There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to this stuff. Unlike building out a sales process or a marketing funnel, building a partner ecosystem requires a long recipe of ingredients, a kitchen full of cookware, and lots of time and room for measuring, making, and taste-testing your work.
In the previous five years, I’ve built out three partnership programs playing for both “teams” — both as an agency or reseller partner as well as a partner manager and director of partnerships on the SaaS / ISV side. These experiences have helped me develop a strong conviction about how a partnerships team should operate, what goals to set, and what to prioritize when building a partner ecosystem from scratch.
As the first-ever Director of Partnerships for an ecommerce third-party-logistics (3PL) company, Whiplash (recently acquired by Ryder), I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary and I took some time to reflect. In that time, we’ve…
- …sent over 100 leads to partners
- …have led or taken part in over 45 co-marketing projects
- …received more than 40 leads from partners that turned into 15 qualified opportunities
- …have over tens of millions in pipeline in less than one year
- …hired four new partnerships roles
To help those on a similar path who are asking the same questions I was when starting from scratch, here is the path and some tips that have quickly allowed me to build one of the most exciting and impactful teams in our organization, from Month “0” to Month 12.
(You may also like: From Pitch to Partner-Influenced Revenue: How to Build and Scale a Partner Program in One Year)
I was tasked with building a partner ecosystem around integration and non-integration partners from scratch grounded in driving value to our customers, our partners, and net new revenue and expansion for our organization (in that order).
I’m fortunate enough to have a manager that knows that leading with value and focusing on benefiting our customers will naturally come back around in the form of brand equity, leads, and revenue for the business.
I learned the hard way years ago that you won’t get far in partnerships without internal support, so I started by building internal alignment across the organization from C-suite to department heads for every team I thought I’d interact with.
I interviewed every leader about their teams, customer interactions and conversation topics, recurring processes and meetings, KPIs, and interactions with technologies and integrations. I would then explain what partnerships are and how they related to them.
My goal was to ensure that everybody knew what I was about to build and how it aligned with their goals and the organization’s goals. From there, you can make a case for why and how they can support your efforts in the future so that everybody feels like they’re winning.
Tip: Internal department alignment should be done with any customer-facing team, from sales to support to customer success, as well as teams like product and marketing that indirectly engage your customers.
This work never stops and will always be a core component to a partner organization’s success short and long-term — while also ensuring job security for you and your team. The clearer your value is to internal teams, the more vital you will be, whether or not you have data to back it up.
As tempting as it is to go and start building a program that you’ve been dreaming about, it’s imperative that you first see if you can uncover any pre-existing relationships or partnerships and learn as much as you can. I did some digging to find what potential “partners”, integration or non-integration like an agency or another tech product, already existed and interviewed them to understand what made them tick and to get feedback on my ideas for our future program.
Tip: You’d be surprised what potential partnerships already exist that have not been given any attention. These can be products that you have an integration with but no relationship with or an agency that has several accounts for clients within your product.
Find the available partnerships that have already received investment and talk to them. Some things to ask them:
- What is the history of the relationship?
- What started this relationship/integration?
- How have things gone so far, good or bad?
- Do you have any data, metrics, or stories regarding our partnership/integration that you could share?
- Why do you continue to partner with us?
- If you could wave a magic wand, what would be different about this partnership?
- What are your goals/KPIs?
- What’s most important to you and your organization as it relates to partnerships?
- Is there anything I can help you with at this time?
This information is critical in forming your Ideal Partner Profile (IPP) as well as your program’s processes and benefits.
By month two, I had some insight into what the existing “partners” and my colleagues cared about most, whether it was dependent on an integration or not. That, combined with what I learned about our teams and our customers from my team leads during our interviews, helped me shape what types of partners, integrations, and program benefits made the most sense and what I needed to prioritize first.
So I did what any partnerships-minded person would do: asked partner friends, mentors, and internal stakeholders for feedback and thoughts. Their input would help me finalize the program, partner priorities, plans for future team members, budgets, tools, and marketing requests.
