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Rules & Reasons for Strategic Partnerships

By October 24, 2012Miscellany

The truth is…in here

So, there are a few incontrovertible truths in the running of just about any business. (And by “incontrovertible truths” we mostly mean “We here at Mack Web have discovered them to be so and therefore we will pass them on with all the pomp and weight of a divinely-revealed proverb”).

The first is that situating your office across the street from a coffee shop is excellent for morale.

The second is that not every client/customer/what-have-you is going to be a good fit for you.

Third, there are definite benefits to making friends out of would-be competitors.

Finally, never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

Of course, just like Vizzini, we’ve actually gathered a lot more wisdom than these four points, but if we shared it all at once, well…first of all, this would be the most epically long blog post in the history of blog-postery. And also, well…we’d have nothing left to offer and have to shut down the company and retreat to lives of quiet contemplation and mild depression.

So, no, you’ll have to content yourselves with these little tidbits, particularly the last three, which center on one particular topic: strategic partnerships.

First, a note or two

For obvious reasons, most of our insights on this subject are going to be specific to the web marketing industry. (If those reasons aren’t obvious, um…you might be on the wrong website. If that’s the case, well, first of all…welcome. Secondly, to clarify, Mack Web Solutions is a web marketing company. So…the connection’s obvious now, right?).

That said, we believe there are a lot of home truths for every businessperson in what we’re going to say. So stick around for a bit and see if you agree.

Also, we can’t take credit for all the wisdom you’re about to encounter. We talked to a couple of our friends (see the benefits in action already?) at Rocket Jones Interactive, Outspoken Media, and Distilled to get their two cents worth as well.

So you lucky people are getting, uh, eight cents worth of strategic partnership wisdom. Wow.

Funny Confession Ecard: I will take your advice so I can blame you later.

More publicized than Bigfoot

The myth of “the perfect client” has always been extremely popular. The perfect client understands instantly your methodology and does not scruple to meet your price. They are gracious and responsive and eager to work alongside you to make every effort end in success. They already come with a large customer base and are web savvy enough to understand everything you explain, but humble enough to accept your guidance. They smell of roses and the pavement before the rain and they take your entire company on yearly retreats to Hawaii.

Let’s all take a moment to sigh wistfully.

Hawaii Hawaii Hawaii.

Moment over, back to real life.

Obviously, there are no perfect clients. We all make do with the “close enoughs”. But part of what has helped Mack Web succeed in the last 10 years is being selective about who we work for.

Of course, sometimes practicality demands taking on less-than-ideal clients. These come in two forms: those who just don’t fit and those for whom you aren’t quite enough.

Kris Kringle or Ebenezer Scrooge?

First of all, when you take on a client who’s just not a match for your services, nobody wins.

Handing them over to agencies who most closely meet their needs or fit their personality is always going to be better for everyone. (Like Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, telling overwrought Macy’s shoppers where to find the cheapest toys).

But, of course, if you don’t have anyone to refer them to, well…that becomes a problem. You don’t ever want to gain a reputation as the Ebenezer Scrooge of your industry, turning away people with no recourse and a nothing but a “Bah humbug” to see them out the door.

Or, as Rhea Drysdale of Outspoken Media says, “When we can’t take someone on, if I can point them in the direction of someone amazing, they’re going to remember that and it strengthens our relationship and trust with the agency or consultant. For example, when Penguin hit, I had a network of direct competitors to turn to and compare notes with which drove innovation and success for all of our clients.”

But of course, this can only happen if you’ve managed to develop a good relationship with your competitors.

Moral of the story? Be Kris Kringle, not Ebenezer Scrooge.

Puzzle pieces

Of course, there’s a difference between a good relationship and an actual partnership. And for the clients who need more than you can give, it’s the latter you need. Not every company has the bandwidth to be a one-stop-shop.

The Mack Web Story (yes, all caps), is a great example of how this can happen. We started out nearly ten years ago as primarily a web design agency. We did designs and basic coding for fairly simple websites. But as we grew and the demands of our client base got more sophisticated, it became clear that we needed to reach out to a more advanced programming team.

It didn’t go well at first. Until we met Rocket Jones, who had (and have) the team and the technical know-how to back us up on this stuff. Partnering with them ended up being a game changer for Mack Web Solutions. Rocket Jones became a role model for us in regard to conducting a partnership.

