What is best-of-breed?
In business, best-of-breed is a term used mostly to describe high quality firms and relationships. For instance a best-of-breed law firm would be a larger, more established company with a brand of which many people are aware. Best-of-breed is a very important concept to consider because it will give your startup credibility. And by definition since startups are early-stage, credibility is unbelievably important as you move your company forward. However there are a trade-offs (below), which must be considered when you are deciding to go best-of-breed or not. Generally best-of-breed firms are more expensive, so you’re trading dollars for credibility.
Examples of startup best-of-breed relationships:
- Law firms
- Accounting firms
- Venture capital firms or angel investors
- PR firms
- Office locations (City or area within a City)
To provide some real world examples, I will illustrate how a software company in Silicon Valley might look for best-of-breed relationships. This list is used just to provide some examples and is by no means complete or exhaustive. There are plenty of best-of-breed firms across every industry so the best-of-breed list below is only a small percentage of great companies out there:
- Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati – https://wsgr.com/WSGR/Default.aspx
- Orrick Harrington and Sutcliffe – https://www.orrick.com/Pages/default.aspx
- Cooley – https://www.cooley.com/index.aspx
- Deloitte – http://www2.deloitte.com/us/en.html
- PwC – http://www.pwc.com/
- Burr Pilger Mayer (Bay Area regional accounting firm ) http://www.bpmcpa.com/
Venture capital firm or Angel Investors
- Sequoia Capital – https://www.sequoiacap.com/
- New Enterprise Associates (NEA) – http://www.nea.com/
- Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers – http://www.kpcb.com/
- Ron Conway, Super Angel – http://svangel.com/team/
- Morgan Stanley – http://www.morganstanley.com/what-we-do/investment-banking/
- Goldman Sachs – http://www.goldmansachs.com/what-we-do/investment-banking/
- J.P. Morgan – https://www.jpmorgan.com/pages/cib/investment-banking
Office locations (City or area within a City)
- In Silicon Valley, an early stage best of breed location could be anywhere from Morgan Hill to San Francisco. Even some East Bay locations like Fremont can work. The key is if you want to go best-of-breed, you need to have an address in an area where people believe you will be able to succeed. A suggestion might be to take an office either in an area known for early-stage culture, or if there is not one available nearby, taken office in one of the larger cities. It will help for credibility. A best-of-breed example is Sand Hill Road. Most people know that the top-tier venture firms are located on that street in Menlo Park.
- This is completely industry-specific. However, if you’re choosing a supplier, if they have a brand name and are known to be the best at supplying that service or product, it will be helpful. As an example, I was working with a company that manufactured a consumer product. We chose a medium-sized manufacturing partner that had enough of a brand, people believed that the partner would be able to produce the number of units, and at the right quality and price we needed. Also the partner was in the United States so our argument was that we could go and visit the manufacturing plant to make sure that everything was on track. The choice was to stay in the US and then look at possibly off-shoring manufacturing at a later date. Investors like this strategy because they felt that we would have more control initially, even if the costs were slightly higher. We’ve all heard horror stories for startups and larger companies, where products were delayed in shipping or at the port. For an early stage company this could be a fundamental problem (see my article on “hard times” which describes how to handle fundamental problems).
- Partners are also industry-specific. For instance if you’re going to have a database partner, you might want to think about going with Oracle or SAP. If you’re going to use cloud services, obviously Amazon is a good choice. I think you get the idea.
As mentioned above, by choosing best-of-breed partners, you are making trade-offs. First, usually best-of-breed partners charge more. The reason is they are trying to protect their brand. So in the event that you are not satisfied, they realize that negative sentiment social media can harm the brand so they will work harder to ensure that they meet the agreed upon expectations. Therefore, theoretically best-of-breed partners should provide higher levels of service and be very responsive in the event of problem crops up. It is assumed that best-of-breed partners are larger and have grown to be that size due to the fact that they were able to provide high value and quality to a lot of other companies prior to yours.
Second, sometimes best-of-breed partners may operate at a slower pace. Generally they are busy with more customers, and therefore you may or may not get the speed and attention that you may really want. However, if the relationship is “good enough”, then it’s worth staying best-of-breed. I found that working with larger best-of-breed partners sometimes can be slow, but if you work with the partner and let them know your concerns, sometimes you can speed things up. As an example, one of the larger law firms used by a startup I was advising, seem to be slow. So we brought on an additional attorney from a single office to help speed some of the work that needed to be done so that the larger firm could focus on more strategic issues (and continue to provide brand, via best-of-breed). To give you some metrics, when trying to set calls or meetings with the larger firm it would take from 3 to 5 days to accomplish the call or meeting. The smaller firm would simply pick up the phone and usually we could get the same meeting within a few hours. You will have to decide how to manage the situation to make sure you can keep your startup moving at the appropriate pace.
