This article runs in collaboration with Makan For Hope, a non-profit initiative by Asia Startup Network. The Makan For Hope Festival brings notable mentors and aspiring entrepreneurs in 30 meaningful virtual conversations over food from social enterprises to raise S$125,000 for Fei-Yue to support the children and seniors from low-income families.
Growth is usually the top business priority for early-stage entrepreneurs. To achieve growth, there are many different strategies and tactics and they would typically fall into one of three main categories – build, partner or buy.
That was the topic at the recent Makan For Hope Festival session hosted by Chris Yeo, Grab Financial Group’s Managing Director and Head of GrabPay and Head of Grab Ventures. Below are the key insights and takeaways from the session.
Your first option when it comes to implementing your growth strategy is to build it yourself. What build means is that you invest your company’s own resources and talent into expanding your in-house capabilities.
Your second option is a partnership. But before you pursue a partnership, it is helpful for one to understand the various types of partnerships. As shared by Yeo, partnership agreements can range from being purely commercial, partially commercial, to strategic partnerships.
And of course, we also have the ‘buy’ option that could either be a minority or majority investment, which the latter is effectively an acquisition.
Here is a framework shared by Yeo below, based on his experience at Grab:
- Proximity to core
One of the first things to consider when approaching the make-or-partner decision is whether the topic of partnering is more adjacent to your core business. Or is it more explorative?
- Required speed to launch
How quickly do you need this product or service up and running?
- Importance to having 100 per cent control in the new business
How valuable and important is it for you to own and retain control of a new business versus allowing a partner to co-lead in that business?
- Availability of the right partner at the right time
Has the right partner come along at the right time?
Well, this certainly requires exercising good judgement…
It is exciting when your first partnership opportunity with a big corporation presents itself. It means you have finally been noticed, though it might be also due to the fact that you pose a competitive threat to them.
One of the participants, Manuel Ho, founder and CEO of a chatbot startup, shared that careful due diligence revealed the key motive behind the partnership, the larger corporation intended to “pick their brains” and gain access to his team’s IP to solve their own problems.
With this in mind, here are three tips shared by Yeo in navigating the potential pitfalls for startups partnering with corporations.
Ensure you have a robust Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) in place
IP conflicts are a common regulatory challenge in startup-corporate partnerships. So before divulging your business idea or any data associated, it is critical to evaluate and determine the most valuable assets that you want to protect.
Next, you should ensure these assets are clearly outlined as “confidential” under an NDA which has been vetted by a lawyer. Whether you are part of a startup or advising one, it is important to take proactive steps to ensure a robust NDA is in place, especially for IP heavy startups.
How much data to disclose
After signing an NDA, whether it is mutual or unilateral, you should always be mindful that, as the disclosing party, the amount of data you disclose or as Yeo called it your “secret sauce”, is entirely up to your own discretion.
Data sharing agreements may also be necessary and similarly should be vetted by a lawyer. The rule of thumb is to disclose on a need-to-know basis.
Think about the future: Go in with a medium-term view of a partnership
Because startups are still in their nascent stages, changing course or pivoting is almost always bound to happen. The truth is that in such dynamic environments, it is hard to foresee that the partner you are considering today will still be right for you in the future.
So, the best approach is to evaluate the decision with a medium-term view towards the partnership. Even if you move on, sustaining contact with them could be useful, as you never know, they might be helpful to you down the road.
Common pain points
Large corporations might be excited and involved at the beginning, but can lose steam along the way. And for a startup, the clock is always ticking.
The last thing you want is to spend a significant amount of time cultivating a potential corporate partner and have it come to nought.
Another challenge raised in the session is that often, startups are taken aback by the level of complexity of corporate processes, which causes the process of corporate partnerships to be slow and tedious.
Summarising Yeo’s insights to “grease the wheels” and increase your chances for a successful partnership.
- Bring the partner into your cap table as a strategic investor
This is the most effective but probably the most expensive way to bring alignment to the partnership and ensure that the partner is invested.
- Build the relationship
Sometimes, cultural and inter-organisational asymmetries can lead to friction early in the process. Mutual understanding and flexibility on both sides are key to addressing such gaps early on.
- Engage with the right decision-makers
Often, the reason for corporate partnerships progressing slowly is that startups fail to engage with the key decision-makers within the corporation. Therefore, as a founder, it is imperative to be clear on who the key decision-makers are and ensure that your team is in contact with the main decision-makers.
- Be familiar with enterprise sales
As a founder, it is important to have a good grasp of the processes and strategies of enterprise sales, such as the corporate purchase process and partnership criteria on the partner’s side.
Buy: Thinking about merging or acquiring another company?
Your third option to scale your business is to acquire or merge with another business. According to Crunchbase, venture-backed startups are acquiring other startups at a record pace over the last decade.
But before you decide to jump into an M&A opportunity, it is important to ask yourself whether it is strategic in the first place.
Does an M&A fit your business’s objectives and strategies? Timing is another aspect to consider. Is it the right time to go about an M&A at your current state of operations?
If the answers are no, you should certainly reconsider your interest to pursue an M&A.
If you are thinking about or embarking on an M&A, here are a couple of questions to think about.
- Is the business attractive on a standalone basis?
- What are the synergistic opportunities?
- Will the founders or senior management team be able to fit well into your culture? Would you actually hire them on a standalone basis?
- Is there a clear line of sight for Post-merger Integration (PMI)?
- Is the price right?
When it comes to implementing your growth strategy, you typically have three options to reach your goal: build, partner, or acquire. Each has its own merits and downsides.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy so do your homework, tread carefully and ask the right questions to determine which option is the right one for you before you jump on the boat.
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