As they’ve always said, “It takes a lot of different disciplines to pull-off a professional web project. We believe strongly in the motto, “…everyone doing what they do best…”. We learned, a long time ago, to focus on the things that we do best and develop partnership for the other pieces of the puzzle.”

And now, even as we’ve evolved again, and are moving further and further into web marketing and away from our development roots, we can rely on them and refer clients directly to them when the situation suits. And vice versa.

This is a common story, one Outspoken Media has encountered as well: “The partnerships that seem to work best for are with local developers and designers. Troy, NY has an incredible pool of talent, especially with Ruby on Rails developers. Those companies include GreaneTree Technology and Enable Labs for web and app development, and Curtis Canham and Seth Louey for design among others. We also have a local branding expert, a security team, and other partnerships we are in the process of strengthening.”

Duncan Morris of Distilled has benefitted from a similar arrangement with industry superstar SEOmoz, when the latter decided to move into tool development full time: “We have been working closely together since 2007, and in 2010 we took over SEO consulting from them.”

The (dunh dunh dunh) Competition

Of course, in a lot of these situations, we’re not talking about a direct competitor. When you have complementary skills, a partnership can be a natural fit.

But, outside of the Kris Kringle Angle or the Puzzle Piece Scenario, what is the benefit of developing actual, friendly relationships with your competition?

(And in the web marketing industry in particular, we have competition coming in from a lot of different angles, with a lot of overlap: traditional marketing companies, web developers and programmers, analytics experts, tech tool developers, the list goes on).

It’s the same reason that (the crazy people who call themselves) runners are always looking for a good running buddy: you want someone who, just by running next to you, encourages you to keep up the pace.

Funny Confession Ecard: I'd love to go running with you today, but I hate running, and I also hate you.

Duncan said it best: “We have very good relationships with what many would see as two of our closest competitors, SEOgadget  and SEER. We regularly get together and talk about our businesses sharing insights and strategies.

“I’m sure many companies, especially the more traditional would see these relationships as a conflict of interest. I couldn’t disagree more, I believe they make us stronger, and make our industry stronger.

“Without planning it this way we are all constantly pushing each other to improve. When we see any of our competitors doing something amazing it pushes us to try harder. The lessons we have learnt from other people and the lessons we have learnt when writing on our blog all help us (and our competitors) to perform better for clients.”

Rhea agrees that knowing your competitors results in a strange kind of accountability: “Our competition keeps us on our toes and looking for even greater ways to drive our value proposition whether it’s by working to get the entire team Google Analytics certified or bringing new services into the mix like branding, crisis communication and content creation.

“Without embracing that and communicating about our experiences and knowledge with other SEOs and marketers, we miss out on an opportunity to make this industry more credible.”

Good for the goose and gander alike

Obviously, these points are especially valid in the SEO industry, which is a fairly tight-knit community that exists almost entirely on the internet and which changes too rapidly that no one company, operating in isolation, could possibly test out all the possibilities for innovation.

But here’s a little fun, incidental fact for anyone not from the industry: building an online community is the pillar of every web marketing campaign that Mack Web puts together for our clients.

An online community has a lot of pieces: potential customers, potential employees, and neighbors for a start. But the first thing we look at, every single time, is our clients’ peers.

Also occasionally known as…the competition.

Bonus points

Duncan pointed out an unexpected benefit that Distilled (who, if you didn’t know it, runs the amazing LinkLove and SearchLove conferences every year) discovered from these mutually beneficial arrangements: “On a very selfish level, these relationships have enabled us to constantly attract amazing speakers to our conferences. Both Richard Baxter and Wil Reynolds [who work for direct competitors SEOgadget and SEER Interactive, respectively] have spoken at our conferences. I continue to be amazed by the quality and amount that people are willing to share at our conferences.”

So, y’know, all kinds of extra perks.

Iocaine powder, or The Vizzini Rule

Now, we’re not telling you to run out and start swearing blood-brotherhood with the company who snaked your best lead last week. (We operate in the real world; we know there’s no tooth fairy. Santa told us so).

Obviously you need to be selective not just in choosing who you work for, but also who you work with. (No Sicilians, when death is on the line, okay?). Don’t go rushing into anything. Relationships require time and communication to develop the kind of trust you need to start relying on each other freely.

