Remember our “Ask the Expert” session with Nicole Leeds, who leads go-to-market strategy at Clue? Did you submit a question? Yes? Great! Read on to learn about strategic partnerships as Nicole shares her answers to questions from our community.

As a reminder: At Clue, Nicole’s focus is on monetization, B2B partnerships, and company strategy. She has led Clue’s partnerships with Bayer, Fitbit, Apple, Google, and others. Before Clue, Nicole worked on corporate strategy and partnerships with Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical device companies and in strategy consulting.  She has worked in digital health, medical devices, and global development in Germany, India, Rwanda and the United States. 

Want to learn about strategic partnerships in the femtech world? Read on for a masterclass! 🙂

Nicole Leeds runs B2B Partnerships at Clue.

Most of our readers have probably heard of Clue, but maybe we can still start out with a little introduction! What is Clue and what is your role at the company?

Clue is a period-tracking app and one of the earliest companies in the FemTech movement. Our founder and CEO, Ida Tin, coined the phrase “Femtech,” so I guess it’s fair to say Clue is one of the originals in this space! In addition to the period-tracker which has over 12 million users worldwide, Clue also has a website and encyclopedia, and our Hormonal podcast which are trusted health resources for women and people with cycles.

I’ve been leading Clue’s partnership strategy since I joined the company 3 years ago. In that time, we’ve explored hundreds of partnerships and engaged in several dozen. I manage all aspects of the partnership process, from lead generation, relationship management, negotiation and implementation.

Thanks to everyone who submitted a question!

In your opinion: What are some of the first partnerships a company in the women’s health innovation space should pursue? What to consider when deciding?

Your first partnerships can be in any area that is critical to your company’s growth, but the key to early partnerships is to keep them simple and achievable at the start. Partnerships often take a lot more work than just doing the work in-house. When you’re just starting out as an innovative company, your time and energy is likely in short supply. You probably don’t have time to waste on a partnership that is not critical to your company’s needs, so pick a partner that can help you achieve a high-priority goal and start with a simple project with them as an experiment. If it goes well, you can always renew and build on the partnership later.

What kind of partnerships does Clue generally look for? Advocacy? Research Centers? Other companies?

Clue’s partners change a lot depending on what we are trying to do. As our user base has grown and the business needs have changed, we have added or discontinued partnership areas.

Scientific partnerships have been a constant. Clue has promised never to sell user data and we can only hire a limited number of in-house data experts, so academic partnerships were a neat way to use the data our users track in a way that benefits users and female health worldwide. In the long term, these research partnerships also paved the way for bigger collaborations.

We also partner with other companies when it creates value for our users. Our partnerships have helped us build or add features onto Clue, with wearables like the Fitbit Ionic or Apple watches. Our partnerships with companies like Bayer has helped us create new content for our web users. We also partner with female health brands to bring discounts to Clue’s premium subscription, Clue Plus.

Do you use an internal framework to assess how the partnership fits in with the company brand and what variables do you use to assess?

Absolutely! Clue’s brand and values are central to the company and our partnerships. Clue’s CEO captured Clue’s approach to brand fit in Clue’s Monetization Principles and Promises when she wrote, “We want to be able to look our users in the eyes when we explain how we make money.” These principles guide Clue’s partnerships. It’s an easy gut check to ask yourself, could I look my users in the eyes and explain what I was doing behind the scenes? 

If you’re still not sure if a partnership is a brand risk, get some data! Clue often asks users about potential partnerships before we sign through polls or surveys. This helps us know what they really care about, rather than projecting our feelings and biases about partners onto them. Sometimes, the results surprise us!

Are partnerships ideally exclusive?

Not necessarily. It can feel safer to ask for exclusivity, but it won’t always benefit your partnership. Some partnerships like e-mail exchanges, giveaways, or sponsorships can be made even more successful by having multiple partners involved.

However, exclusivity is worth considering if it will help your partnership or protect your IP. For some brand or growth partnerships you may not want your partner to promote more than one company in your category, which could hurt the partnership’s impact. If you are sharing confidential information with a partner, exclusivity can help prevent information from leaking. In those cases, you may want to put exclusivity, as well as an NDA, in your agreement. 

Being a femtech healthcare startup looking to go the b2b route, we’re evaluating who are the most promising partners to pursue. What are your experience regarding partnerships with hospitals, vs employers vs states vs insurances?

