August 3, 2022 | 7 minutes read

11 Tips for Effective Design Partnerships

How to build, manage, and succeed with early-stage design partners

  • #pmf
  • #design partners
  • #design partnerships
  • #early stage
Saul Levin
Investor at Entrée Capital
Eli Dubnov
Investor at Entrée Capital

Design partners are at the intersection of theory and reality, where an idea meets the real world. Good design partners help you go from the idea of your product to actually understanding the need of your client/customer and enable you to make the adjustments necessary to meet your final user. 

So, here are some tips for those of you that are in the early-stages of building design partnerships. They were compiled based on advice from investors, founders, and design partners:

Build practical goals

Before you even begin, clearly define what you want to get out of a design partnership, and know how to answer “what does success look like?”. Are you looking to get to MVP (Minimum Viable Product)? Do you want feedback about a specific feature/product? Are you trying to understand willingness to pay? Define your success criteria and how you plan to get there. And remember, timing is key; ensure that both you and your potential partners understand what you want to get out of it, and how long it should take.

Choose the right type of design partner

It’s important to understand the difference between “design partner” and “distribution partner”. Know that the purpose of design partnerships is to hone in on the GTM (go to market), understand how to sell your product, messaging, features pricing and more –  BEYOND just first revenues. When qualifying your design partner, ask yourself: do they have an urgent need, do they have a generic use case, do they require specific integrations, do they have a willingness to pay, are they a good representation of your “typical client”? This will help you build effective KPI’s and obtain the feedback that you need. For some of your early needs, you might not even need a full-fledged design partnership and can instead use expert networks (like GLG) to reach potential customers and industry experts for specific insights. 

Choose the right champion

Effective design partnerships depend a lot on who you have as the champion in the organization. The desire to help, the effectiveness of the feedback, and even the payment for your product depends on your champion. Remember: unique channels and personalized messages = increased conversion. For example, instead of cold calls explaining that your product can help them get leads, reach out with an actual list of the leads that you can give. Keep in mind that their role within the company also matters. For example, your product may solve the pains of two different champions in the same company, but only one of them may be your target client, have a bigger budget or less restrictions, and will be more willing to take that first jump with you. Map this out ahead of time. 

Value = paying customers

Ideally, design partners show you “love” in dollars; words are not enough. If they don’t want to use your product after their time as the design partner and they’re not willing to pay for it, it most likely means you’re not providing them enough value. In order to prove value you need to first understand your partner’s motivation for being there; they’ll work with you because you are solving a pain, and not to do you a favor. Obtain constant feedback from your design partner about the process. Are they receiving the value they expect? If not, maybe you’ve pitched your product wrong to them in the first place? Maybe you’re promising things you can’t deliver? Maybe you need to rethink what you perceive as your value. Be ready to prove at least 80% of the value that you plan to offer right from the start, because without proving this value, the partnership won’t be effective and won’t convert. 

Big logos aren’t always best

While you might find it nice to say that a certain well-known company is your design partner, larger (and often public) companies might mean longer integration, less attention and feedback, more security and compliance requirements, a longer time to convert, and a more complex procurement process. Even if your champion in the company may really want to work with you, sometimes there is just too much red tape. If you’re frustrated by this, know that more than 60% of startups have other smaller early-stage startups as their first design partners; often it works better and you’ll most likely already have the connections to them – but understand the risks. If you’re not selling specifically to startups, having them as design partners may not be the most ideal. In general, keep in mind that your design partner has to be “your typical client” in terms of size, geography, buyer/user, etc. 

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

You don’t want to have only 1 or 2 design partners partnering with you. The best practice is to have 5-8 design partners involved. Effective partnerships include diverse voices; you don’t want only one point of feedback or else you might find yourself answering a need that is specific to one company. Only start implementing feedback once you have validated it and have heard it repeated by various design partners. 

Let go of your assumptions

Take a quick play from the service industry: the client is always right. Regardless of your initial theory of what they’d want, adapt quickly to your design partner’s needs and pains. And when it comes to implementing the feedback, it is helpful to have an unbiased person involved (think investor or someone on your team not directly involved) as you might have biases that you may be unaware of (it’s your baby after all) and you might be unwilling to make the changes that you really should be making. If you are not sure that the client is right, get more clients to validate.

End bad design partnerships 

If throughout the design partnership you find out that the needs and demands of your design partner aren’t in line with your actual “potential clients/solution”, don’t waste your time. If you are not gaining any new insights from the partnership, know when to stop it and don’t be afraid to tell them that it’s not working for you.

Make your onboarding frictionless

One of the most often mentioned excuses for why larger companies don’t want to do design partnerships with early-stage startups is because of the complexity of onboarding a new product. So, once you’ve got your champion, don’t piss them off by having to hop on a call every few days to explain how to onboard your solution. If relevant, make it self-service as much as possible right from the start. Think: APIs, plug-ins, Chrome extensions, etc.

Offer services vs. product in procurement process

As part of the procurement process, offering your solution as a service rather than a product will be easier for enterprise design partners to agree to. (Ex: Sell your product as an add-on service from another company that is already in contract with the design partner). Even more so, if they can pay for your “service” via credit card, it would be a lot easier to convert them to a paying partner and would be an easy way to avoid all the red-tape mentioned in the “big logos” section above. 

Go beyond Zoom

Real relationships are important. Yes, there have been multi-million dollar deals signed without a face-to-face meeting, but if you want to gain as much value as possible from your design partner, don’t just do Zoom. Going physically to meet with your users/clients/partners can bring out many insights that may have been overlooked while behind a computer screen. 

Are you building something and know you’ll be looking for the right design partners? Reach out to us.