Start-ups and big brands join forces for mutually beneficial partnerships

Start-ups are adopting the concept of the brand wingman to gain expertise and market exposure from like-minded business.

Above: The Oliver Sweeney range of handcrafted shoes features on start-up website VeryFirstTo, helping to boost its credentials

The concept of the wingman – someone in a supportive role – is well-known on the dating scene, where a friend can help another navigate the complicated singles landscape. But the idea is also gaining traction among start-ups, who are engaging like-minded companies to act as big brand buddies and help them build brand momentum and credibility.

Although wingmen often get the raw end of the deal in the dating game, in business brand partnerships can be mutually beneficial – the small brand gets increased exposure, while the bigger brand gets a better understanding of a niche sector or access to a previously unattainable audience.

“Very few start-ups have any marketing budget so the only way to get your brand out there is by setting up strategic partnerships with companies big and small,” says Siddarth VijayakKumar, co-founder of Grub Club, a business that hosts dinner parties in people’s homes and unused spaces as well as acting as a platform for chefs to experiment and test out new creations.

The company has partnered with businesses at both ends of the spectrum, so VijayaKumar appreciates the merits connecting with a big brand wingman as well as buddying up with more up and coming businesses.

Grub Club recently hosted an après ski-themed evening with, one of the largest dating sites in the UK, and is exploring longer-term opportunities. It also collaborated with subscription-based spirits tasting club Flaviar – an EU-wide company that launched in the UK last year – on a seven-course dinner, each dish of which was paired with an appropriate spirit.

Flaviar founder and chief executive Grisa Soba says collaborating with a local partner in this way enables the business to increase brand awareness, connect with a similar audience while building credibility and trust in a new region.

Few start-ups have a marketing budget so the only way to get noticed is by setting up strategic partnerships

Grub Club has also been working with fast-growing home rental company Airbnb.“We approached Airbnb because we have a similar ethos, which is vital if partnerships are to work in the long-term,” says VijayaKumar. “Airbnb enables people to make money from their spare rooms and we allow them to make money from their kitchen or dining room. Plus travel is at the heart of both.”

On Christmas Day the two companies hosted a joint lunch event for people in London. “Christmas Day is the most boring day in London [if you are travelling and don’t have any friends or family to enjoy it with] as there is absolutely nothing going on.

”We wanted to change that so contacted Airbnb, which gave us a beautiful Shoreditch penthouse apartment for free on the day where we hosted a lunch for 30 people.

“Because there was no public transport that day we also teamed up with [car service] Uber, so when people booked their ticket for the event [the proceeds of which were donated to Crisis at Christmas] they also got a free voucher from Uber to get there and back.”

Grub Club and Airbnb are now exploring how they can work together in the future with a view to setting up a longer-term arrangement. “We look at it as a way to engage with new communities who have specialist interests,” says Airbnb head of communications Nick Wilkins.

“Grub Club is a good fit for Airbnb and as a result of the partnership we hope to reach people that might be interested in becoming a host for Airbnb or like to use us as a guest.”

Airbnb celebrated its 10 millionth guest globally last year and had its best ever night in London on New Year’s Eve with 10,000 people staying in Airbnb accommodation across the capital. 

But despite its quick growth Wilkins says the brand still feels very much part of the start-up community and so is keen to support up and coming businesses.

“Although we’re further along in our development, we still see ourselves as a start-up,” says Wilkins. “We are very grateful for the huge support we received from the start-up community when we launched in London in 2012, and feel it’s important to give something back and support others now, particularly where there is a similar ethos.”

He also believes it is often easier for start-ups to support each other rather than work with bigger, more established brands where there can be more processes in place.

“The good thing about two small companies working together is that we can have a more flexible and fluid relationship,” he says.

Bigger is better

However, for website VeryFirstTo, which showcases new luxury products and experiences, forming close bonds with established big name brands like Oliver Sweeney, Conran and Matches was imperative in order for its business model to work.

“We are duty bound to work with these brands,” says founder Marcel Knobil, who is also responsible for setting up the Superbrands and Cool BrandLeaders businesses.

