Startup partnerships with a16z's Insiya Lokhandwala
It is rare to find someone with the condensed breadth of consumer tech experience as Insiya Lokhandwala. The insights she brings to startups as a Partner at a16z comes from the triple-threat of experiences she has collected:
Startups - after having begun her career working at startups and leading BD initiatives at Lyft during hyper-growth, she now advises startups on growth strategies at a16z.
BigCo partnerships - at YouTube and Google, she led partnerships on early stage initiatives like smart glasses and integrations with global hardware giants.
Technical background - she first entered tech as a product manager and then an engineer at startups before being hired as a sales engineer at Google in 2008.
In our discussion below, Insiya covers a range of topics including common startup partnership mistakes, the difference between BD and partnerships, the importance of partner empathy and the challenges of being an immigrant navigating career growth in the US.
Advising startups at a16z
How do you describe your job at a16z?
My team and I are functional experts across BD, Partnerships, Growth Marketing, Creator engagement, Community Management with experience across top consumer verticals like Gaming, Media, Social, Sports, Travel, Food and Retail. Our goal is to advise and accelerate our startups’ ability to acquire and retain users and grow revenue. This can look like a 1:1 counsel on a specific strategic partnership to being a sounding board for another startup on their growth channel strategy to running a 1:many workshop on how to succeed a creator-led GTM strategy
What are some of the startups you work with?
My team and I help to support dozens of consumer companies in a16z’s portfolio, including more mature companies like OfferUp and Lime to more recent investments like Substack, HipCamp, ClubHouse and All Day Kitchens and a number of a16z’s consumer crypto portfolio companies like BitSki, OpenSea and Artifacts.
One piece of advice you’ve received that has shaped your approach to building partnerships?
Partnerships are like marriages and so every relationship best practice applies to building strong strategic partnerships. Have a clear sense of what your business needs, be upfront about what matters to you.
Partnership advice for startups
You’ve seen technology partnerships from very different angles while working in and alongside companies at every stage. What mistakes do you see startup founders and their teams make as they pursue partnerships with larger, more established companies?
Some startups want right off the bat to work with a larger more established company, an incumbent in the space. And oftentimes, they are not prepared for the resource requirements and the level of engagement that it requires to get vision alignment. As a startup, they are very focused on what matters to their organization versus thinking about the bigger picture and how to create shared value as a partner. These companies are too early to that conversation, they’re not ready as a company to partner.
And on the other side, I see startups that should be talking to larger companies but don't because they just think it's a waste of time or they don't know how to go about it. They are hesitant or they're so short sighted on what really matters. Some startups are not even open to the conversation with certain big companies.
So when should an early stage company decide to make its first BD or partnerships hire?
First, you have to have a product built. And then, you have to be ready to focus on more than product-led growth.
And once both of those are true, then it’s time to think about BD. Now it becomes a question of what kind of business development does your company need. What kind of growth are you trying to drive? Do you need a salesperson? Do you need a bunch of influencer-marketing campaigns? You need to really ask what you’re trying to do. The bigger question I like to ask is what type of growth are you trying to drive. Because partnerships are more critical for certain products than others.
Take Clubhouse for example, it's a platform that needs creators, it needs brands and the platform has to make those voices work with the medium that it's offering. And for all of that, you need to have partnerships. Partnerships are critical to certain types of businesses.
What partnership principle do you find yourself relying on and repeating to startup founders and others?
Partnerships are relationship based as much as value based. I always have founders do a value exchange exercise to ensure that both parties are getting short-term and long-term value and also that there is a meeting of the minds first. The biggest challenge for startups is investing the time and resources into partnerships that will be a step change function. When founders are hesitant to invest the time into a relationship, I generally encourage them to not pursue a partnership because then it’s inevitably focused on short term gains.
A big strategic partnership can alter a startup’s growth trajectory but there’s a huge opportunity cost given the low probability of any big deal coming together. How do you advise founders deciding between investing their team’s time in pursuing a big partnership agreement vs. focusing on higher velocity but more incremental sales efforts?
