For an entrepreneur, the idea of taking your innovation and sharing it with someone else—let alone a large corporation—can be an intimidating, if not daunting, task. Which company would be the best partner? How do you ensure you’re protected from a legal perspective? How will you benefit? If your goals are to take your product or technology to the next level, speed its time to market and grow its distribution to have a national or even global reach, then you may find value in exploring a partnership with a larger company.
There are several variables to consider when venturing into this type of partnership. Based on General Mills’ experience in working on a wide range of projects with partners of all sizes, we have identified the following nine tips for entrepreneurs seeking to develop a successful partnership with a larger company. Follow these guidelines to help you connect.
Nine Tips for Entrepreneurs
1. Create a differentiated opportunity. Articulate the unique and proprietary aspects of your product. How is it different and how is it better than anything on the market? Is there an opportunity to be first to market with a breakthrough new product? Explaining the unique benefits of your innovation up front will give the company a reason to take a closer look at your proposal.
2. Test your innovation. Develop a pedigree for the product. You will be ahead of the game if you are able to get your innovation into the hands of its end user. This will allow you to speak to the in-market performance and the consumer or retailer reaction. Some of our partners, for example, came to us with insights from selling their products on the Internet, in small regional grocery chains or on college campuses. That learning can go a long way toward helping a company understand the unique consumer benefits of your product. Fine-tune your presentation.
3. Be selective. Focus on your lead candidate and avoid courting multiple partners at once. A company wants to know you are committed and willing to work together to ensure that the opportunity will produce competitive advantages in the marketplace. And remember, most companies want to create relationships for the long term. Take the time and do it right.
4. Find a contact to be your champion. Navigating the politics and processes of a large corporation can be challenging. Having a tour guide is very helpful. Whether it is through a team dedicated to fielding external inquiries or a marketing contact, determining the correct point of entry into an organization is key.
5. Do your homework on the potential partner. Use available public information to educate yourself on your potential partner’s lines of business, key strategies, industry and competitors. You should also familiarize yourself with the economics of the industry so you are well versed in the financials before getting into any conversations about important details such as licensing fees.
6. Connect the dots. Make the connection between your proposed innovation and the company’s business model and brand. For which product platform or division do you envision it to be a good fit? How would this help the company’s bottom line? Develop your pitch.
7. Demonstrate you can deliver. Describe your team’s experience in the industry. Prove that your product is scalable to the volume demands of the partner’s business. Have any claims you make about the product validated (e.g., health claims), and be sure to speak to the company’s priorities. And if you do not have the expertise in a certain area—manufacturing, safety, etc.—don’t be afraid to tap outside consultants to develop those capabilities within your operation. Develop connections.
8. Have a business model in mind. Communicate the type of opportunity you are looking for, but stay flexible. Oftentimes, it makes the most sense to start with a smaller opportunity and then grow that into a broader, deeper partnership. Focus and fine-tune.
9. Part on good terms. If either or both companies in the partnership decide to pass on an opportunity, walk away gracefully and leave the door open to future collaborations. Often it is just a matter of timing—the best opportunity for collaboration may not be the first proposal, so maintaining rapport is an important element of eventual success.
Open innovation is an emerging trend, so be on the lookout for opportunities to grow your business through this type of joint venture. Regardless of whether you are in the food industry or another trade, stay mindful of the above suggestions and you will be well prepared to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with another company.•
Peter Erickson is senior vice president of innovation, technology and quality for General Mills. As the head of General Mills’ innovation and technology organization, Mr. Erickson is responsible for the invention and commercialization of new food products and technologies that can help in nourishing the lives of its consumers by providing increasingly higher levels of health, taste and convenience. Mr. Erickson’s responsibility for the General Mills quality organization is focused on delivering brands that its consumers can trust and value through its global leadership in consumer and product safety.
Mr. Erickson has been employed by General Mills for the past 19 years. Prior to that, he worked in product development as a senior food scientist at General Foods Corporation in White Plains, N.Y. Mr. Erickson received both B.S. and M.S. degrees in food science at the University of Massachusetts, where he continues to serve as a member of the university’s food science external advisory board.
Headquartered in Minneapolis, General Mills is a leading global manufacturer and marketer of consumer foods products with significant operations located around the world. Its global brand portfolio includes Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Häagen-Dazs, Cheerios and more. In the United States, General Mills consumer brands are sold in every section of the retail grocery store, with a No. 1 or No. 2 leading share position in nearly every food category in which it competes. General Mills also is a leading supplier of baking and other food products to the foodservice and commercial baking industries.