The financial services and fintech ecosystems will become increasingly complex, interconnected, and interdependent.
Effective third-party collaboration and partnering will no longer be a competitive advantage, but an operational necessity.
How to maintain your fintech business advantage
Players who resist this change or fail to proactively plan for the increasing interdependence will struggle to meet the changing needs of consumers and fall behind nimbler competitors. Meanwhile, organizations that are able to form and nurture key partner and vendor relationships are likely to spot and adapt to market changes more rapidly and easily.
In this series, Vantage Partners, a boutique consultancy with expertise in strategy and third-party collaboration, talks about opportunities and challenges organizations face across the partnering lifecycle – deciding whether and how to partner, launching and managing individual partnerships, and partnership portfolio management.
Partnerships can be complicated to execute and frequently carry some form of meaningful competitive risk (i.e. disintermediation, replication of IP). At the same time, they can often accelerate time to market, increase market share, or be the key differentiator between success or failure.
Unfortunately, the combination of definitive risk and uncertain benefit means they are often overlooked or discounted in risk-averse organizations or overutilized in risk-loving organizations.
Companies with mature partnering capabilities take a disciplined approach to determining whether, and if so, how to partner by asking the following questions:
- Which needs in our customer’s value chain are we focused on addressing?
- Where are we currently unable to fully address those needs on our own and why?
- How should we close our capability gap? Should we build our own capability? Acquire it? Partner with a third party?
- What are the best ways for our end customers to consume our solutions?
Here, Vantage Partners’ Jessica Wadd and Sam Stewart share a few thoughts on launching partnership strategies in competitive environments (engaging in “coopetition”) and a model for thinking through build, buy, or partner decisions.
Partnership selection, identification, and launch negotiation
Once an organization has decided that a partnership is the best path forward, it must compare potential partners, identify the best fit, and negotiate an agreement with implementation in mind. Organizations that do the above effectively understand how to approach persuasion as an opportunity for joint problem-solving, and skillfully maximize leverage and total value in every negotiation.
Here, Vantage Partners’ Abby Fagan digs into comparing potential partner options, and Isaac Block shares an approach for defining joint solutions during a partnership launch.
Any partnership or third-party relationship of significance requires collaboration between individuals within two or more organizations that have different strategies, structures, processes, capabilities, and cultures. In the financial services, fintech, and techfin markets where many collaborations involve massive established companies partnering with startups, the organizational differences can be both a source of opportunity and a contributor to failure.
Mature partnering organizations follow a few simple rules for making alliances work and even identify opportunities to leverage partnering know-how with the goal to enhance collaboration with more transactional supplier relationships.
Here, Vantage Partners’ Mai-Tal Kennedy discusses strategies and tactics to make such alliances work.
Even the most successful product, sales, or technology partnerships can live out their lifespans. Since partners are rarely in complete agreement about whether (or how) to sunset a relationship or transform it, these situations often present their own unique challenges.
Here, Vantage Partners’ Naj Kahn, Sam Stewart, and Jessica Wadd share some advice about sunsetting relationships successfully and doing so while also launching a new partnership to advance the objectives of the old one.
There is no such thing as a competitor
Leading companies in complex, interdependent marketplaces increasingly realize that the notion of the market as a zero-sum game is a limiting one. Competition or collaboration occurs not so much between companies, but at specific levels and segments of industries and markets and at specific levels within companies.
In the technology and fintech space, many companies already have multidimensional relationships with other firms in their ecosystem. The challenge is that a large majority of executives see these relationships as a necessity rather than a strategic advantage, and therefore consistently make choices that reduce the ROI of these relationships.
Can it really be strategically smart to collaborate with one’s biggest competitors?
We could illustrate all sorts of management theories to explain why it can be beneficial to collaborate with a company in one arena while competing aggressively in another arena, but some 100 words on management theory won’t convince a skeptic. So, don’t trust us or the theory.
Look at what others are doing:
- 36% of companies report that they compete “a great deal” with their business partners
- On average, companies expect 23% of their success over the next five years to come from collaboration with their competitors.
