Business partnerships are valuable for companies of any size. However, for small businesses, forging alliances is an important way to compete with big business. Strategic partnerships can be a pivotal factor for growth and success, and a win for everyone involved. A partner can provide capital, give your brand more exposure or help you gain additional work by offering services you don’t (perhaps while you build them for yourself).

You can simplify the process of finding business partners by looking first in your own backyard. Look to your customers, vendors and suppliers—these are folks you already know and that means you also know the strengths (and potential weaknesses) in their products, services and marketing. You’ll want to figure out what you can offer another business and then target companies that can fill a need of yours.  Look for a partner that wants more than a this-for-that relationship, but instead wants a relationship that lasts over time. That way not only will your needs be a complementary match, but your long-term visions and corporate cultures will be aligned as well.

Seeking partners who are experts in an area where you need help will free you up to focus on activities that keep your business running.

Once you find a partner (or partners), keep these tips in mind:

Build a foundation of trust.

Successful partnerships of any kind need trust to succeed. When you are in talks with other companies be honest about your own weaknesses and gaps. It will prevent you from putting together a partnership in which you wind up offering more than you can successfully take on. This can happen when you are especially passionate about your product, service or idea. You want to do whatever you can to move it forward, which is understandable, but don’t mischaracterize or misrepresent your firm’s positives and negatives. Moving forward will be much less complicated if both of you are honest.

Establish clear objectives.

Making sure all parties are on the same page greatly improves your chances of a good outcome. It also gives you benchmarks for measuring a project’s success. You and your partner should have a solid understanding of each of your goals (that work in unison) and the path you’re taking to get there.  

Assess your resources.

If you’re going to enter into a partnership with another business you should have the resources necessary for a partnership. This isn’t just about money, but also people, leadership, time and energy to fulfill the obligations you make to another company. If you’re not in a place where you can hold up your end of the bargain, you shouldn’t take the risk. The outcomes will be negative for your business and your reputation.

Put everything in writing.

Because the market is a fluid place, anything can happen to change a partnership. Whether that’s the way it will work, the responsibilities of one party or the other, the amount of time something is going to take versus what you thought it would take and so on, having it all written down—and keeping that agreement current—is critical. It gives you a record of everything discussed and decided and lends clarity to the communication process.  You’ll also want to make sure the partnership is structured in a way that allows you to maintain control over your company—you generally don’t want to grant exclusivity of any kind to another company.

Do a test run.

When the partnership is beginning to come together, that might be a good time to do a small test run on a single project. Going slow, rather than jumping in feet first, will enable you to address any problems that arise long before they become big issues.  

Don’t limit your business.

Many small businesses that have successfully leveraged partnerships often have more than one, and each is a bit different and serves a different need. When these multiple partnerships work, you wind up with a network of partnerships that benefits everyone involved (including customers).

The best partnerships are the ones where goals, cultures and visions align, and that can put your small business on the map in a big, big way.