Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

My first job after graduation was vendor management at Amazon Video.

I managed all aspects of our relationship with digital video partners like NBC Universal that licensed their movies and TV shows to our service. I was responsible for these partners’ P&L: exploring opportunities to increase sales, running campaigns and promotions, smoothing out the digital supply chain, and constantly negotiating about this, that, or the other.

Negotiating was such a critical skill that everyone on my team was encouraged to take a three-day training course. Shoutouts to the two ex-Target instructors! That course was easily the best corporate training I’ve done.

Those years of experience came in handy, as one of the things I do most at Persona is find, evaluate, and negotiate with vendors. A core value proposition of our platform is solving any use case related to consumer identity so vendor integrations are key to our strategy, enabling us to extend the range of our product while saving the precious time needed to build it ourselves.

One of our first customers was a property rental startup that needed background checks and credit reports for tenant screening. We had two weeks to get something up-and-running before they launched — it was one of the most stressful two weeks I’ve ever had.

While I frantically read up on these unfamiliar industries, I juggled conversations with over a dozen different vendors. I was trying to negotiate about something I barely knew anything about, in a legal gray area, with zero leverage (I quickly learned how to deftly navigate questions about company size), and with insufficient insight into how these vendors actually worked.

Note: The personal data industry in the US is incredibly opaque. There’s a never-ending chain of resellers and it’s nearly impossible to know who’s a source provider or from who they’re getting their information from. It’s a Russian doll — whichever vendor you work with is actually working with another vendor underneath the hood, and so on.

On minimal sleep, I somehow managed to write a product spec and get two vendors signed and ready to integrate. As luck would have it, our customer didn’t end up launching but I’m glad it wasn’t throwaway work. As I write this, we’re actively integrating with the background check provider I signed in 2018.

I could tell many more stories, but I wanted to share some learnings on the art of vendor management:

  1. Game recognize game: If you want to get in the head of a vendor, sell like one. In the early days of Persona, we all had to sell. The strategies I learned then are the same ones used on me now.
  2. Create leverage: You can’t negotiate if you don’t have any chips in your stack. Sometimes you’ve got the big stack, but oftentimes you need to create leverage. The best way is competition — get multiple offers and play them against each other. You can also use other strategies like escalation paths (e.g. my boss says you’re too expensive).
  3. Always ask: If you don’t ask, you’ll never get it. This applies to information — any efficient vendor aims to present the least amount of information necessary for you to make a decision — and to prices! Always ask for a discount and use #2 to apply that extra bit of pressure. Works great for buying things on Craiglist too.
  4. Be a good human: Vendor management isn’t about transactions, it’s about relationships. There’s a saying in sales, People buy from people”. I have a corollary to that, “People do things for people they like”. It’s probably why my friends still laugh at my bad jokes.
  5. Anchor: Anchoring is the human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions. If you don’t anchor correctly at the start, you’re in for an uphill battle. So do your homework before the first call. When you’re asked about your projected volume, pick the highest possible number. When you’re asked about your budget, tell them how painfully low it is.

Endlessly curious, always optimizing. Startup and product enthusiast. vincenttsao.com