Once upon a time, Coolhaus operated a single ice cream truck. Today, they’re a nationally recognized dessert brand carried in over 6,000 stores.

So how did they get there? Through strategic partnerships with Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, Quicksilver, and a bunch of other big-name brands.

According to CEO Natasha Case, their partnership success is a result of two things: Aiming high and pitching fearlessly.

Here’s her four-step approach to finding and closing strategic partnerships with mega brands.

Step 1: Start ridiculously high

First, think about the companies you seriously crush on. Write down the ones you admire and have a natural alignment with what you do.

Starting big helps you identify the types of partnerships that are best for your product’s growth. Plus if the big ones don’t work out, you can move onto smaller companies that offer the same potential value, just at a smaller scale.

Now, take your list and rate each company in terms of how well they perform on the metrics that matter most to you.

That can mean:

  • Premium customers: If you’re eyeing a company that sells natural skincare products, these are the customers who are willing to pay more for their high-quality line.
  • Premium brand sentiment: If you’re interested in a well-regarded dance studio, the fact that they’re known for training future Rockettes is why you want to team up with them.
  • Premium product quality: If you’re thinking about partnering with a luxury leather supplier, that premium material could in turn enhance the quality of your own handbags.

Once you have your dream list, pitch starting with your faves. Why? Because if you successfully conquer a premium market, you can start expanding into bigger markets that will become easier to attain, all thanks to that first victory. Many folks make the mistake of starting small when they’re small. Instead, aim high to really accelerate your growth.

After getting in the door at Whole Foods, Natasha was able to place Coolhaus in mass-market grocery stores like Safeway and Publix. “Start at the Whole Foods of your market,” says Natasha. “Dominate that market, then work your way from there once you have a proven track record.”

Step 2: Throw in a curveball partnership

“Whatever it is, your partner should elevate and move your brand forward in some way,” Natasha says. And sometimes that elevation can come from the unlikeliest of matches.

Coolhaus hustle

Natasha noticed that Urban Outfitters was experimenting with food and beverage in their physical stores. There was no other “cool” ice cream brand in sight, and the brand’s aesthetic was a match for Coolhaus. It checked all the boxes—so she reached out.

How do you pick a quirky partner? Think about where your product or service would offer an unexpected surprise.

If you run a spa, that could mean pairing up with a local restaurant so customers can get chair massages while waiting for their tables. According to Natasha, the best partnerships happen when both parties get a little weird.

Step 3: Make sure your pitch has these three things

Now, it’s time to perfect that pitch. The goal is to show your partner brand exactly what you can do for them.

When Natasha pitched Urban Outfitters, she brought evidence of Coolhaus’s success along with a concrete vision of what the partnership could look like.

Here’s how she broke out the pitch:

1. The need

Urban Outfitters was dying to relate to a hip, young, female consumer.

2. How Coolhaus could get them there

Coolhaus products could enable Urban Outfitters to create a unique experience that might not resonate with customers if done under their own brand.

3. The end result

Coolhaus-branded ice cream carts at select stores would allow people to enjoy a refreshing treat while they shopped.

Say you’re a centrally located restaurant that’s hoping to work with a popular local bakery. You could create a menu mockup that lists them as a supplier, run a poll where the majority of your customers say they want that bakery’s goods at your restaurant, or hand out press touting your establishment as a go-to spot for the best locally-sourced foods.

Whatever scenario you illustrate, make sure it’s only something your company can give them.

Step 4: Don’t be afraid to just ask

To land Coolhaus’s first grocery distribution deal, Natasha simply walked into her local Whole Foods and asked to talk to someone about selling their ice cream. Soon enough, she was sitting down with their regional buyer.

“Don’t be afraid to just ask,” says Natasha. “And when you do, bring early evidence of your success. For us, it was the buzz and press from our truck.”

That proof was worth its weight in gold—and it convinced Whole Foods to give their shelf products a three-store test.

To copy Natasha’s approach, be assertive and stay confident. Investigate who’s in charge at the retailer you’re trying to get into, and then do what you can to clinch a meeting. Pro tip: See if you have any LinkedIn connections who can make an intro before setting something up.

Psst… your small business is never too small to experiment with partnerships. And by following Natasha’s advice, you can give this big-company growth tactic your own small-company spin.

“Don’t discount yourself because you’re a small business,” advises Natasha. “Smaller can mean premium, targeted, or faster. Sell your best attributes.”

Iris Kuo Iris Kuo is a writer in San Francisco focusing on entrepreneurship, data, and diversity. She co-founded the diversity index LedBetter and is a proud alum of The University of Texas at Dallas and Columbia University.
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