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Alliance Managers’ Play Big Role in Getting Start-ups in the Door at Multinational

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 4/19/2013

It’s that time again where we are in the process of putting the next issue of Strategic Alliance Magazine to bed and poring over some valuable material that ended up on the cutting room floor due to space reasons. (How’s that for referencing old media clichés on a modern-day form of communication?)

For our cover story we spoke with several people from both sides of the fence of so-called “David-Goliath” partnerships, alliances between large companies and SMBs or start-ups. This is oftentimes a misnomer in our book since the bigger entity in these isn’t always looking to strong-arm its smaller partner. There are exceptions, of course, one of which you will read about below. Dennis Skigen, CSAP, business development consultant for Fitbug, online wellness coaching service and a maker of a device that helps people monitor their exercise activity and manage nutrition, has put together relationships with bigger health care entities such as the UK-based Willis. Skigen spoke about the role ASAP has played in getting Fitbug into meaningful conversations with a handful of large pharmaceutical players, including Boehringer Ingelheim and Eli Lilly and Company.

“It was game changing for us as a small company to be able to have that access. It is not the same thing as giving you a meeting with HR,” he said.

Although the connections made through ASAP networking opportunities help immensely in getting Fitbug in the door with these multinationals, Skigen also credited the unique nature of the alliance manager for enabling the start-up to make its case. For one, alliance managers are not as omnipresent as marketing, sales, and other professionals, so they have a natural camaraderie, to a degree. Moreover, alliance pros can compare their wares without making the conversation a sales pitch.

“The conversation has a different tone and a different level because you’re not trying to shine them on [your offering]. You’re not trying to give them the razzle dazzle or the dog-and-pony show, or any of those chestnut sayings,” said Skigen.

Shooting for the Moon

Prior to his current post at Fitbug, Skigen spent time with Digital Integrator, a technology start-up that collaborated closely with U.S. Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Defense, and NASA. Digital Integrator encountered unique dynamics in working with some of the largest government agencies. The company found that governmental politics could be a significantly more disruptive force than your run-of-the-mill office politics. A major initiative backed by then West Virginia senator Robert Byrd was scuttled by President George W. Bush when the former was outspoken in his public criticism of the Commander-in-Chief. But even before that, Skigen’s upstart company had gotten the attention of bigger competitors in the U.S. government’s partner ecosystem, and unlike much of the IT industry there weren’t rules of engagement that kept competitors playing nice—or nice enough.

“The big companies got wind of us and [learned] that we had a solution that was better than theirs, and they squeezed us out,” said Skigen. “If you shoot for the moon, there’s going to be people looking at you.”

This isn’t to say that this was true across the board. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) played a big role in integrating Digital Integrator’s financial market data integration technology into bigger solutions for these government bureaus, and even offered to take a stake in the company at one point. Although Digital Integrator never made it to the promised land of unfathomable riches like many of its dot-com-era brethren, Skigen is still proud to have forged partnerships that brought him into the “inner sanctum” of our federal government. And at the very least, even if the connections he forges through other alliance managers do not pan out to something tangible, he knows his peers will have given him a fair shot.

“[Alliance managers] are collaborators. They are willing to talk about what makes sense.”

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