- Netflix and Amazon have a complex relationship, collaborating where they can and fiercely competing elsewhere. Refer to the sidebar for examples on how they collaborate, compete, and do both at various levels. Amazon and Netflix both compete and collaborate.
Dimensions of interaction
Compete or collaborate?
Collaborate: Amazon (via Amazon Web Services) provides backend infrastructure for Netflix (i.e. managing customer account history, call center operations, controls to manage video streaming).
Both: Amazon and Netflix are major players and direct competitors in the video streaming industry. Amazon also offers devices, such as Amazon Fire TV Stick which enables users to stream Netflix.
Compete: Amazon and Netflix compete for market share in certain geographies. For example, both companies have acquired Hindi content to win subscribers in India where Amazon currently has 610K subscribers and Netflix has over 1 million subscribers.
Compete: Amazon and Netflix provide competing video streaming services at comparable prices.
Account – overall
Compete: Amazon and Netflix compete for exclusive rights on major TV networks. In 2012, Disney gave Netflix exclusive rights to stream Disney films during the “pay-TV window” (i.e. once a movie becomes available on TV after hitting DVD, Blu-ray, and digital home video platforms).
Compete: Amazon and Netflix compete for exclusive rights to specific shows and programming. Amazon struck a deal with PBS to be the exclusive streamer of the hit show Downton Abbey in 2013. The first two seasons which were previously available on Netflix were pulled.
- BMW and Toyota compete at the industry level but partnered to develop fuel cell technologies to maintain their edge as leaders of the hybrid car market. They even collaborated on the development of a car to compete directly with Porsche’s Cayman GT4.
- While Bank of America, BB&T, Capital One, JPMorgan Chase, PNC Bank, US Bank, Citi, and Wells Fargo all compete with one another for retail banking customers, they also participate in a joint venture, Zelle, which allows peer-to-peer, instant payments across banks.
Okay, but coopetition is hard. How do I make it work?
Companies who successfully leverage coopetition strategies hold a few key mindsets and follow a small set of best practices.
- The most strategic partnerships are almost always going to have some element of competition because the companies who can bring the biggest lift to the business are also the ones who could if they chose, be a major rival (or enable major rivals)
- Companies often lean toward getting a slice of the action across the entire addressable market than holding out for market domination because they have limited time and resources. So, if they aren’t going to be able to serve some customer segments better than anyone else immediately (or ever), why not partner with someone who is capable of going after those segments?
- Companies are not people, instead they are comprised of people. Two teams can be best friends, another two can be each other’s biggest rivals
- Actively explore how to preempt or respond to competitive threats by collaborating with competitors as done by 80% of companies who complete “a great deal” with their business partners
- Invest in a team of people who can build their skill in managing complex, strategic relationships and give them the authority and responsibility to facilitate tough dialogues between internal and external executives when competition in one area is making key collaborations challenging
- Establish a few tools and processes that help leaders make fact-based decisions by recognizing when their biases against or for competitors are clouding their judgment
Build, buy, or partner
Vantage Partners’ 2019 coopetition pulse survey found that on average, companies expect 52% of their success to come from leveraging external assets and capabilities through partnerships. Nonetheless, most companies make the decision of whether to partner or not in an ad hoc fashion. However, it is both possible and preferable to have a consistent, systematic approach to making the decision of whether to build, buy, invest, or partner.
When to build, buy, invest, or partner?
The best approach and processes have two components:
A set of decision-making criteria that enables companies to quickly assess not just whether a particular path is best, but also for what reason. We’ve included here an example from a financial services company. They start every evaluation meeting by having each person mark how they see this opportunity for each condition. They are able to then focus their discussions where there are disagreements, or gaps in information, or both.
Clear roles and responsibilities for providing input to, and ultimately making the decision. For some companies, roles for this decision are very similar to what is already outlined for investing in a new product or making an acquisition; though most companies need to make some modifications to ensure that each possible path is well considered by individuals with the right expertise and access to sufficient information about the opportunity and the market to provide informed input.
Additionally, companies that are successful at this make smart initial decisions and monitor the marketplace over time to ensure that decisions made yesterday are driving optimal outcomes today, and will enable further success tomorrow.
