If you’re searching for an innovative way to prosper in 2021, Marshall Atkinson reckons he has just the answer – and it’s probably not what you’re expecting

As we start the new year, every business owner the world over is looking for ways to make 2021 prosperous and significant. Will this article have the magic recipe? Quite possibly. I want to introduce you to a concept that you may have never considered: the power of collaboration. This means that you are not focused with a singular purpose on your own company, but you are partnering up with another entity to create something new. This article will explore some suggestions that, hopefully, will spark a few innovative ideas for you and your team to discuss.

A common interest

The key to this concept is to understand that somewhere out there, there is another business, in a completely different industry, which values the same customer base you do. You are not alone in your pursuit of these customers. I’ll bet right now you are thinking of a few instances where you know someone or a company that serves your same market. If you start noodling around with ideas and brainstorming, in a short amount of time you can probably come up with a strong list of potential collaboration partners. After all, you have a common interest. The customer.

Starter questions

Once you have one or more potential collaboration partners singled out, the next step is to get some discussion points together. Here are the questions that I would ask:

How can we collaborate together to solve the customer’s biggest problem?
What can we bundle together to save money?
How can we collaborate together online to expand our reach or offering?
Are there resources, technologies, materials, techniques, or ideas that we can put together to save time, money or labour, or to add value in some way?
What is your biggest challenge in serving this customer?

The only way you can get down to brass tacks with a potential partner is to openly discuss the struggle. Tee up a Zoom meeting or phone call and get that discovery conversation out of the way.

Strategic benefits

There are many ways this could work, and not all of them centred on creating a new product or innovation. Simply forming a mutually beneficial alliance is a great way to start:

Create a webinar series to help educate the customers in your marketplace.
Start a new podcast.
Build out a virtual or in-person trade show.
Advertise together.
Co-brand something and sell something new.
Redirect business to one another’s website with an affiliate link.
Have sales people travel and present together.
Create a mastermind group with even more collaborators!
Each gets ‘certified’ by the other company, and starts offering their products too.
Sharing supply chain, fulfilment, shipping, and other services. Reduce your costs.
Share knowledge, contacts, and information on the customer segment.
Put together a referral programme.

Where to begin?

So, let’s say that you have identified a potential collaboration partner and you both want to start doing something together. Congratulations! Now, as they say, the devil is in the details. To get past some awkwardness and potentially hazardous circumstances, it’s best to iron out the details. Here are some thoughts to get you started.

Seek clarity

It is crucial that you begin your partnership with specific clarity regarding the purpose and mission of working together. We all want to know ‘what success looks like’ and it is important to nail that down. Set benchmarks, goals, assignments, and what you need for accountability. Yet, as we are focused on the prize, it is just as important to discuss the downside of the collaboration. What if it doesn’t work? Who owns what share of the cost?

You need to know what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for in the collaboration. Be open and honest with your partner on this. Don’t say, “We’ll figure it out later.” When ‘later’ comes and everyone is in disagreement about what was supposed to happen, emotions and stress are high… that’s the wrong time to try to get back to square one on responsibilities. Figure it out now.

Written agreements

After a discussion, make sure you write everything down and draw up an agreement. Outline deliverables, timelines, responsibilities, costs, and other details. Take a hard look at how money is being handled. Whether it is a cost, profit, or a loss… what happens? If it is not on paper, it is not going to happen. Make sure you include a list of people, their duties, and action deliverables with calendar dates assigned to them if you are able to. This is a new journey, and you want to start by mapping things out. What are the key benchmarks to hit? What are the danger areas to avoid? Make a list of the goals and achievements that you are trying to create.

Active listening

Ideally, both you and your collaboration partner are in different segments of the same marketplace. This means that you are both experts at what you do. You need to get to know your collaboration partner. Talk to them and listen to what they are saying. You may find that you are in complete agreement with them on most things, but on a few topics you may have completely opposite approaches.

What if this gap is about cashflow? How to handle a customer service problem? Or marketing techniques? Maybe it is about key responsibilities and timelines for the work that is needed? It is vital that you actively listen and come to an agreement on these points. It won’t always be smooth sailing. Eventually there will be a challenge that you both will have to overcome. Do you have a process for that? Talk about this now.

The key ingredient

To sum up, I would like to stress that the key ingredient to making an amazing collaboration with another person or business is ‘action’. Lots of people talk about ideas. Actually doing them is something different entirely. When you and your collaborator get together to foster and develop a new idea, that action step moving forward is the magic. You are not going to know fully where that road might take you. But the exploration and discovery of the possibilities are the reason for starting. Don’t just talk about it, do it!

These days, because of the pandemic slump we are all facing, working together to develop something new and having a collaboration partner that is just as interested in success as you are just might be the ticket to you both having a fantastic 2021. What are you waiting for? Jump in!

Marshall Atkinson

Marshall Atkinson is a production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting and co-founder of Shirt Lab, a sales and marketing education company, with Tom Rauen. He focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability.