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October 2012

Have you poked the elephant lately? If not, you are likely leaving money on the table.

I frequently have conversations with Autodesk partners about how they can best leverage Autodesk.  And almost every time these conversations unearth ways the partner can get greater value from the partnership - leveraging Autodesk to speed up development, reduce development costs, reducing sales and marketing costs, identify new customers, reduce business risk, and develop strategic business opportunities.  With thousands of partners and only eight “Autodesk partner evangelists” with the skills to have these exploratory discussions, only a few hundred partners per year are exposed to the broad deep array of possibilities their partnership with Autodesk creates.

Is this just the situation at Autodesk?  No.

Having talked to a number of elephants over the years, and having studied how they work with partners, it’s pretty much the same story with every elephant – lots of opportunities for partners to engage but not enough high touch 1 on 1 discussion’s looking at how a specific partner can best leverage their partnership with the elephant. 

So how do you get “more than your fair share” of time, opportunities and resources from the elephant?

Be demanding. 

Be the squeaky wheel. 

Take a wee bit of time each week to prod the elephant to see what the opportunities there are to leverage the elephant’s resources. 

Talk to more people Elephant trainer

If you only touch the elephant through their “partnering team” (Developer Relations, Developer Network, Developer Marketing, etc), you are only scratching the surface on leveraging your partnership with the elephant.

Have you talked with one or several of the elephant’s product managers?  Maybe you can get them to prioritize development of a feature, API or web service that would allow you to delight your customers.

Have you talked with the elephant’s PR or Social Media team on a joint PR activity like a press release or a live Twitter event?  How about getting the elephant to include hashtags that point your way? 

Have you talked with the elephant’s marketing team? Show them why it’s good for the elephant to recommend your company on their Facebook page – and you will do the same for them.  Exploring with the elephant’s marketing team what tradeshows they would like to attend but cannot – but would consider providing funding for you to attend as their proxy.

Have you talked with the elephant’s business development team about your solutions – your great new cutting edge cloud and mobile offerings?  They might be just the right people to introduce you to a Vice President that will take a personal interest in your efforts – that could someday lead to your being acquired.  

You are probably thinking “how to I find out the right names of all these different people working for the elephant”?

Your first stop is the developer relations folks (or whatever the elephant calls them) to get a 1 on 1 meeting to explore everyone you would like to reach within the elephant.  They might be able to give you a “roadmap” of people to talk with at the elephant – but if not, don’t stop.  Leveraging the elephant is at times not all that different then cold calling a customer – or finding a new employee. 

Is it worth the time and effort?

Like cold calling, investing time pursuing the elephant can feel unfulfilling for a stretch of time.  But we are not talking about investing hundreds of man hours developing opportunities to partner with the elephant – we are talking a few hours per month on the telephone working and developing your contacts at the elephant.  The elephant has lots of resources– people and money.  What is a significant amount of money for you – say $5k to enlarge a tradeshow presence or $10k to run an AdWords campaign - is a small or modest investment for the elephant.  If you find the right person at the elephant that “gets” how supporting you will help them, they will invest.  Present how supporting you will create a higher return in their investment then “just another internally oriented investment” (which is why the elephant has partners like you to begin with).  Show how your deep industry knowledge, strong customer contacts, leading edge technology or flexibility makes you a great place for the elephant to invest their discretionary dollars.  If you are smart about “working the elephant”, it wouldn’t be surprising to find your return on investment to be in excess of $500 to $1000 per hour.  A lot of money for a small start-up company. A lot of money sitting on the table for the next demanding partner to pick up. 

The Elephant Just Acquired Your Competitor… Yikes!

I write this post right after Autodesk announced the acquisition of a CAM (machining) software technology from a software company in Copenhagen – HSMWorks.  For my team – the Autodesk Developer Network – an acquisition like this means dozens of uncomfortable discussions with a number of partners around the world. In today’s specific case of HSMWorks, I know over 20 CAM partners we’ll be having this discussion with. What is Autodesk doing?  Are we competitors now? What happens to our partnership?  What do I tell my staff?  What do I tell my customers?

