One of the most frustrating aspects of startup life is the vendor startup relationship. There are so many pitfalls and disasters that can befall each side. That naturally leads to a lot of dysfunctions as each optimizes for their own needs, a process that unwittingly leads to the disasters we sought to avoid in the first place by trying to prevent issues.
From a startup’s perspective there are two key issues. Established businesses tend to be slow moving. They are slow moving as they have process and documentation. Nothing is more frustrating to a startup than needing a nimble partner that can throw shit at the wall only to get a meticulous vendor that documents all the shit that didn’t work in exacting detail. This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t report (in a remote first culture documentation is even more crucial) but 40 page decks on what happened will send a founder running.
From a vendor perspective startups are frustrating because they never have any of the assets, documentation or processes in place that make your job possible. Anyone who has become embroiled in a mess of half functional SaaS operation software knows what I mean. How are you supposed to deliver on a contract when all the basics you need from a startup are impossible to locate and occasionally contradictory?
The tension between the two workflows is clear. Especially because startups eventually become more process driven and operationalized over time and vendors are always looking for ways to become more nimble and cost efficient. So you’ve got two parties who want to become more like the other, but as they do that risks upsetting the partner that chose them for the opposite virtues. If this were a romantic relationship it would be heading for a breakup. “You’ve changed man!”
My best advice to vendors is to be as flexible as possible with startup clients. The faster you provide an output the more likely it is that the founder will come to rely on you. Most successful startup vendors simply roll up their sleeves and start producing. They don’t scope in too much detail or negotiate contracts that lock them in, no, successful startup vendors know they give themselves security and contract stability simply by giving a founder what they need every day. As you find more needs you act on it. You stay flexible till suddenly you’ve become the crucial partner that gets budget every quarter. As a startup grows becoming the indispensable partner means that you grow along with it. Your goal should be to have your client succeed at the same pace that you are succeeding.
My best advice to founders is to allow your vendors best traits to rub off on you. Paying attention to their competencies allows you to build up teams that support that. That then enables your vendors to perform even better for you as the fluency on expertise develops. Great marketing teams don’t just produce great marketing in-house but rather they allow it to flourish in the entire ecosystem. There is a reason why CMOs have winning agencies and winning agencies have great brands. The truth is that you will always get the most out of your vendors if you respect what they excel at and spend your time and money prioritizing that support.
The danger if you don’t make productive vendor startup relationships is two fold. One startups will waste valuable capital with a partner that was never a good fit. Two vendors will waste billable hours and employee energy on accounts that have a high probability of imploding. It’s a waste of money for both sides. But when it works well lol it’s absolutely money.