Consider the case of automotive manufacturers in the early 2010s and the pressing consumer demand for seamless integration of smartphones and vehicle infotainment systems. Initially, nearly every major automaker elected to build their own internal capability.
In the years that followed, J.D. Power’s reports cataloged complaints from consumers, as automakers’ homegrown systems failed to meet expectations. The technical aspects of integrating with devices proved enormously challenging for automakers. Meanwhile, big tech invested heavily in their own solutions.
As the decade wore on, big tech established viable alternatives to automakers’ internal products, seamless device integration evolved from a product feature to an absolute necessity, and automakers made the strategic decision to integrate with or rely solely on Apple, or Google, or both.
Business alliance strategies sit in the three to five year planning horizon. Any shorter, and there is not enough time to test the strategy and deliver results. Any longer and companies run the risk of failing to identify and address changes in the ecosystem that indicate that a different strategy would be more advantageous.
Comparing potential partners
The success or failure of any strategy lies not only in the strategy itself but also in its execution. Similarly, the success or failure of any partnership strategy lies not only in the strategy but in its coordinated execution by two or more companies.
So, what’s the first step to ensuring the successful execution of a strategy with a partner? Choosing wisely. In a cross-industry study, alliance professionals reported that 34% of partnership failure is a direct result of decisions made at this stage, either selecting the wrong partner or setting conditions that are not conducive to success, or both.
For many market opportunities, there are multiple partners who could fulfill the objectives of the collaboration. Choosing the best partner is challenging. Companies need to figure out what criteria to use, parse the likely outcomes with multiple companies and combinations of companies, and align internal stakeholders around a decision.
Not surprisingly, the companies who realize the best results from their partnerships utilize a systematic approach to making this decision.
Sometimes it makes sense to select a single partner, in certain other cases it is better to have a variety of partners to accomplish the same strategic goals. Before evaluating potential partners, executives need to evaluate what sorts of partnership strategies might make the most sense in this situation.
Here are some options:
Potential partner comparison
Once the right partnership strategy has been determined for the opportunity, companies can begin with comparing potential partner targets. A systematic, fact-based comparison of potential partners enables all stakeholders to articulate their views and focus discussion where there are differences of opinion.
Below is a Potential Partner Comparison Tool that many companies use to assess the relative capabilities and fit of each potential partner. It also assesses potential execution challenges and opportunities, given the reality of the companies involved (increasing the likelihood that once the partners are in “execution mode,” expectations are appropriately set and the right mechanisms have been put in place to manage any major challenges).
The tool examines five key dimensions of selection criteria:
- Solution fit: Indicates the strength of the company’s ability to fulfill the specific customer need
- Strategic fit: Indicates the extent to which partnering with the company helps achieve strategic objectives—while the purpose of this criterion is to determine the fit of a partner on a specific (near-term) opportunity, it is also important to consider longer-term strategic implications and opportunities of the partnership
- Operational fit: Indicates the strength of the company’s capabilities for performing the targeted partnering activity
- Financial viability: Indicates whether or not the potential partner meets specific requirements for viability, stability, and specifies overall financial risk in a partner
- Relational fit: Indicates how easy it will be to work with the company and deal with challenges; it informs how to execute the partnership
In the graphic above, the criteria are listed in order of importance. Solution fit, strategic fit, and operational fit are considered a critical dimension for partnership fit (i.e. should be weighted more significantly than all other criteria).
Financial viability is considered a stage gate and relational fit is used only as a tiebreaker when two or more partners are not well differentiated in the other categories.
Companies must assign a rating across these five categories:
- 1 = not a fit
- 2 = low fit
- 3 = moderate fit
- 4 = good fit
- 5 = strong fit
Once done, a conclusion can be stated about the potential for partnering, including strategic implications.
How to inform your potential partner ratings
How to acquire the information to assign a rating for a potential partner across these categories? Often, the information required is publicly available in press releases, annual reports, or industry reports; additionally, information may be sourced by consulting data stored within company CRM and other account management tools, as well as from employees’ general knowledge of the company.
