For any small business, one of the most critical ingredients for growth is partners. The right suppliers, distributors, retailers, and specialists can broaden your reach and capabilities. But winning over established companies is a major challenge for small companies, especially newer ones. “You have to prove you’re for real,” says Ian Rosenberger, the CEO of five-year-old Thread International.
A former MTV host and founder of a video production company, he traveled to Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake and started Thread, a fabric company with an ambitious social mission. The business turns that country’s abundant plastic trash into what Rosenberger calls “the most responsible fabric on the planet,” boosting the local economy with new jobs and revenue.
Thread is convincing apparel giants, fabric manufacturers, VCs, and others to take a chance on a promising unknown. Here, Rosenberger shares with Spark Business IQ his keys to landing strategic partners.
1. Know when to stop developing and start selling
The turning point is when you know someone wants your product. Until then, you keep developing and developing, and all the talk about your selling message and PR is just talk.
One of the best pieces of advice I got on this was from someone at a big denim company who said, “I can make the most environmentally responsible denim on the planet. But if their ass doesn’t look good in the jeans, people aren’t going to buy it.” That’s it: If you have a great product, you’ll attract customers.
And that’s where we are. We know we have a product worth selling. So 80 percent of our time now is spent getting in front of customers, and 20 percent is spent developing new things that will make us attractive to the customers we’ll have three years from now.
2. Earn credibility one test at a time
In the beginning, everybody wants to know, “Can you deliver what you say you can deliver?” For us, it’s making a fabric that’s as good as we say it is. The last question we get is always, “How many employees do you have?” When we tell them, their response is, “No way. We’re a $500 million company. How can a company with five people do this?”
There’s a great deal of having to jump through hoops and over bars and go above and beyond what you’d normally do. Companies are holding you to a higher standard. When there’s a deadline, we hit it or deliver early. If there’s a quality issue, we respond in a way that makes the experience better than if there had been no issue at all. They realize we’re in it to win.
3. Understand what matters to your partners
You know that saying: There’s speed, quality, and price, and if you win on two of those, you get the business every time. We’ll buy what a company is currently using, take it apart, and do a life-cycle analysis on the social and environmental impact. We make comparison cards to show that if you replace your fabric with ours, here’s how it’s better in CO2, water, pesticides, and the economic impact on a community. At times, we’ve also unearthed how we’re cheaper than the organic cotton they’re using. That changes the conversation. They see the substance we bring. It’s not about hugs and rainbows.
4. Give companies something they can’t get elsewhere
The fabric is what sells our client, but the data and the content we supply is what makes us sticky. I can go to a company that’s not used to looking at textiles this way. They’re used to this or that spec. I’ll say in addition to that, we’ll introduce you and your customers to the people whose lives are changed in our supply chain. That makes the social and economic impact real. One of the biggest problems for big brands is helping them find ways to be authentic even though they’re enormous.
5. Set your sales priorities
I can spend all my time selling to big fish. Those are much quicker deals. But if I’m only doing that, I’m not selling to whales. I’m not building the value of the company. Because if we’re not doing a million yards of fabric, what impact are we having? So we have a two-whale strategy. That’s what makes me optimistic. We only need a couple.
It takes time. One company that we’re working with started in May 2014. They gave us a couple of hard turnaround times to see if we could handle it. We did. Then it was focus groups with their customers to see if our product resonated well. And it did. Then you move into actual production for next season and hope to really hit the gas in 2017. That’s a whale.
Ian Rosenberger is the CEO of Thread
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