The company you keep: building strategic partnerships

By ATB Financial 18 August 2020 4 min read

Most entrepreneurs are happy to see their business grow at a steady clip. But if you’re looking to grow exponentially? You’ll need some backup.

Strategic partnerships are critical for businesses looking to thrive. Most small- and medium-sized companies are good at one thing, but not everything. You may be skilled in manufacturing, but not necessarily retail, or vice versa. Recognizing your weaknesses and filling those gaps can be beneficial in helping you enter new markets, access better technology and data, and increasing your scale.

Anton Bellot, senior manager of entrepreneurship with ATB, thinks it’s never too early to start thinking about what kinds of long-term partnerships will benefit your business. But before you start setting up golf dates with other CEOs, it’s valuable to start with the basics.

“The first three partners you should have in your back pocket are a banker, an accountant and a lawyer,” says Bellot. “You don't even need a full business plan. Once you have a concept of what your business looks like, that’s a good time for you to loop in those partners right away.”


Build your starting lineup

Bankers, lawyers and accountants might not be part of the corporate all-star team you first envisioned, but they’re crucial to help you expand. Whether you’re a high-tech startup or a traditional agribusiness, you need to ask: what tax liabilities will you have? What kind of risk management agreements do you need to draft? How will you deal with foreign exchange fluctuations when you expand to new markets?

These partners can help you answer those questions, and they’ll have a vested interest ensuring you successfully carry them out.

Beyond just balancing your books and covering your legal needs, these three key partners can also help introduce you to other companies you might be compatible with. Especially in close-knit economies like Alberta, most entrepreneurs know who the truly trusted professionals are; so aligning yourself with the right partners can give your business a halo effect.

There are other ways to go about finding potential businesses to hitch yourself to. Another (sometimes underrated) resource is professional associations, whose stated goal is to support and advocate for their industries. Nearly every line of business—from cannabis to cleantech to hospitality—has a local association that might hold town halls, networking events or online meetups to help businesses meet each other.

Beyond your industry associations, be sure to reach out to government associations like Calgary Economic Development and Alberta’s Regional Economic Development Alliances, who act as conduits to help stimulate regional businesses. ATB’s Entrepreneur Centres are also great resources for building relationships, holding regular events that bring companies from different industries to let them connect.

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Engage with higher education

Another kind of partnership that sometimes gets overlooked: your local college or university. Especially if you’re running a conspicuously innovative business, much of your research and development can be done by working with eager students who’ll help test your theories in a safe, controlled and monitored environment.

Even if your enterprise is decidedly low-tech, volunteering your business as a test case can help you understand your potential market value, all while helping the next generation of entrepreneurs to hone their craft. Within Alberta, for example, Olds College and the University of Lethbridge are great spaces for the agribusiness and agri-food sectors, while the University of Calgary, SAIT and NAIT are top choices for anything more tech-related.

If you’re on the hunt for other, perhaps international businesses to partner with, the choices aren’t as clear cut. That’s when you might need to turn to “the University of Google” to narrow down your search. Before you start your quest, Bellot has a few recommendations for entrepreneurs looking to find that perfect business partner.

“It’s always a good time to take inventory of your business and do your own SWOT and PESTEL analysis,” he says. “If you haven’t looked at your business plan in 15 years, ask yourself: Are we the same business we were when we started? Where are we positioned in the food chain of the industry we’re in?”

Whether you’re in a growth stage or decline stage, understand where you want to go next. This will help prioritize who your key partners should be, and when you approach them, you’re able to say exactly what your goals are: high growth, stability, acquisition, spinning off or even exiting the business.


Transparency is the best policy

The key is to be as honest with yourself as possible, and maintain that transparency with whatever relationship you pursue going forward. While every partnership has some give and take—and you don’t want to give away all your trade secrets—setting up a culture of honesty from day one is essential to reaching common goals and ensuring your visions and values are aligned. Don’t shy away from those hard talks about money, expectations and potential conflicts.

If you want to become a bigger player in the market with access to economies of scale, don’t just think about what your partners can bring to the table—think of what kind of value you can offer as a partner. Fortunately, there’s currently a massive global demand for Canadian goods and services, as we’re known for being ethical, environmentally conscious and easy to do business with.

The truth is, not all partnerships are successful, and many of them fall apart—much like any relationship. But being honest about your long-term shared goals, setting clear expectations and making sure the lines of communication are always open will be integral to making your partnership thrive.

If you’re looking for a deep dive into everything you need to know around how to grow your business and make it more resilient, our ATB X Accelerator program might be just the place for you. Alternatively, feel free to reach out to one of our entrepreneur strategists to explore where you are with your business, where you want to be, and how to get there!

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