All of this data can help inform ratings and the final ratings will depend on the judgments of internal stakeholders and decision makers. Using a potential partner comparison tool does not eliminate human judgment or biases, but it does do two critical things:
- Breaks opinions down to a level of concreteness that enables decision makers to quickly identify why they disagree and focus their discussion on areas of disagreement
- Creates a record of why the company is choosing a particular strategy, which can help maintain alignment and pivot later when new information becomes available
Human brains are naturally wired to process information in predictable ways and often in ways that are unhelpful. We call these tendencies cognitive biases and they are deeply ingrained. Below are two traps that companies may fall into when choosing a partnering strategy and some advice on how to combat each trap:
What it is
How companies may fall into it
What to do
|The mind gives disproportionate weight to the first information it receives||
Choosing to work with a current partner about whom there is readily available information and have had positive experiences working with them to-date
We seek out and focus on info consistent with our beliefs and ignore or discount info that is not
Screening out disconfirming data and focusing on information that confirms the initial hypothesis about which partner to work with, possibly in the interest of making a decision expediently or because of an overestimation of own abilities to make judgments
Defining joint solutions
Consider a company that has decided to build a new solution with another organization. Conceptually, the company and the partner agree on what each of them will bring to the table. Now, both partners need to define the solution and ascertain each company’s contribution at a deep enough level to negotiate a contract.
Start by anticipating execution challenges.
more alliance value is realized when execution challenges are well-managed
One aspect is guaranteed. During the duration of the contract, something meaningful will change. No one can accurately anticipate what will happen in the future, but the company and its partner can be positioned to pivot effectively.
Below are the most common execution challenges in joint development partnerships:
- Technical: The initial vision for how the solution will work doesn’t prove out and the teams struggle to find a new technical path forward.
- Stakeholder support: The company and its counterpart are still on board, but one or both partners struggle to get or maintain access to sufficient resources for development because the people who control those resources:
- Commercial model: As the product or go-to-market approach evolves, questions are raised about whether the initial commercial model (allocation of cost and revenue) is still appropriate. These questions then lead to decisions that hinder the success of the initiative (i.e., reducing development investment, deprioritizing marketing, explicitly or implicitly sending messages to Sales to focus on other things).
- Customer response: Initial customer response or sales do not meet the expectations of one or both companies, and the partners disagree about how to proceed.
- Business strategy: A new major problem or opportunity (independent of the partnership) make one company’s internal priorities shift. As a result, one of the partners no longer gets the mindshare, resourcing, or financial investment required to build the solution and get to market.
- Question the market potential of the joint solution
- Believe what’s being asked of them is not commensurate with what they, specifically, are getting back (low ROI vs. their goals and priorities)
Nearly every partnership we’ve worked with has experienced at least one of these challenges.
The best way to deal with them is to document the key assumptions about how the joint solution will be built, marketed, sold, and serviced so that when things change, it is easier to zero in on what might need to change in the plan and figure out how best to deal with it.
The things companies need to document fall into four buckets:
- Assets and investments (e.g., data, technology, manufacturing capacity)
- Product development capabilities
- Sales and marketing activities
- Product implementation and support activities
Assets and investments
Work backward from the outcomes that were expected to be delivered for clients to catalog current theories about the specific assets and investments that each company should contribute to the joint solution.
Keep in mind that the positive attributes of an individual asset should also be tempered with its market value and the availability of substitutes. The joint solution’s cumulative ability to meet customer needs defines its market worth, so unique contributions even if they provide small improvements, may be the key differentiator between the joint solution and a competitor’s offering.
Also, transparency into, or even rough estimates of each partner’s substantial investments required to support the joint solution can enable an on-the-merits conversation about compensation for those investments. In many cases, it will be more appropriate to address these items through front loading of revenues to one partner or one-time, lump-sum payments, rather than a change in the long-term revenue allocations.
Product development, sales and marketing, and product enablement
Map out all the activities related to product development, the sales cycle, and product enablement along with each partner’s relative role and contribution.
Document the high-level benefits and costs of each activity from both partners’ perspectives when working internally as this is the background that impacts what each company sees as an appropriate financial arrangement.