There’s really only one piece of advice we can give you for embarking into those (possibly eel-infested) waters: communicate, communicate, communicate.

When you’re working with somebody new, make sure everybody understands in advance what their role is.

The good folks at both Rocket Jones and Outspoken Media agree.

Rocket points out that knowing what your potential partner expects can help define the way the project will go and whether you’ll be able to deliver what you promised: “There are companies that hire us as “vendors” (“…just do what we tell you to do…”) and then there are partners (“…let’s all bring our areas of expertise to the table in order to best serve our client…”). We are working to build more into our “partner” relationships and spending less time in “vendor” relationships.

We try to develop mutual respect for ALL the various disciplines needed for a successful project. When one vendor has the “I’m the most important part of this project” mentality, the projects tend to “spin off of center” and the client is the one who ends up losing.”

Funny Confession Ecard: If there's anything more important than my ego around here, I want it caught and shot now.

Rhea, too, knows the pain of conflicting ideals and has learned to circumvent them from the outset: “We’ve had a few negative experiences. In those situations it usually came down to values. We had vastly different ideas about what the client needed, communication styles or what deliverables should look like. To prevent those conflicts we’ve learned to set expectations, define roles and ask the uncomfortable questions immediately. I’d rather know what we’re getting into from the start rather than find out by surprise later. If those bases are covered, everyone works better and we just have to keep the communication going.”

With silver bells and cockle shells

We know it sounds like a lot of work and that it can be more than a little scary to think about being open and transparent with people who might be competing for the same big-fish customer next week. The temptation to wrap any interaction in ironclad non-disclosure agreements and mutual skepticism is strong.

But it’s also not going to get you anywhere. That’s why you take it slow, communicate well, and let the relationship grow organically, just like you would any other friendship.

The results can be beautiful.

Japanese Garden, Portland Oregon

Or as Duncan says, “When the relationship is based on friendship and trust I don’t think anything formal is required. Tom [Crichtlow] actually wrote a post on our blog way back in 2008 about the benefits of engagement. I think this is as relevant today as it ever has been. We have found, over and over again that when we are generous with our time and knowledge it is repaid tenfold.”

That’s the why. Now the how.

There are all kinds of tools that can help you reach out to your potential partners, to build your community. All of the social media outlets like LinkedIn and Twitter, Google+ Hangouts, lunches and conferences, even good, old-fashioned coffee house meet-ups (See? Told you they were useful).

But, in the end, it amounts to pretty much the same as developing any relationship. You start with the first tentative overtures, you put in the time to get know them. You can stay in that phase forever if you want and still get some good stuff out of the acquaintance.

Or you can take a deep breath and take the plunge. Extend your trust a little further and come away with a friend.

Simple, yes. Easy, no.

Worth it?

We think so. What do you think?


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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Great post! I know I’m completely biased, but I love reading about this stuff and learning from others. It’s exciting to read your thoughts and the other interviewees’ advice. Love Duncan’s comment about sharing knowledge and getting good karma back. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to be helpful to others (seriously!), but so important to remember that this is how most of us got to where we are today. 🙂

    Thanks for including me!

    • Mackenzie Fogelson says:

      Thanks for contributing Rhea! It has been so wonderful to have been so well received in the industry thus far. Mack Web loves that we can connect with companies like Outspoken, Distilled, Seer, SEOGadget, SEOmoz, and so many others. Even though we are all competitors, and serve clients on so many different levels, we are friends who share common ground, struggles, and successes. It makes it all worth while.

  • Richard says:

    “Duncan said it best: “We have very good relationships with what many would see as two of our closest competitors, SEOgadget and SEER. We regularly get together and talk about our businesses sharing insights and strategies.”

    Indeed – Will and I meet for lunch quite regularly and share frank advice, keep each other abreast of what our companies are doing, chew the fat on subjects like the competition, hiring, etc.. I’d say if anything, the Founder of our nearest competitor knows my business better than almost anyone else. I’m incredibly lucky to have that kind of relationship!

    • Mackenzie Fogelson says:

      Agreed Richard! The best part of our journey this year has been opening up to our competition and making them friends. We have learned a great deal and value the support system that it has created.

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