Douro Boys is a group of five independent wineries in the Douro River Valley in Portugal that built an alliance network after realizing that they could not compete on their own. The partners act almost as a single firm, sharing knowledge about wine making and markets. Their wines, such as “Quinta do Vallado” or “Niepoort” now routinely get over 90 points by the Wine Spectator and sales have doubled over the last ten years.
As I write in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, they achieved this through an unusual exercise: the CEOs of the five companies decided to pool a small amount of their best wine to make 500 bottles of a one-off premium wine they called the “Douro Boys Cuvee”. They auctioned the bottles off at Christie’s at an average price of 300 euros, a price that put the Portuguese wine on par with high-end Bordeaux. The success of this small joint project instilled a strong sense of collective achievement among the member companies, which helped them to work on other projects much more effectively.
Douro Boys solved the problem of trust building among alliance partners by achieving a small win, an initiative (or a small number of initiatives) that partners can accomplish within a maximum of twelve (or even six) months after starting collaboration. We are not talking about conquering a new geographical market or investing millions of dollars in joint R&D. A small win can be as simple as winning a new client together or modifying an existing product to serve a small new customer segment.
When I started working on my book Network Advantage: How to Unlock Value from Your Alliances and Partnerships, I was often struck by how little attention alliance partners pay to the importance of small wins. They tend to focus instead on mobilizing their stakeholders around big, audacious goals.
Setting such goals is important, of course, but you first need to develop trust. Otherwise, a partner will not share their knowledge or resources with you. And the small win is the shortest way towards developing trust: it helps partners to learn about one another and develop informal rules of collaboration. This leads to familiarity, familiarity leads to trust, and trust leads to improved information and/or resource sharing.
Here’s another example. N2build is a startup that wants to disrupt the construction industry by using new composite materials. For example, some of the innovative fuselage material in a Boeing Dreamliner could also be used to make wall panels or roofs for houses. The new composites have higher insulation properties, are more resistant to the elements and, after substantial R&D, can cost much less to manufacture than conventional building materials.
N2Build has a large network of R&D alliances: it collaborates with researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and INEGI (National Institute of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Management), the eminent Portuguese research institute.
But researchers are often not the best collaborators: they tend to prefer to work on solving problems within their academic disciplines without engaging in cross-department collaboration. What’s more, institutions like these are accustomed to working with multinational corporations or space agencies rather than startups. INEGI in particular was skeptical of N2build’s ambitious goals. The small, yet decisive win for N2Build was to organize seminars within INEGI that brought together scientists from INEGI’s different departments to discuss the idea of how composite materials can disrupt the construction industry. The researchers later commented that it was extremely unusual — as a matter of fact, a first in INEGI’s 25 years history — to have people from all around the institute together in the same room brainstorming towards a common goal. The event was a turning point for INEGI. It is now an integral part of N2build’s R&D activities and has opened doors to other scientific collaborations.
Correos, the Spanish postal service operator, uses the same strategy to build partnerships in the e-commerce domain. It collaborated with Luis Krug, a Spanish Internet entrepreneur and now the CEO of Pixmania, to build an e-commerce platform Comandia.com. The goal is to become one of the largest online marketplaces in Spain to connect companies of any kind, including small or very large retailers, to their customers. But before the two companies joined forces to work on Comandia, they started with a small win: collaboration over the Oooferton.com website. This was a discount webshop started by Luis Krug in 2009 on which Correos worked as a logistics partner and had to adapt its logistics chain in order to handle a wide variety of products. The two partners learned a lot about each other and developed trust, which then lead to Comandia, a much more ambitious project in terms of the number of potential sellers and customers.
If your company is planning a strategic alliance, aim for a small win first — this strategy works just as well with customers, suppliers, and competitors.