Operations

No company exists as an island. As you build out your business and your brand, you may find it useful to develop partnerships that expand your ecosystem. Partnerships can take many forms—from product-related partnerships, where you’re building a product integration, to financial partnerships, where you’re growing a network for hiring and fundraising, to creative partnerships, where you’re aligning your brand with another brand for a (usually non-commercial) creative goal.

Though many early stage companies don’t form creative partnerships until they’re more established, we’ve found it valuable to think about this kind of partnership early on. If done right, creative partnerships can positively influence your brand, widen your audience, enrich your team, and spark new ideas.

Here are some of our learnings that can be applied to all types of partnerships, but particularly creative partnerships.

Why partner?

Partnerships can allow you to expand your vision into areas it might not naturally reach, which is useful especially if you don’t have a lot of brand recognition. For example, images are very important to my company, Neon, so we’ve chosen to align ourselves with a few different image-driven organizations in areas that our products don’t directly address—like human rights and art. We established these partnerships while our company was still quite small, which had the benefit of expanding our brand recognition while also broadening our community. We’ve met job candidates, future customers, and potential partners through our partners.

Another advantage of forming creative partnerships is that our entire team has benefitted. Talking about what our partners are doing and how we’re working with them really helps share the message with our team that we’re not just building products; we’re building a place that people come to do great work in an enriching, creative environment. When our office space hosted a pop-up art show with Bonhams, we not only got to unite two audiences that don’t frequently mix (art and tech), but our team’s perspective on our space was changed by experiencing new art in the office every day during the show.

How to Ignite

There are a number of ways to start drafting a list of potential partners. A few that have been most useful for my company include: identify messages you might want to share but don’t have the background or platform to; go to events that will allow you to get exposure to people thinking about issues in different ways; and think ahead about where you want the perception of your company to be in a few years.

One of the best ways to add to your potential partners list is by being open to ideas from anywhere. I experienced this firsthand when I attended a conference on technology and human rights at Carnegie Mellon a couple of years ago. It was there that I met Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS, an organization that trains citizen journalists to document and report human rights violations through video, images, and social media. Though I hadn’t attended the event with a specific agenda, right away it clicked for me that using our image technology for human rights is an interesting and important application and that WITNESS would be a great partner.

Tips and Tricks:

Devote time to managing your relationship

We’ve seen founders at early-stage companies afraid to approach a potential partner because they’re afraid their company isn’t big enough or, they won’t have time to manage a partnership. Like any relationship, partnerships need attention and take time to nurture. Despite this, it’s sometimes best to simply “jump in.” We’ve found that the earlier programs and structures like this are introduced, the more successful they are, because they can grow alongside the company. Think about the scope of partnership that will work for you at this moment and start there.

Communicate the “why”

Develop a shared vision for your partnership with your partner. Clearly identify the new ideas, materials, experiences you hope to generate through your partnership. Partnerships are much more likely to be successful when both parties are aligned on goals and purpose. Don’t be afraid to communicate these in clear language at the outset, and check in regularly to be sure you and your partner are still aligned.

Do it your own way

Partnerships can take many forms. Your partner can be someone you host public events with, someone you publish joint articles and blog posts with, someone you rely on for brainstorming new ideas.

Sophie Lebrecht

About the Author


Sophie Lebrecht


Sophie Lebrecht’s creative approach to entrepreneurship has been recognized by Fast Company, the World Economic Forum, and the National Science Foundation. As CEO and co-founder of Neon, Sophie and her team bring science and automation to the problem of finding engaging images online for media, sports, and marketers.