Some factors to consider include: the investment in time and resources that are made to do the work, the extent to which that work relies on unique capabilities of either partner (e.g. does one partner’s product development contribution depend on access to proprietary algorithms that are not easily duplicated or replaced?), and the residual benefits that accrue to each company because of the work they are doing (e.g. rights to IP that can be utilized for other purposes).
In some cases, these elements balance across the different components, having very little net impact on the right financial arrangement between the partners. In other cases, significant contributions from or significant ancillary benefits of work substantially affect how costs and revenues ought to be allocated.
Companies can often summarize the above items in a one to three page working document which is then filed away for future reference. If and when they run into roadblocks, this document can be used to quickly diagnose the root cause of the challenge. Has anything changed? If so, what are the implications? How can the company most efficiently align leaders on both sides around a new path forward?
Making alliance partnerships work
Alliance partnerships involve not only different organizations but also different individuals. The people at an organization and at the partners’ organization are the many touchpoints that enable or hinder alliance execution. Despite the best-laid plans and shared goals, differences as individuals and as organizations will conspire to hinder the ability to work together effectively.
That’s why success hinges on how differences are managed – whether within the organization or across the alliance with partners. So how to manage these differences and avoid the challenges of the most common approaches to collaboration?
Related: Want to know how to make alliances work? See how with Vantage Partners’ Mai-Tal Kennedy.
Common alliance partnership difficulties
Common approach: By jointly defining a strategy and a plan to execute against it, differences can be effectively sidelined.
Challenges of this common approach: Differences are, in many cases, the very reason for collaborating in the first place. Organizations entering partnerships do so with often vastly different strategies and with different organizational structures, processes, capabilities, and cultures. A focus on eliminating differences ignores the value that those differences can bring.
How might this common approach play out?: Consider the launch of the fictional partnership between Goliath National Bank (GNB) and FinanceIt. The large bank and small technology company agreed on a strategy and a high-level execution plan.
Immediately, GNB deployed its large project management function, which began requesting and frequently required tons of input from FinanceIt. The requests overwhelmed the small tech company’s project team, which was accustomed to and staffed for the fast pace of a technology startup versus the bureaucratic requirements of a large bank.
The project stalled before it really even started as the project team alternated between pushing back on GNB’s requests and diverting time from execution to pulling together information for GNB’s project managers. Despite the best-laid plans and partnership strategies, execution falls short if we focus on a strategy and a plan alone, and sideline the differences.
Improving the approach to alliance partnerships
A Better Approach: Focus on developing an effective working relationship that enables companies to appropriately leverage one another’s differences to most effectively execute joint and individual goals for the partnership.
Rather than exclusively focusing on executing the alliance’s business plan, pay attention to the working relationships that will enable it. Successful working relationships require more than clear decision-making lines or assigning responsibilities.
An effective and efficient alliance partnership also requires:
- Clear articulation and alignment on what the companies are trying to achieve by working together, both individually and jointly
- Joint leadership manifesting the commitment to the goals of the partnership and helping working teams to resolve the obstacles they encounter by refocusing on these goals
- Ongoing assessment and re-articulation of the alliance partnership as the best means to achieve those goals
The “secret sauce” of alliance partnerships – and personal ones – are made when we share a common commitment, yet clearly recognize and respect one another’s differences, both strengths, and areas of development.
On that basis, we can have the difficult conversations that inevitably arise as we work together and figure out with every new challenge how to play to each other’s strengths and obviate each’s challenges while we pursue the goals of the relationship.
Sunset agreements preserve relationships
“Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. Nothing is perfect.” – Japanese Wabi-Sabi proverb
Partnerships, successful or not, usually come to an end at some point. Whether driven by changes in strategy, shifts in the market, failure to realize an opportunity, or other reasons, partnership transitions can be painful and costly.
The following are a few insights from decades of work helping companies set up and close out their most strategic agreements.
Don’t just transition – transition to something better
Frequently, we hear some version of one the following from organizations that feel it is time to end a partnership:
- “We could do this better ourselves…”
- “We just don’t have the right partner…”
- “We shouldn’t be in this business…”
Any one of the above remarks may very well be true, or not.