Dancing with an elephant will at times make you feel “exposed” – not being in full control of your destiny.  This is never more true than when the elephant you are dancing with acquires one of your competitors.  It is one of those times when you start to think if dancing with the elephant is worth it.  Would you be better off “going it alone”.

Having helped numerous Autodesk partners work through this stressful - acquisition driven – market change, I have found there are typically four responses (strategies) you can pursue moving forward. 

So let’s walk through them.

Ignore the Change Ostrich

Whether betting the elephant’s acquisition will fail, or just not being sure what to do, one continues on with business as usual.  This strategy (or lack of a strategy) usually doesn’t work very well.   Almost immediately both your employees and your customers will want to know what your plans are around the elephant – continuing to dance or?  They want to hear from you and they want some basic answers.  I have seen a number of companies take this approach – making no change in direction – but this usually only works for a few months.  If you don’t have a strategy and answers for your employees and customers on how you will (or won’t) be working with the elephant in the future, the uncertainty will start impacting your sales.  Customer orders will start getting delayed.  Purchases will slow.  You really need a long term strategy that includes a communication and investment plan based on your long term strategy.  The sooner the better.

Embrace the Elephant’s Technology

This is about researching and learning where the elephant is going with their new competitive market offering, and making investments that strengthen your partnership with the elephant.  There are many different ways to embrace the elephant – such as learning what solutions are being pursued and not pursued so you can invest in complementary solutions.  This could mean shifting R&D to niche solutions the elephant is not currently pursuing – but their customers will need.  This potentially sets you up to be acquired by the elephant in the future too (which I have seen happen a number of times). This could mean building up your integration services capabilities so you can profit on helping customers use both your and the elephant’s solutions together. This strategy is not easy to execute on if the elephant’s acquisition overlaps with most of your solutions.

Embrace the Elephant’s Sales Partner

If you are already a “tertiary” player in the market the elephant has just decided to enter – you are not the number 1 of number 2 player – do you have a clear and compelling technology advantage that will enable you to compete head to head with the elephant?  If not, you should consider repositioning your business to deliver Sales and Services for the elephant – evolving away from being a developer of commercial software.  This is can be a very emotional and difficult decision to make – giving up development of a code base that has been “your baby” for a number of years. If you already have a significant revenue stream from services, this change from software developer to sales and services provider may actually not be all that hard to make.  You have valuable customer relationships, a broad understanding of your customer’s needs, and deep solutions expertise.  These are exactly the skills and assets the elephant will value most as it invests in developing their entrance into what for them is a new market. At Autodesk, many of our largest and most profitable VARs started as software development partners – but later repositioned their business as a sales and services organization as Autodesk extended its product line into several vertical markets.  I know several partners that became quite wealthy pursuing this strategy – truly turning sour lemons into lemonade.

Aggressively Compete with the Elephant Fight

Most elephants will continue to provide software partners basic support even though they have become competitors - so you likely will have continued access to the elephant’s technology you need to compete with the elephant.  For example, both Autodesk and Microsoft continue to partner with companies they also compete with.  Competing with an elephant is hard – but there are successes from time to time. Anyone remember Microsoft Money going after Intuit’s Quicken?  Intuit won that battle against the much larger Microsoft.  This strategy could also lead to acquisition discussions with the elephant’s competitors and even some day with the elephant itself.

Go Elsewhere

This is all about changing the direction of your company to pursue different markets where there is no elephant – typically going after a market niche or developing a specialized services business.  This can also mean selling your business to the highest bidder and using the money to retire or start a whole new business.


Don’t Wait

Every company that dances with an elephant needs to spend a bit of time thinking about what they would do if the elephant became their competition.  This doesn’t need to be a detailed plan. It is a healthy exercise that forces you to think through where you are going with your business long term.  Just a wee bit of “disaster planning” can really pay off later – such as positioning your company to be the company the elephant acquires – or enabling you to quickly act upon an elephant’s acquisition of a competitor in a thoughtful effective way that best protects your people, your assets and your customers.