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New business partnership--your dream team or a brand killer?

At long last, you’re ready to sign an MOU with a company you’ve been dying to partner with for ages. Like scoring a date with your middle school crush, you feel elated! Maybe you’re a multinational working on a brand pivot to meet the changing times. Or maybe you’re a startup or family office with deep expertise but a smaller network wingspan. Either way, you’re delighted to partner with projects that appear aligned with your goals. So you pick up your metaphorical pen to sign on the dotted line (or maybe click on the DocuSign link).

But before you enter the honeymoon phase with your new business boo, are you falling for a shiny exoskeleton or becoming future-proof with a cutting-edge leader in your field? Here are the top 3 must-haves for quality assurance:

Must-do number 1:

Research whether your prospective partner’s research is up-to-date. This might sound obvious, busy executives in one field don’t have time to keep up with the latest from other fields. Being up to date isn’t about new for the sake of new; up-to-date research is more likely to include nuance and complexity that reflects today and tomorrow’s global circumstances.


 — — Consult with experts who are cutting edge with a mind toward ongoing competitiveness. Avoid research centers that have been using the same funding source for years unless there’s clear indication that the research agenda has adapted to new global circumstances. Same goes for legacy brands, which are great only if they reinvent to meet the moment.

 — — Don’t just reach for who you know or the sources you’re used to. Search for long-form articles or information created within the last ~ 18 months. Even research projects that haven’t been completed yet are valuable if a representative is willing to speak with you about the need for the research because sometimes the premise is just as important as the outcome.

 — Ask a few dozen people under the age of 28. I know, this one might seem outrageous, but a straight-shooting group of gen z-ers can sometimes teach us a lot more about how consumers and audiences will respond than a carefully-worded brief from an established corporate. You don’t need to sign any billion-dollar deals here, but with a truly open mind, you’ll earn a lot.

 — Ask people over the age of 75. I’m not adding this in to be politically correct with age inclusion. I’m adding it in because we have a lot to learn from hindsight once our brains have the time and space to process away from the world of work. (So, if you get the chance, don’t ask Joe Biden since he’s still at the office.) Plus, if the new venture is recycling the same ideas from 20 years ago, it’s probably not a good sign.

Main takeaway #1:

>> It’s comforting to recognize a brand or see a familiar product. But sometimes familiarity means outmoded. Things become familiar because they’re a by-product of copy-paste strategy rather than something that will add to your value proposition. Being future-facing isn’t about release dates — plenty of new products are not high quality. Your company deserves the nuance and complexity required to be a leader in our rapidly changing world.

Must-do number 2:

Ask who and what your potential new partnership would serve. This step kills 2 birds with 1 stone — it relates to ESG impact (no longer a nice to have but a requisite for future-proofing). But, as importantly, it’s required for a strong value proposition for your customers. Your current client(s) goals might not be aligned with your potential new partners’ goals.

Sometimes we see this across sectors, such as a workers’ union being misaligned with a corporate social responsibility endeavor. The main takeaway is that it’s not about where the money is coming from or even where it’s going, but the bottom-line effect. Fortunately, getting to the bottom of this one can be time-intensive, but it’s more straightforward than research.


 — Ask the people or groups receiving money or services what the result has been. Again, this reflects “who and what is being served by this partnership?”

 — Avoid making decisions based on mission statements or visions. These are useful artifacts and are definitely worth a read. But statements and intentions are not indicative of results or the perspective of anyone not at the table while writing them.

 — Ask any stakeholder who’s decoupled from your potential partner why they chose to do so. This one harkens back to romantic relationships more than we might like to admit. Does your ex-wife say the same thing about the breakup as you do? No need to look for dirt, just ways to more accurately assess whether there’s a strong, mutually-beneficial fit.

Main take-away #2:

>> Regardless of how the brand or product you’re thinking of partnering appears, its efficacy speaks louder than it’s brand. It can be tempting to name-drop when you’re doing business with Big Impressive Company, but having to sugar coat their impact is a bad use of time and has a track record of alienating others who may be more interested in quality than brand names.

Must-do #3:

Have a code of ethics at the ready for easy reference. This is a stitch-in-time-saves-nine move because it gives you a quick “out” if your new partnership ends up misaligning with your brand or goals. The truth is, that sometimes despite your best research and prep efforts, you just don’t know what the results of a new partnership will be. Documented codes of ethics are also a great way to define partnership scopes to prevent over-reach. Regardless of how great it looks, there’s no point in piling something on if it taxes your staff beyond capacity.


 — Call your document something positive, like “Mutual Benefit Guide” and share it as an offering when brokering your new deal. With any luck, you won’t need it, but just in case, it’s there should you need to dissolve the partnership.

 — Ask your staff for input on this, or even better, have a few of the experts on your team draft this up. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to run it by Business Development or legal council, but industry experts should be the ones to lay out details of what can and can’t be covered with a partnership.

Main takeaway #3:

>> Although defining scope and being realistic can sound like a mojo-killer when you’d rather go full steam ahead, by defining scope you’re not limiting your team, you’re setting up for success. Over-extended experts and burnt-out staff almost never do world-class work. If a more modest partnership goes well, you can always ramp up or build out later.

Final thought

Be sure to connect with a consultant who specializes in impact strategy to hash out the details and set you up for success. There are plenty of us, so if you want to find someone in your time zone, most consultants worth your time have an extremely global perspective and colleagues in many markets and regions. But no need to break the bank. Assessing and strategizing should be less like pulling teeth and more like an injection of growth mindset. Per an Agile mindset, you’re not looking to predict the future, just to create a quality framework.

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