Contrary to conventional wisdom, small businesses are not condemned to be always at a disadvantage in their relations with large ones. They may have much to gain, provided they find a suitable mode of operation that avoids them finding themselves in competition when it comes to sharing the value created.
Under what conditions can both companies in a commercial partnership benefit fully and fairly? Until now, there has been something of a consensus on this issue: above all, the two companies in the partnership needed to be of equivalent size. As the profits from the partnership (development of new products, winning new markets, creation of additional income) are seen as a cake to be shared, they should be distributed according to the respective size and contributions of each partner. Seen from this point of view, an asymmetric partnership between a large company and an SME would most likely be less beneficial for the latter. Moreover, the literature on the subject generally stresses the risks for SMEs, which lack the weapons to defend themselves in this ‘coopetition’ relationship (cooperation-competition).
Complementarity rather than similarity
In opposition to this commonly-held idea, our study shows that on the contrary asymmetrical relationships offer opportunities for small businesses to innovate. This kind of relationship is virtually inevitable in the context of the globalized, ultra-competitive economy, where the most dangerous posture for a small company is to remain isolated. There are many examples of asymmetric partnerships, particularly in predominantly technological sectors, which have been found to be just as fruitful for “small” as for “large” companies. In many such cases, partners have been able to create relationships based on complementarity, which, in the end, is just as important as similarity.
This does not mean denying the risk of failure. The risk remains, but is far from insurmountable, as long as a strategy is devised to meet the challenges of this type of partnership: first, the difficulties of communication related to the differences in scale between the two structures (it’s rare for the head of an SME to have direct access to the Managing Director of a large company); and secondly, the differences in organizational structure and ways of working.
If the small business systematically approaches such a relationship with due respect for a number of basic rules, it increases the chance of a profitable outcome. To reach this conclusion, we analyzed a successful partnership between a small Spanish seafood company that wanted to extend the time it could conserve its shellfish and a large Italian company in the energy sector. From this case study, we developed a model that summarizes in three key steps the approach that a small business should follow to avoid the pitfalls generally associated with asymmetric partnerships.
Three basic steps
The first step requires the selection of only a small number of partners. An SME does not have the means to commit itself seriously to multiple partnerships with large companies because it lacks time, logistical organisation and resources. It therefore has every interest in building a lasting alliance with a partner whose strategic objectives are complementary to its own. In our case, the two companies had very different motivations for forming a relationship: whereas the SME sought a technological solution, the large company saw an opportunity to enter the Spanish market, in a sector where it was not previously present. There was therefore no question of sharing the profits of the partnership, as they were not the same for each partner.
The second step is the construction of a strong and committed relationship that offsets the imbalance between the two structures. This requires a serious commitment on the part of the SME, which must nominate a “champion” within the company, i.e. a privileged contact person, with sufficient clout in the organization, someone who is respected throughout the company and who is capable of defending the project and driving it forward in spite of any resistance and obstacles that may arise.
The third step is to develop proposals of mutual value. At the beginning of the partnership, the SME and the large company each pursue specific objectives. But once the project gets under way, some appear unattainable and others incompatible, while new ones appear. The important thing here is to find the appropriate balance between obstinacy and flexibility: to be able to hold firm to one’s positions while taking the partner and unforeseen events into account, and being prepared to rethink the initial objectives. This requires an ability to listen, an open mind, and knowing the partner, its objectives and its motivations.
100% benefit for each side
The success of this strategy clearly shows that there is no reason why an asymmetrical partnership should inevitably be less beneficial to the smaller partner. In our case study, each partner obtained 100% of what it was seeking, because they had expectations that were in no way mutually exclusive and because they were able to build their compatibility together. This new perception of asymmetry in a cooperative spirit, rather than as an unequal balance of power, opens new perspectives for the understanding and the management of relations between unequal partners.