“Our proposition is about having the strongest new luxury products and experiences, so we have to have relationships with big brands because we stand or fall by the quality of items that we provide. If there are obvious omissions, then we would be in trouble,” he adds.

Knobil says these brands were “prepared to have faith” in the proposition because of his past credentials as well as the fact he created the VeryFirstTo Luxforecast, an index of the most eagerly anticipated luxury launches, as decided by a panel of ’connoisseurs’ such as the founder of agency BBH Sir John Hegarty, fashion designer Giles Deacon and the managing director of Harrods Michael Ward, which Knobil says gives the business weight.

“It’s great to be associated with people like this which in turn has given brands confidence in the business. Having this support really helped us when we were embryonic,” he adds.

VeryFirstTo launched to the public in November 2012 and has 56,000 members, “but if you ask me again in a month’s time,I would be very surprised if we do not surpass 60,000,” says Knobil.

Although established brands represent the majority of goods on offer at VeryFirstTo, the company also looks to uncover up and coming brands, so long as they meet its strict criteria of quality and luxury.

“We are about finding exciting, sought-after luxury products and experiences, and there is a whole window in the spectrum of excitement for innovative new brands. Cubify, for example, which we have on site now, is an unknown brand to the majority of people, but it has created one of the first 3D printers for consumer use, and it is items like this that really make the site very compelling.”

Nick Telson, co-founder of DesignMyNight which enables users to discover and book nights out, says start-ups should not be scared of approaching bigger brands because they can often offer specialist knowledge in areas that more established firms are not able to crack.

A content exchange

“Partnerships are fundamental,” he says. “They are one of the key pillars of our marketing strategy.”

The company worked with O2, for example, on a promotion over the festive period (see case study on page below) and has also formed content exchange partnerships with dating service Lovestruck and travel business Secret Escapes.

“Our user base is full of young, single professionals and we offer a ‘date night’ search option, so we know that market very well. Similarly, Lovestruck has a huge reach particularly in London and it has a similar young professional audience.

“We give them features on the best date night venues, so one month it could be the best quirky date night bars, or the best events to take a date to. They find our expertise valuable and push that to their users. In return they write tongue-in-cheek pieces on dating and how to make your way in the dating world in London.”

Likewise, Secret Escapes has customers coming to London who want to know where to go out, so Telson’s business provides exclusive targeted content that is of benefit to Secret Escapes’ customers and helps to get the DesignMyNight name to a wider audience.

The business is also in the process of securing a number of affiliate deals where other websites include the DesignMyNight booking module on certain pages, enabling both parties to share commission when bookings are made.

The brand has recently launched in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Brighton, so will be looking to expand in these cities by partnering with the national brands it already has relationships with as well as establishing new tie-ups with key local influencers.

Brand partnerships big and small can be mutually beneficial. So long as there is a common attitude and culture, both parties stand to gain advantage from the relationship.

Case study


DesignMyNight and O2

“We don’t have buckets of cash to throw at marketing so it’s important for us to look for key partners that can help us, but at the same time can really benefit from using our database,” says Nick Telson, the co-founder of nightlife discovery business DesignMyNight.

“It’s not just about going to big brands and asking for help; we have got a really niche market that lots of brands want to tap into, so we feel we are giving something back in return.”

DesignMyNight was launched three years ago by Telson and university friend Andrew Webster and the site now gets 1.7 million monthly impressions. Three quarters (74 per cent) of its users are aged 23-33 and around 80 per cent are based in London.

In order to widen its reach, the company worked with O2 to offer a DesignMyNight-branded Priority Moment giving O2 members the chance to win the ultimate New Year’s Eve night out.

“The night life industry is a hard one to crack but it’s one that a lot of brands want to access. Because we have the contacts we were able to put the winners up in a five-star hotel, get them into an amazing bar, and provide them with VIP tickets to a rooftop party to watch the fireworks. That’s something O2 wouldn’t have been able to source even though it is a huge company.”

O2 advertised the prize to its members and received 79,000 entries, which helped raise the profile of DesignMyNight and as a result it increased its social following on Facebook and Twitter by around 10 per cent.

“For us it was more about brand awareness than trying to drive traffic to our site,” says Telson. “It was about getting the DesignMyNight name in front of as many eyes as possible.”



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