Humans are hardwired to form affiliations and then to disproportionately attribute challenges and failures to the “other”. In partnerships, this hardwired tendency translates into many team members viewing underperformance as the direct result of actions or inactions by the partner company, rather than their own company.
Frustrations with a partner leads to questions about whether the partner company should be replaced by internal teams or a new partner.
Before dissolving the partnership, ensure that internal decision makers have fully considered what they want to do and why. This can help avoid either starting down the path of dissolution, only to have the partnership saved by a rogue executive, or making a costly change that the organization may regret later.
If you believe your company might be better off without any partner
Work through and document answers to the following questions:
- To what extent does the work we would be taking on align with our core competencies today? If this work does not align with our core competencies today, is it critical to develop these competencies to compete in the future (i.e., does our strategy tell us we need to have this as a core competency)?
- Will doing this alone in some way reduce the upside opportunity as we won’t be able to leverage our partner’s client base or brand?
- Considering transition costs and ramp-up investment, will doing this alone be more or less costly?
The big question here? Even if you could do it better, should you? If the answer is “no” or even “maybe not,” consider what other options exist.
If you believe a different partner might be better
Not every partnership works. We have certainly seen companies swap out partners to great advantage in the past.
In 2016, Costco, for example, ended a long-time customer rewards card partnership with American Express in favor of partnerships with Citi and Visa. Costco’s strategy focused on high volumes and low margins, called for rewards (e.g. 4% cashback on eligible gas purchases) which did not align with AmEx’s overall approach to the market. Despite some transition challenges, Costco’s relationship with Citi and Visa has contributed to considerable growth in the years since.
We have also seen companies change partners only to run into the same (or worse) problems than they had before.
For companies to make the best decision in this situation, an initial clarification about what is not working in the current partnership is recommended, and then they can evaluate whether it could get better with another partner. One way to do this is by documenting the thinking in the table below and then using it to facilitate discussion and alignment with internal decision-makers.
Extent of challenge with current partner
Likely extent of challenge with potential partner A
Rationale for expected improvement or decline
The big question here: even if you switched partners, would you really be better off? Again, if the answer is “no” or “maybe not,” consider what other options exist. Sometimes the best option is to have multiple partnerships, approaching the problem or opportunity from different angles.
If you believe it might be time to exit the business
Most companies are better equipped to determine whether to keep or exit a business (or product, or strategy) than they are to decide whether to transition to an internal-only approach or a new partner. Below is a simple framework to enable this strategic decision:
Engage in the conversation early
Like delivering bad news to a customer or in an employee performance review, the decision to end a partnership should not come as a surprise. If it does, they may have missed a big opportunity and have probably put themselves on a difficult path. In healthy partnerships, executives periodically get together to review performance, understand challenges, and provide teams with guidance about whether to address those challenges.
Through these decisions, changes in the market or within either company surface and the partners have an opportunity to identify how they might pivot, and if that would be worthwhile.
When partners become so disconnected that a decision to transition comes as a surprise, leaders at the other company often react negatively and take extreme actions to either save the partnership (which drains time and resources from both companies) or punish their former partner (sometimes with little benefit, or even extreme cost to themselves), or both.
The suggestion is not to explicitly inform the partner about the possibility of shutting down the partnership before an assessment is made or the implications of the decision are understood. Rather, we are suggesting that companies develop a communication strategy that involves early conversations with the partner where they can both gather useful information and lay the foundation for a future conversation about the transition.
Align internal stakeholders
Many times, we’ve seen a business unit or partnerships team get aligned on a decision to dissolve a partnership and start to do the messy work of dissolving only for some other executive to swoop in to save it. As in any change initiative, leaders of successful partnership transitions consider and communicate the why, what, and how of the transition, and effectively engage stakeholders to enable successful execution.
Assume there may arise the need to do business again
Whether with individual counterparts at the partner organization or some other business unit within that very same company, chances are high that while this is the end of the current business partnership, it may not be the end of the relationship, nor should it be. Treat all relationships as long-term ones and close out the partnership based on the problem at hand, not on the people.
While all partnerships inevitably come to an end, taking the above steps can help ensure transitions are for the better, are successful, and are handled in a way that leaves the door open for future collaboration, both between organizations and individuals.