes a long way. Here are 3 non-obvious yet revealing questions I learned to ask potential startup tech and social media partners. Listening to their answers helped me evaluate the potential merits of working together and, in turn, aided the startup to begin to anticipate my expectations for once they hit the ground running. If success is one of your goals, it's never too early to consider your answers to these three queries:

Questions your clients and partners will expect you to answer -- even if they don't ask

1. Do you understand how my company works?

Once past a successful pilot/test period, your client or partner will likely have high expectations for you to understand them and where you fit into their company. Despite an outstanding pilot, the startup firm assumed the next set of stakeholders operated the same way as the last, signaling that they didn't really understand my company's structure and where I saw them fitting into our larger team -- we both suffered.

Risk of not knowing the answer:
Mismanaged expectations top the list of 'silent killers' of team innovation and creativity that should emerge between startups and their clients/partners.


2. How do you define 'partnership'?

Business never stops, and innovations move quickly. Your clients/partners are often inundated with data and are trying to make sense of what it all means and what defines success. I expected the startups I worked with to act as collaborators and partners in analyzing how our initiatives were going and in measuring results together. I didn't just consider them a vendor.

Risk of not knowing the answer: If you have a different definition of partnership than the company you're working with, both sides will likely deplete a lot of energy struggling to "get on the same page" and expecting either too little or too much from one another.


3. What experience do you have at helping clients build real customer relationships?

Edelman, Pew and Gallup report that trust of companies is on the decline to record low levels, coupled with unprecedented growth in consumer discontent. This means professionals at long-established businesses are looking toward nimble startup partners to provide new sorts of insights into their customers and other audiences and to help them inspire their teams to find better ways to sustain those key relationships.

Risk of not knowing the answer: Larger companies are looking for startups that don't just execute tactics but that also meet deeper business objectives. If you don't know how your activities might help them better serve their end customers, their level of trust as YOUR customer may decline.


As a client and partner to a variety of startups, I learned to ask these questions the hard way: through fast failures along the way. However, if you are ready to answer these questions or, better yet, proactively address them with your clients and partners before they even have to ask, you'll have a much better chance for a long, productive relationship.

Learn more about Todd Cunningham >>


The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.