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Learning about customers: Managing B2B alliances between small technology startups and industry leaders

Lourdes Perez (Department of Economics and Business, EADA, Barcelona, Spain and Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain)
Jeryl Whitelock (Bradford University School of Management, Bradford, UK)
Juan Florin (Whittemore School of Business and Economics, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire, USA)

European Journal of Marketing

ISSN: 0309-0566

Article publication date: 29 March 2013



The aim of this paper is to gain a better understanding of how small technology start‐ups learn about a key customer in the context of B2B relationships, and to propose a model of interfirm learning with customers.


Using a qualitative case‐based approach, the authors immerse themselves in the development of three learning alliances between technology startups and industry leaders, two successes and one failure, to gain an in‐depth understanding of the dynamics involved. Data were collected on both sides of the alliance dyad.


The paper delineates four learning cycles: alliance inception, joint‐learning, specialization and discovery. These learning cycles constitute sequences of increasing understanding, cooperation, and higher order learning between the partners; evolving from an exchange of existing knowledge to the joint development of new knowledge.


This study contributes to an integration of the alliance and marketing literatures by offering empirical evidence of a different type of alliance, namely the reciprocal learning alliance. It also contributes to broadening our understanding of market orientation in inter‐organizational settings. In the context of business‐to‐business relationships, the study has identified four critical dimensions of learning alliance success, and proposed how they could be measured: Learn about customers; Interact with customers; Customer‐specific investments; and Co‐develop breakthrough innovations. Finally, the study demonstrates the significant role played by “committed champions”.



Perez, L., Whitelock, J. and Florin, J. (2013), "Learning about customers: Managing B2B alliances between small technology startups and industry leaders", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 47 No. 3/4, pp. 431-462.



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