Boards of Directors will make it clear to a CEO that building and running the business is central to success, and suggest strongly not to focus too early on who might acquire the company and when. Good advice. It is a world-class team, a solid value proposition, and a strong revenue growth curve that create value in the business - and that eventually affects price and interest from potential acquirers.
But hold on - forming strategic alliances is often critical to both the marketing and revenue picture as well. And, if my competitors are out talking to their friends at potential acquirers, am I not missing the boat by focusing on the business?
Most startups that reach the go-to-market phase where customers are buying their products are balancing business execution with Corporate and Business Development. It is a balance. The executive staff needs to be involved in development of alliance strategy, but generally line organizations should not. Details about progress with strategic alliances should be compartmentalized.
An Alliance Strategy should be based on:
- A clear sense of the value of your product and service capabilities, including both what you sell to your customers and any unique capabilities and components that underly
- A well-considered view of adjacent markets that leads to partner selection - thinking as broadly as possible
- Articulation of a rational joint value proposition to approach each potential partner, and any desired outcomes
- Availability of someone skilled in approaching partners and driving a strategic exploratory process (refer to my June 17 post!)
- Availability of technical resource (e.g. CTO) to keep them honest, technically.
- A market view of your competition and what they might or might not do
I work with each of my clients at quarterly offsite or board meetings to fully develop this plan, and formulate an evolving list of targets. From there, the team can start to execute and then refine the process over ensuing quarters.
Business development becomes more complex as you look 1-2-3 years down the road, consider potential acquirers (or "Chairs" - see May 13 blog), and start to understand what will attract (or repel) you to those chairs. It is not always the right answer to approach or form an alliance with your comfiest chair early on.
There are good examples of companies who tried to get a deal done in the wrong sequence, without considering broad market factors, and drove their preferred chair to their stronger competitor. Consider this example: A company has a market-leading flagship product, but a competitor has both a poorer, but often sufficient, offering in the same area and an adjacent product offering that could provide additional value to partners. A strong alliance strategy may be to complete the offering by internal development or forming an alliance with someone who also has this adjacent capability, and then to approach the desired chair with the combined offering. Approaching the desired chair too early might simply educate them and send them to your competitor.
So, given the importance what are some techniques to manage the balance between business execution and corporate exit? If you have a designated executive running the BD process who manages their strategic work separate from any day-to-day responsibility, you already have some separation. Maintaining confidentiality of the process from the line organizations, particularly if the effort is bearing fruit, is important - but the pressure to pre-announce a revenue or go-to-market alliance to the sales team can be distracting. Choose carefully what you communicate. Sales teams are paid to find out information - including from your corporate team - so I recommend having a clear executive decision process for what and when BD information is provided to line organizations.
In the end, strategic BD should start at the go-to-market phase of the business. The challenge is to find good, focused resources to begin the Corp and BD process - aimed at supplementing revenue and market presence, but always playing the game with an eye to the exit.
Next time, we'll talk about when negotiating actually starts with a potential partner?