In the consumer world, for early stage companies everything you’re trying to do is acquire users. So the way I’ve seen this play out is various debates between options like partnering with a bigger company or doing a b2b or b2c partnership, spending money on growth marketing or pursuing an influencer strategy and partnering with big influencers. And all of these are valid channels.
Sales to me becomes an option when a consumer company has a very mature consumer product. To use Lyft as an example, only when they had a solid user base were they in a position to spin up an enterprise business. You typically have to have a much more established product before sales is an option.
Partnerships lessons learned
How do you define the difference between BD vs. partnerships vs. sales? This may sound like an esoteric question but I think it’s useful to try and distinguish roles and functions. I think other functions like marketing benefit from having clearly defined specialties like product marketing and brand marketing. What do you view as the difference between partnerships vs. sales?
In my view a sales agreement in the consumer space will primarily be focused just one dimension - likely driving revenue or maybe acquiring users. A strategic partnership, on the other hand, will have multiple components. What does this partnership do for my brand? How will this help us acquire users? A big partnership should be unlocking a lot more across different aspects of your business than a sales agreement.
And if you’re a startup partnering with a bigger company, you should be thinking about these as strategic alliances. At some point you may need to leverage this partnership to fend off competition or create a moat.
Is there an example you could point that highlights what you’re describing?
One example from my experience at Lyft, we had worked with Apple for a while. We made a real investment in that relationship. And one thing we did was we worked with Apple on the Apple watch app and other initiatives that were important to Apple that we wanted to test too. And as a result we got featured at WWDC and Tim Cook got on stage and called a Lyft from the iPhone. And they kept featuring Lyft in all kinds of national commercials when they needed to highlight ride-sharing. I think that was really good for Lyft, it helped to build the brand to have Apple show support in that way.
And do you see a difference between BD and partnerships? Those two words often get thrown around together and there’s rarely a discussion about what the difference is between BD vs. partnerships.
BD is more of a catch-all in my mind. Partnerships is a type of BD. I think sales is a type of BD. I think M&A is a type of BD. Anything that helps develop business is BD. In my view, partnerships is multi-dimensional whereas sales is one dimensional and even M&A is often one dimensional.
What is a deal you worked on that you’re particularly proud of? Why?
The Google Glass deal I worked on with VSP (Vision Service Provider) was an unusual partnership between two very different companies. For Google Glass to launch its prescription side of the product - which is 50% of the world's population - we found a partner that could extend medical credibility, provide access to a vast doctor network, help Google figure out lens cutting and frames manufacturing, and more. But there were major cultural differences between these companies. Connecting the dots between all of that, it was really hard. We had to essentially drag the cross-functional teams together to get alignment at all levels and see a future vision together.
As you look back on the deals you worked on at Google, YouTube and Lyft, what lessons do you draw up as you advise startups?
One thing that stands out to me from my YouTube days is showing respect and empathy to the folks that you're doing deals with. You have to appreciate the culture gap in the product that you're bringing to the table. I used to do a lot of our Asia partnerships where I was in meetings with Sony and Samsung and others. You'd have all these executives who really, really care about the product they built. It is their crown jewel, this beautiful television that they've created. And then you'd have the YouTube team show up and say, yeah, we've got to get YouTube on that screen. And you know they [manufacturers] care about the quality of the image. We were coming from a whole different place like “who cares about the quality?” We were coming from a whole different mindset. You have to really understand where the other party is coming from and what really matters to them. And show some empathy for that.
When I think about my time at Lyft one thing I took away was that the partnerships that were successful were not the most obvious ones. Sometimes you just have to keep looking and thinking. We worked on some deals with companies like PayPal and Visa. These companies have massive brand marketing budgets we tapped into. They were focused on becoming the default payment method in the Lyft app - trying to drive constant transactions. These weren’t big glamorous deals but these generated millions of dollars at a critical time for Lyft. T-Mobile Tuesdays was a huge hit for our team at Lyft and a huge benefit to Lyft users funded by T-Mobile. No one talks about those deals but they were really valuable. Everyone wants to do a big deal with Google, Apple, Facebook … but I feel being creative is so important, not just pursuing the obvious things.