All of the organizations you mentioned are large, complicated institutions with different payout models and levels of flexibility. Some of them will work better or worse with startups and with your business model specifically. Governments can be great partners because they usually have clear criteria and budget transparency. Government contracts take a long time to set up, but the terms are usually clear and there are experts who can help you navigate the system.

Hospitals, insurances and employers are private companies, so they have more speed and flexibility but less accountability. You can invest many hours into a partnership with nothing to show for it if the partner’s priorities or budget suddenly change. Look for companies who have successfully worked with startups before or have dedicated programs (and budgets!) to support working with startups. If at all possible, try to speak to other startups they have partnered with before before you invest too much time. This can help you suss out which companies are able to commit to working with small startups.

How do you go about reaching out to the right person once you’ve identified a company you think you could have a strong partnership with? Do you try cold emails or do you try getting through via a warm introduction?

In my experience, a warm introduction makes the biggest difference and is more important than finding the “right person” from the start. Partnership managers are often inundated with requests and must prioritize how much attention they give any email or request. An email from an investor, friend, or colleague asking the partnership manager to speak with you is much harder for them to ignore than a request from a stranger, and it can also give you the opportunity to learn more about the company before your introduction.

That  being said, I have tried cold emails when I have no other option. It’s always worth a try!

When is the best time to start building strategic partnerships, what process do you go through to ensure you identify and select the best partners and how do you start the initial conversation with them (from a Pre-seed start up founder)?

In my experience, the key to a successful strategic partnership is that it must benefit both sides. To identify and select partners, you need two core pieces of information: what my organization is seeking and what we can offer a partner in return. The first is answered internally, based on your company’s goals. If you know what you need, simple desk research on the space will help you generate an initial list of players you might want to work with who can meet that need.

Understanding your potential partner’s needs is trickier, but is core to getting a partnership started. If you have or can cultivate a connection to someone at the organization through conferences or mutual connections, that person may be able to give you insight into what the organization’s pain points are and what partnerships they are seeking. An initial conversation about the potential partner’s pain points or goals can help you refine your organization’s offer before you speak to the partnership manager or leadership who will evaluate your proposal.

As a pre seed startup, how soon is too soon to network to create partnerships? 

It is never too early to start networking to create partnerships! Pre-seed companies have lots to offer big players, whether it’s a specialized technology or skill or access to a niche audience. Even if you meet a potential partner too early to work together formally, the networking process alone can give inspiration for new business models or products as well as create valuable contacts for later.

How do you avoid giving up too much to the stronger and more established partner?

Any negotiation book will teach you that being clear on what you want and what you are willing to give up for it is the best way to protect your interests. Set clear guidelines for yourself and your team about what you are willing to put into a partnership in terms of resources, what percentage of your business or revenue any one partner can make up, or what terms you need to feel comfortable in the partnership. This internal clarity will empower you to walk into the partnership with confidence.

Most importantly, write these terms down and make sure your team agrees that you will be willing to walk away from the partnership if they are not met. If you and your team are willing to walk away from the table you will protect your business and end up only with deals you are happy with.

Do you think we will see a consolidation where there’s only a few big femtech companies?

Not anytime soon, and maybe not ever. A mature Femtech market doesn’t necessarily have to be a consolidated one. Femtech is a really young industry with so many new ideas. It’s way too early to know who the big companies will be five years from now.

A mature market also doesn’t have to be a consolidated one. Femtech can be a successful sector by bringing women’s health advocacy and principles into the mainstream tech and healthcare services. Some early examples of this are Apple Healthkit and Fitbit’s period trackers. The early period trackers like Clue were independent companies, because the big tech players ignored them. But as Femtech companies highlighted and fill the gap, they pushed the giants to improve their services for women too. If women’s health needs become priorities for all tech companies, it could decentralize and integrate Femtech instead.

Ava and Carrot just announced a partnership. Do you think we will see more partnerships between hardware/medical device and medical services startup in the femtech space?

 Wearables and Femtech are both really young sectors with a lot of space to grow. I think this is one of the most exciting opportunities in Femtech and I think we have really only just started to see the possibilities in wearable partnerships. In just the past year, we’ve started to see wearables are already starting to venture out of the fitness space with interesting collaborations like the Apple Watch’s EKG and the Oura Ring’s COVID-19 study. While those products and their sensors are getting more accurate, fFemtech apps are creating and learning from women-centric data sets that can make use of those sensors. Both these industries are growing by leaps and bounds and I think we will see really exciting new applications and opportunities as we bring them together.

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