One of my colleagues just asked me: What’s the difference between a vendor relationship and a true business partnership? This is a vital question when any individual or firm is innovating, because when anyone is doing something truly new, it is impossible to pre-specify everything needed from a vendor — because you are busy creating something never seen before!

Of course there is a legal definition of a business partnership, but I’m interested in the broader idea of what creates a vibrant commercial affiliation. Five things came to my mind that differentiate a “vendor” from a “business partner”:

  1. Partnership has mutual vulnerability and risk sharing. Vendor relationships can be contracted to have this type of dependence, but usually they do not. Vendors often work to the letter of the agreement, but partners are willing to do what it takes to make the other party whole.
  2. Partnership means you work together to create new possibilities in the future. Usually, vendor relationships look backward — to what was, not what could be.
  3. Partnership means that you have a social as well as a commercial connection. In every partnership agreement I have been involved in, there is a mix of personal as well as commercial commitment to each other.
  4. Partnership means that you are willing to leave important things unspecified in the interests of flexibility, and due to trust. This may be the most important part from the point of view of innovating together. Those joint ventures or agreements that begin by fighting over the intellectual capital or products that will be created, rarely get off the ground.
  5. Perhaps most importantly partnership means that you live to the spirit of the agreement, not the letter of it.

Given the cynicism of the current media environment, and the speed with which business is transforming, those firms that are able to create true partnerships will get differential opportunity and customer longevity. Plus, it’s more fun.

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