The path to success at my start-up was product. We sold automotive products to consumers but didn’t want to buy lots of inventory. (In fact, we couldn’t.) We needed to work with manufacturers and distributors to sell their inventory in their warehouse infrastructure. We knew who the big, established players were—the ones who had the best inventory—but they wouldn’t work with us. No return phone calls, no responses to emails. They had enough business to keep them busy and didn’t want to bother with some pesky start-up.
Realizing we needed to work with partners who needed us, I went to the other end of the spectrum. I found the suppliers who didn’t have as much business and hadn’t adapted to the changing times. Those players embraced us with open arms. We learned from them, and they learned from us. Testing until we identified the optimal way to work with them, we built software to systematize and add scalability. And we provided them with reports detailing where their operations fell short of our expectations so they could improve.
We gained a solid reputation with customers and early suppliers. When we again approached the established players, they were eager to work with us. What had changed? We were no longer an unknown entity doing things differently. We had some street cred. They’d consistently heard great things about us and knew we were growing quickly. By the time our paths crossed again, they knew they needed to work with us because of the weight of the momentum we’d built in the industry. Negotiations with them were easier, too, because other suppliers had told them what they’d negotiated with us.
We ended up winning by thinking like a cheetah: we went after the slower, weaker players in our space first.
If you’re a founder trying to get something off the ground and need others to play ball, consider thinking like a cheetah. (But remember that your objective is different—your goal will be to find someone willing to work cooperatively with you, not someone to eat for lunch!)