“Pilot Fish” are clever strategies for business growth

October 20, 2015

How small businesses can grow faster and further through new types of partnerships

  • Why are pilot fish successful in the natural world?
  • Learning from “pilot fish” like Intel and Goretex, Hella and YKK
  • Finding the right “shark” partner to take you further and faster
  • How can you develop a “pilot fish strategy” for your business?

Every manager with any ambition wants to grow their business into new markets. But how? Business models that work well at home are rarely the right ones in international markets. Yet there is a new breed of small companies who have learnt to thrive internationally without excessive cost or risk. They are “pilot fish” companies.

In nature, pilot fish swim with the sharks, doing the things the big fish can’t or don’t want to do, whilst being protected and sustained in return. In business, “pilot fish“ work with strategic partners providing a small number of specialist ingredients, but with huge potential scale. The Pilot Fish keynote is an inspirational introduction to the new concept with practical examples that can be applied rapidly by the audience to their business. We explore the 4 phases of Pilot Fish strategies:

  • How to find a unique capability or activity within your current business, for which there is a high demand internationally, and then find a potential shark to help you get there
  • How to find the right Shark company who needs your uniqueness to compliment its own offering, and develop a mutually rewarding business model.
  • How to maintain and manage the lucrative partnership, how to grow in the target markets together, and how to manage risks within it.
  • How to realise the full value of your strategy either by selling the business to the shark or moving upstream and becoming a shark on your own.

Watch video clips of Peter Fisk’s “Pilot Fish” keynote

Example of the one day “Pilot Fish” program

09:00     Introduction – Blue Oceans and Pilot Fish

We kick off the workshop with an inspirational half an hour keynote presentation about Pilot Fish concept, strategic framework, the process and insights into successful Pilot Fish companies. We fish out the most potential Pilot Fish companies from your market and bring them to you. At the end of the session attendees will see a spectacular video about the Pilot Fish and Sharks on blue oceans, their relationship so similar to what Pilot Fish companies have with their giant partners.

10:00     Step 1 – Find your unique strength

This session will start by redefining greatness, with attendees brainstorming what uniqueness is. With a shared understanding, we consider existing and potential examples of unique positioning, differentiation, value propositions, patents, core competences, client relationships, knowledge and skills, brand image, and other properties that set some businesses far beyond the rest. And not just differentiated – but also valuable to others. Now we are ready to brainstorm what is your company’s valuable uniqueness? Or your own? What can you do better than the rest? In what are you the best in the world? What valuable is there in the history of your company and relationships? After breaking up the answers the session ends with an interview with the CEO of a successful Pilot Fish company.

11:00     Break

11:30     Step 2 – Find a Shark company

If you were lucky enough to find anything unique in your company or yourself and have not escaped during the coffee break, we now explore the world of sharks, and why do “shark companies“ use Pilot Fish companies. How do they meet their new partners? What qualities do they look for in their smaller partners? How will they decide whether to work with a Pilot Fish company or not? This introduces the next practical challenge. No matter how hands-on the attendees are in their daily business, this is a stretching exercise: knowing your unique strength and using all the resources available within the workshop location, put together a list of three potential shark companies that would benefit from your strengths. After considering the outputs, we explore the most efficient ways to search and find Shark companies. So before lunch, we are half way there. The session ends with a video interview of another CEO of a successful Pilot Fish company.

13:00     Lunch

14:00     Step 3 – Managing the Pilot Fish relationship

It would be nice to take it easy after lunch … but no. In real life, this is the “make or break” moment, and demands full attention. Not all the Sharks are friendly and supportive to their small partners. Some might seduce you then rip you off: your knowledge, patents, concepts … In the beginning of this session we cover the threats and risks in Pilot Fish relationships and the legal and non-legal ways to manage those risks. When the heat is taken off with the checklist of what attendees themselves need to watch out the most when entering Pilot Fish relationship, we take a tour on a softer side of managing your company within the framework of Pilot Fish partnership. When you have one or two huge clients, what is different in the way you manage? Or if the Pilot Fish unit is a spin-off from larger entity, how the management styles and culture work out with the “old” company? What do you need to change in a way you market your products? What changes in R&D? What is different about the people you need? And how to take all these changes to your people? This gives attendees a blueprint to start working as a Pilot Fish company. And some more tips by video from another Pilot Fish CEO.

15:30     Break

16:00     Step 4 – Exiting or moving upstream

Can you think of any large successful companies that started out as Pilot Fish? Or others that have been absorbed into larger companies, their Sharks? This session considers some of today’s great Pilot Fish, and others who have used the Pilot Fish strategy to achieve greatness, as worldwide brands in their own right, or sold to Sharks, and the owners walked away rich. Then we’ll do some joint thinking about when is the Pilot Fish company ready for that kind of choice? What are the pros and cons of both? What strategies to use if you wish to pursuit as a sole brand? How to prepare your company, and your shark company, for an exit? As this step is far in the future for the attendees, it is difficult to outline clear strategies. But attendees will take away the possible scenarios with their strengths and weaknesses, and gain inspiration from those Pilot Fish who learnt to swim with the sharks, or grow into one. The session will end with the thought provoking video about the highlights of the day. Or even better, let’s all get naked and go swim the blue oceans and party with the sharks.

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