Another problem going best-of-breed is usually that you will sign with one of the brand name partners or company leaders, and then you could get delegated, relegated or abdicated to a junior. This happens a lot and you need to be very aware of it. I had a company that was going public recently and we hired a PR firm. We hired the firm specifically for the capabilities of the practice leader who was well known in the industry. It wasn’t long when the practice leader no longer joined the weekly conference calls and we were relegated to his underling. Due to our own mismanagement, we then found that over 50% of the weekly calls were then further delegated further so that we only had the junior associate participating. So we went from the practice leader through one of the directors, down to the least experienced person. Again this was our fault for not managing the situation and demanding that we stay in touch with people at the right level. Realize that any best-of-breed service firms are there to optimize their own margin while providing the highest quality service. Optimizing margin means if you can put a junior associate on an account without requiring hours from your top leaders (at higher costs), you will drive more to the bottom line. As a startup, you need to be aware of this practice and manage the situation closely to ensure that you get all of the attention you deserve.
Investors like It
By choosing a best-of-breed partner, you are establishing credibility for your company. First, investors will like the fact that you have chosen name brands assuming the costs are affordable. For example, I use Wilson Sonsini in a lot of deals because they provide top intellectual property and corporate guidance, but additionally investors really like the fact that Wilson is involved. Of course you could use some of the other firms above which are best-of-breed just the same. I use BayTech Web design for my digital properties as they are best of breed in Silicon Valley.
Realize that investors are looking to reduce risk. In any early stage company there are a variety of risks including market risk, technical risk, management risk, legal risk and more. As an investor looks towards a company, the first and foremost question is “will I lose my money?” This is a fundamental question that needs to be answered. We have all seen the scams that seem to continually occur.
Investors want to know that their risks are mitigated (as much as possible) and for example, legal risk is significantly reduced by a firm like Wilson Sonsini. Wilson will ensure all of the investment paperwork, intellectual property, and corporate structure is locked down and in place. Now, you could choose a small firm, or maybe an individual attorney who could be excellent. Their work might be outstanding, fast and less expensive. However they don’t carry the brand. I have also used strategies where I have used specific individual attorneys in combination with larger best-of-breed firms. This way you can offload a lot of the more inexpensive, more mundane legal work to the individual attorney, and save the more important strategic legal work (such as intellectual property), for the brand based firm.
Best-Of-Breed – Breeds Best-Of-Breed (sorry, I just had to say that)
In many cases it’s hard for an early stage company to attract best-of-breed firms. Just because you are willing to pay a best-of-breed firm, does not mean they will take on your case. I recently had an experience with an enterprise software firm that was white hot as a startup. In other words they were becoming a “Silicon Valley darling.” However, when we approached some of the top Silicon Valley or San Francisco offices of a variety of PR firms, four out of the five of them either said they were too busy or not interested in taking on the project based on the company’s early stage status. I’m sure they questioned whether or not the startup was willing to pay their fees, and whether or not the startup would eventually succeed. So, startups are risky so in some cases best-of-breed firms may be less interested in associating with the firm in that early stage and would be happy to jump on the opportunity once the company has seen more success.
The point here is that if you have a best-of-breed partner, the other partners will realize and also believe that you must have something good or important if the other best-of-breed firm signed on. For example, if you sign a top law firm, and you let your potential venture investors know about it, they will be more comfortable that you have made some initial, right moves. Also, if you sign top venture, then the PR firms might be more interested in working with your firm. I think you get the point here. The more best-of-breed partners you attract, the more credibility you have, and thus it’s easier to attract the best-of-breed outliers that may not otherwise have been interested in you at that moment.
High Cost Should Generally Equal High Quality
When you go best-of-breed, you expect the highest quality and you also expect to pay for it. Now, there are plenty of exceptions where this does not occur, however if you manage the relationship correctly you should get the results you deserve. Note that just because a firm is best-of-breed, it’s not “automatic”. With any good relationship, it requires solid management and expectation setting on both sides.
Best-Of-Breed Has Your Back
Again, if you manage the situation correctly, and you’re utilizing all of the right people, processes and systems from your best-of-breed partner, the cost-benefit trade-off should be positive. You may find that best-of-breed partners actually begin to think strategically for you. They bring you solutions and strategies that you may not have thought of, or they may improve your existing solutions and strategies. A top partner should be an expert in their area and therefore you are getting the best advice possible. They should be able to predict landmines ahead, and optimize your resources for the best result. Startups are by definition, resource constrained. Therefore any partner that can help you ensure that your resources and assets are deployed correctly and optimally is valuable.