Large companies are viewed by some as deal factories with large BD teams, standard deal structures and well-oiled deal processes. Given that, there’s an argument that small companies have a lot to learn from more mature companies. But what elements have you seen from Lyft and other mid or early stage companies at a16z that you think larger companies should strive to preserve as they grow larger?
This is the same thing as the innovator’s dilemma - the bigger your team gets the bigger the outcomes have to be. Often that means creativity goes out the door. You can't lean into a partnership too early because it's just not gonna be as big as something else that you're working on. I always find like there's just not that appetite for risk or liability on some of the larger BD teams. And that's fair because the expectations are different.
The other thing is larger BD teams are farther and farther away from startups and so they’re just out of the loop on who's gonna come eat their lunch. My feedback to bigger companies is to stay close to the ground.
Your career has followed an atypical path from PM to Eng to BD and from startup to BigCo to unicorn and now venture capital. For those at an earlier stage in their career, can you share how you’ve approached your career decisions? To what degree did you have a plan vs. responded to new opportunities as they emerged?
I didn't have a plan. I mean, I didn't know this type of role even existed. So I feel like not being on a set path has served me well. Otherwise I feel like I might have been so heads down just following my plan. I just kept myself open to opportunities. But a huge part of it has been the people that encouraged me along the way. I would say to everyone to stay open to the people that you bring into your professional life.
As a woman of color in a male-dominated field who immigrated to the US, you have a lot to be proud of. I don't mean to focus on the challenges but I think it's useful to hear your perspective on which aspects of your identity have presented the most challenges as you’ve navigated your career in tech in the US?
I am very thankful for everything that came along but to be honest - it’s almost controversial - but I found the immigrant part to be more challenging than the female part. There are ways to go about networking, about meeting people, that if you’re an immigrant, it just takes you a while longer. Especially like if you're Asian immigrant and you're taught not to ask for too many things. That is definitely a thing. I think by the time I realized, hey, you have to speak up and you have to ask for things and you have to go network in a certain way to find yourself within these communities, I feel like I could have been much farther ahead.
I'll give you an example. When I started working in the US after my Masters I was offered $36,000 annually. This was 2004 and I thought okay, not a big deal. But $36,000 after a Masters is really low. I took it because I needed a Visa. So then I come to California, I find another startup that says, “Well, what did you get paid in your last job?” And I said $36K. “Great will offer you $50k Does that sound okay?” and I was like “That sounds fantastic!” I never got that kind of money ever in my life. I'll take it! And then a year later into the job they gave me a $10,000 bonus because they probably realized how underpaid I was. Then I was like, “Oh my god $10,000!”
Then I joined Google and they asked me the same question, what were you getting paid in your last job? So I said $50,000. And they said, “We'll give you $70,000.” And I was like, “Oh $70,000!” I didn't even know to negotiate equity or anything. Until my first manager, my first good manager was like, “you're not being compensated, we need to fix this.” And then it got fixed. But I tell this to people because nobody told me to ask. Everybody I knew as an immigrant. And to them, it was like “wow that's a lot of money.” Not knowing to ask or who to turn to or that it’s okay to ask got in the way more than anything else.
What leaders (outside of a16z) have inspired you?
Kelly Liang - I’ve always been inspired by her ability to take on new verticals and challenges and always be pushing the boundaries on creativity with BD. And Francisco Varela, his ability to build teams, enable trust among team members and clarity of vision on creating work-life balance
What is one book that has impacted you?
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - Patrick Lencioni It’s an easy read and I absolutely love how he simplifies what causes organisations to be political and leadership teams to be dysfunctional.
What is one life hack or guilty pleasure that has helped you get through the pandemic?
My guilty pleasure is late night TV + Indian snack, after the husband and kids have gone to bed. And my life hack is walking my daughter to preschool as often as I can.
One thing you miss about being an operator?
Doing the actual work of building and launching strategic partnerships! I firmly believe that most partnerships fail due to bad execution - a lop-sided value prop, lack of trust and a common vision.
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