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10 top tips for securing a successful partnership

Sonic Editions founder Russell Blackmore explains how partnering with a big business can benefit your start-up

When starting my online business, partnerships played a crucial role in helping to drive customers to the website.

Perhaps just as importantly, they helped us to establish the brand with consumers – by tying it to brands which they already trust.

Get it right, and forming a partnership can be the difference between sink and swim for a fledgling start-up. Here are my top tips for generating the types of partnerships that will kickstart your business:

1. Be bold

Get on the phone and use social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn to contact every useful party you (even vaguely) know. Then ask them to put you in touch with the right point of contact.

Once in contact, get a face-to-face meeting booked in. You can laugh off all the stalking and haranguing afterwards, but it's vital to get in front of them and have that meeting.

2. What is in it for them?

You can have the best idea in the world, but you have to be able to put your finger on why this is useful to your potential partner – else why would they say yes?

3. Make sure their brand is a good fit for yours (and vice versa!)

Big brands get every shyster in the world pitching them a chain of themed bars, energy drinks, novelty iPhone jewellery and so on. Ensure that both brands fit together, without cheapening either.

My firm Sonic Editions, for example, specialises in rare photographic prints of musical icons from the past 50 years. NME and Rough Trade are some of the most respected and established brands in music and a perfect mutual fit for my business.

4. Be realistic

You are probably not going to make them £5m in year one – so do not promise it.

Yes, you have to look interesting, but grossly exaggerating just to get them salivating will lead to instant disappointment when the promised returns don't arrive. It dooms the partnership from the start.

5. Be a pioneer

The benefit of being small is that you can do things that bigger businesses cannot.

You have lower overheads, are much more flexible, and can carve out a niche that would be difficult for big businesses to do quickly.

You might feel like that canary down the mineshaft. But, if you get it right, you will stand to benefit in the long term.

6. Make your partner's life easier

When I worked for large companies, the thing I liked about our smaller partners was that they were easy to deal with.

Smaller businesses are like birds that sit on the back of a rhino. Pick their ticks, but do not piss off your meal ticket.

7. Go west

Partnerships have helped my business to expand internationally far quicker than we would have been able to otherwise.

We work with flash sale websites like West Wing in Germany and Gilt in the US to help establish the brand in international markets.

8. Partnerships beget partnerships

The great virtuous circle of successful partnerships is that, by establishing them, you make it easier to establish more.

My business now has a working model with successful magazines, such as NME and Uncut. We can take that to numerous other publications and become a multiple niche operator.

9. Avoid the banks

One partnership that I would advise against is with your high street bank.

Unless you are Sir Phillip Green, they are unlikely to lend you money without demanding the deeds to your house and charging interest that will make blush.

10. Know when to say ‘no'

We might be the smaller guys in these partnerships but don't lose sight of the fact that you are aiming to make money and establish a viable business.

I have heard countless horror stories of small companies who have established a partnership with a retail giant, who has promised to establish them nationally in one shot. Unfortunately, they mistook publicity for profit and struck up a deal so bad that they were losing money – and had tied up gigantic amounts of capital, which for most start-ups is a precious resource.

We have turned down partnerships with massive companies that seemed too good to be true. Once we had taken the stars from our eyes, we realised that they were deals that would probably kill us.

Russell Blackmore founded Sonic Editions in 2010 – an online start-up which aims to democratise the fine art photography business. Each print is hand-framed and individually numbered, with the photographer's name and the story behind the image inscribed on the back – to allow owners to understand the story behind the photo.


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