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Dating Rules in Business

Do you know where the protein in your burger or stir fry came from? Would you still eat it if it came from grain sugars and fermented fungi? ENOUGH produces such a protein, named ABUNDA mycoprotein, which is used in alternative meat, seafood, and dairy products. The food tech company is on a mission to save the planet from raising one million fewer cows by 2032.

How big can this market get? Boston Consulting Group estimated that as much as 22 percent of meat, and dairy products could come from alternative sources instead of conventional meat proteins by 2035.

The market opportunity and impact on the planet can’t be understated. This is why Unilever recently announced a new partnership with ENOUGH and their own meat-alternative brand, The Vegetarian Butcher. This partnership comes on the back of a successful partnership between The Vegetarian Butcher and Burger King, through which the plant-based Rebel Whopper was launched. The Vegetarian Butcher grew by 70 percent in 2020 and is part of Unilever’s Future Food initiative to reach €1 billion in sales from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives between 2025 and 2027.

ABUNDA mycoprotein

Because One Plus One Equals Three

These are just a few of Unilever’s partnerships. The company has a history of partnering with suppliers to encourage transparency and innovation within its supply chain. Moving away from zero-sum thinking towards a partnership approach enables businesses to achieve sustainability goals, and scale faster—it is about how businesses (and the people and planet) can win together. Because the supply chain and businesses are so interconnected, it makes sense for companies to develop partnerships for sustainable growth and to solve socio, economic, and environmental problems together.

But how can businesses ensure that these partnerships are successful? I believe the rules in dating can work here. Spend time and get to know each other—there is no need to rush into a commitment straight away. Have difficult conversations earlier rather than later—talk about how to resolve conflicts and make decisions. Align on goals and expectations, and understand the values that drive each other. The key ingredients for these to happen are open communication and transparency.

Take Things Slow

First, spend time and get to know the other business. You wouldn’t commit to a relationship or get married after a few dates. Similarly, when it comes to deciding whether to partner up with another business to solve a social issue or create a positive impact, invest time in due diligence and understand the other company.

Who and which teams are involved? What are the complementary strengths of the two companies? How would the cultures of the different teams work together?

Start with a small project. This helps the teams to imagine what it would be like to work together and foresee potential challenges on larger scale joint projects. The relationship between The Vegetarian Butcher and Unilever started this way; The Vegetarian Butcher and Unilever co-developed products for two years before Unilever acquired The Vegetarian Butcher to grow their plant-based products portfolio. With Burger King, The Vegetarian Butcher tested the partnership with a standalone product in Europe before expanding it across Latin America and China. Smaller collaborations help flag issues and enable teams to solve problems much quicker than when projects are larger.

Talk about the Hard Things

Second, have difficult conversations early. This usually involves money, incentives, and clarifying who will contribute what into the partnership. The contribution need not be the same but should feel equal and fair for the parties.

In a partnership between a large corporation such as Unilever and a smaller business such as The Vegetarian Butcher (at the time of acquisition the company had a hundred employees compared to more than 150,000 employees at Unilever worldwide), clarify the roles and responsibilities of the joint team upfront. Decision-making structures and processes will likely look different for both companies. What are the principles the joint team will use under the partnership? The partnership team should develop their own accountability and decision-making framework to minimize confusion and frustration at a later stage.

adidas Allbirds collaboration // Futurecraft.Footprint

Third, align on goals and expectations. In the dating world, if your friend is looking for a long-term commitment, you would advise them to avoid the date who is only interested in something casual. Similarly, when looking for other businesses to partner with, first clarify and understand the goals and expectations of the two teams.

What commitment does the other team expect and what resources are offered? What values drive and motivate the teams to work on the partnership? This perspective can help the teams understand what problem-solving approach to take and reduce execution risk.

Allbirds and adidas have a common goal of producing products with the lowest carbon footprint possible. Both companies also value collaboration, transparency, and openness—Allbirds shared the formula to their sustainably made SweetFoam midsole and adidas similarly collaborates with other companies to release innovations. So it made sense for the two companies, who have common goals and values, to co-create a running shoe with the lowest carbon footprint--the Futurecraft.Footprint at under three kilograms CO2. This is less than a quarter of the emissions that the average running shoe produces, two-thirds of emissions come from the manufacturing process.

Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

Legacy leadership mindset may see adidas and Allbirds as competitors and advise them not to work together. Today our business context has shifted and businesses do need to work together to solve critical issues like the climate crisis. The partnership between adidas and Allbirds to develop this product was successful because of their complementary skills, and common goals and values.

Find Ways to Adapt Together

What about existing suppliers? While the above framework is written from the perspective of new partnerships, the same principles apply. Businesses should meet with suppliers and partners regularly to align on goals and expectations as circumstances change constantly. Just as in any relationship, open, candid, and regular communication is key to the parties growing together. If there is a mismatch in goals, and expectations, the parties should decide on next steps and how the partnership will look like in the future. Unilever took a bold step to disclose their suppliers and mills to transform the palm oil industry. This resulted in their existing suppliers working with Unilever to improve on their sustainability practices and jointly grow their socio and economic impact.

Businesses need to shift from thinking in trade-offs to thinking of how value can be multiplied by partnering with others, whether in their industry or otherwise. Candid conversation and transparency will support discovering common goals and values and lead to setting expectations on future projects together. As in the dating world, these goals and expectations should be reviewed and revisited regularly to ensure that the parties meet their expectations and achieve their respective outcomes.

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