4 Secrets to Snagging Lucrative Brand Partnerships as a Startup

August 14th, 2015   |    By: Aleda Schaffer

When Postmates founder Bastian Lehmann introduced himself to Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber turned on his heel and uttered the now-infamous words, “See you in the trenches.”

On the surface, the Silicon Valley feud seems misplaced: Postmates is a logistics company that connects couriers and consumers, and Uber’s bread and butter is transportation for humans.

But Uber has been trying to establish its own competing delivery service, and both companies are using big brands to fuel their explosive growth. Uber has partnered with the NFL, Capital One, and Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Postmates recently inked deals with Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald’s, and Apple.

Pursuing big brands has been a smart way for Uber to expose more users to its service and for Postmates to gain brand recognition and credibility. In fact, partnering with large brands can be worthwhile for just about any startup. It can mean the difference between fighting for every inch of new business and gaining a pool of big-name clients that lend a host of incredible benefits.

Here are just a few that make brand partnerships worth pursuing:

  • Greater exposure: Big brands often have access to distribution channels startups can only dream of, which can expose your startup to a much larger customer base.

For example, Etsy has forged partnerships with retailers such as Nordstrom, Anthropologie, and Whole Foods Market to capture a share of the substantial sales that still happen in brick-and-mortar stores. It’s also using its Etsy Wholesale platform to show proof of scalability for a select group of sellers.

  • More revenue: Cash is king for startups. Luckily, big brands often bring a large volume of work your way, which can give your business a much-needed injection of revenue.
  • Valuable insights and feedback: When your startup is your life, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and miss out on opportunities to improve your offering. Working closely with a big brand can provide priceless feedback on ways you can improve your product for future customers.
  • Added credibility: The adage “fail fast; fail often” may be good for the entrepreneur’s soul, but it doesn’t do much to boost credibility. Nine out of 10 startups fail, so it’s often hard to convince potential customers, partners, and investors that your business will be around next year.

Working with an established brand is a great way to demonstrate the value of your offering and convince others that your startup is here to stay. For instance, when Starbucks partnered with Postmates to deliver lattes and macchiatos, Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Apple hopped on board soon after.

  • A foot in the door: If you start with a small pilot project, deliver on what you promise, and continue to add value for the brand, that project can morph into a more substantial relationship or even an acquisition.

When we opened applications for flight attendants for the first time in 12 years, we partnered with HarQen to streamline the recruitment process. The company’s solution helped us avoid scheduling hassles during the initial phone interviews and helped recruiters assess critical skills objectively and efficiently. Word spread quickly about how well its product worked, and soon, other departments wanted to use HarQen for their hiring needs.

How to Win Over Big Brands

Partnerships with big brands can be tough to land because so many startups are going after those same companies. But there are a few steps you can take to capture a brand’s attention and build a partnership that flourishes:

  • Choose the perfect fit. Don’t try to partner with a big brand just for the sake of name recognition. It’s absolutely crucial to choose a company that’s aligned with your startup’s values and could benefit from your products or services.
  • Offer a solution that fulfills the brand’s needs. When a brand is getting ready to launch a new product, expand into a new city, or undergo a massive hiring spree, it’s more likely to be receptive to products and services that can ease those transitions. If you understand what’s important to the brand, you can tailor your pitch to position your company as the best solution to help the brand achieve its goals.

For instance, when we received 22,000 applications for 2,500 flight attendant positions within a week, partnering with HarQen seemed like a no-brainer to speed up the process, reduce costs, and improve the quality of hires.

  • Provide assurance around customer data. With the glut of big-name data breaches in the news, cyber attacks are a major concern for companies. Make sure your startup is backed by state-of-the-art security, and allow the brand to retain ownership of customer data.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Startups pride themselves on being fast and nimble, so they often say, “Yes, we can!” — even when the requested feature doesn’t exist yet. While going the extra mile to deliver exactly what the brand needs will work in your favor, making promises you can’t keep will not. Before you take on a brand’s business, make sure you have the bandwidth to deliver on your promises.

Partnering with a big brand takes a lot of work, but if you succeed, it can be a game changer for your startup. With a little patience, a discerning eye, and a knack for understanding what the brand needs, you can win big-name business and all the fringe benefits that go along with it.


About the Author

Aleda Schaffer is a strategic partnerships manager at American Airlines. Her team is focused on helping businesses through American Airlines’ Business Extra program, which is a complimentary business travel rewards and incentive program designed to help small and mid-sized companies reduce their travel costs.


About the Author

Aleda Schaffer

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