Tip: Other partnership professionals who have been there are invaluable. They can help to uncover potential obstacles, teach you about similar programs or partnership models, leverage resources, give feedback on your work, and more. They helped me prepare budgets, edit presentations, made introductions, and helped me simplify my program’s offerings.
It was time to start building, or rather, cultivating, a partner ecosystem. The goal of our ecosystem was not immediate partner-sourced revenue, but “customer value”. “Customer value” included anything that would help our customers grow their business, and eventually could be measured in terms of existing revenue expansion. We built a formula to measure this, which is unique to our pricing model, but is essentially:
[Measurable unit growth from partner] x [price per unit] = Existing revenue expansion.
To improve customer value, we set out to build integrations to fill feature gaps while also partnering with key strategic non-integration technology partners that would help our customers ship more orders. This, in turn, would drive more service revenue for the company (reminder: My company is in the logistics space).
Launching a program is not just a marketing play, there are a plethora of finer details to consider —everything from customizing your CRM to building playbooks to new website pages to internal training and more. This takes lots of planning and prep. Thankfully, it’s been done before and there are folks out there who were able to share their playbooks.
To accompany the launch of the program, I built a list of ideal partners and integrations and informed the various teams of what we were focusing on and what we needed to be successful to help everyone hit their goals together. Everything was tied back to my learnings from the alignment conversations in Month 0 so everyone gave a thumbs up (some were even excited).
Tip: Think long-term about your partner relationships and how your program will enable ongoing engagement and value. There is nothing worse than kicking off a new partnership only to lose the momentum and see little or no return on the work invested to kick things off. Strive for long-term success by genuinely doing what you can to support them in their roles and by showing them that you care from day one.
This can be anything big or small, such as including them in co-marketing activities, meeting in-person, consistently communicating company/product updates, finding introductions you can make, responding to issues quickly and escalating when needed, building an integration, or sending qualified referrals/leads.
Months 1-3 are the easy part. Enablement, however, is one of the hardest things to do in partnerships and is a true test of grit, persistence, and internal marketing/sales skills. I began by setting up lessons and educational series with every team to teach them the most relevant aspects of our new partner program and ecosystem. That included what it means to them, their roles, their goals, and what the ideal collaboration looks like between them and my team.
This work never stops, and we’re constantly trying new things to share with our teams to keep our partners top of mind; success stories with partners and mutual customers, Crossbeam overlap reports, relevant blogs and content they can learn from/share, partner product updates, and even coming up with challenges and prizes when our teams refer our partners.
Tip: Focus on this enablement from the day you sign your first partner/launch your program and think of creative ways to continue to keep your internal teams informed on an ongoing basis. Test out different forms of content and knowledge sharing. Meet people where they work, tie any relevant partner-related story back to their goals and values.
With ~15 partners, existing and new integrations to support, lots of enablement in progress with our internal teams and our 15 partners, and lots of co-marketing ramping up that I was overly involved in, it was clear I had already built up a mountain of work that was not going to get any smaller. We were starting to see a small amount of success bringing in some leads (although we’d later learn they were not as “qualified” as we thought).
With things moving in the right direction, we needed to keep our foot on the gas and needed someone to manage the copious amounts of operational activities that are the backbone of partnerships like CRM management, co-marketing support, internal engagement, and partner communications. I made a pitch to leadership showing all of the work that was taking place, the leads we were starting to drive, and agreed to set some revenue targets in order to get the approval to hire someone to help with Partnerships Operations, and it turned out to be the right choice as we had a strong foundation to better support and enable our partners and internal teams before we grew our team too quickly.
Tip: There’s no right or wrong answer for what role to hire first (see these 6 org charts as examples), but as a stickler for process and clean operations, I opted to get a strong foundation in place that future partner managers could run with before bringing them into a potentially chaotic environment without the structure and resources for them to leverage.
Do not expect and do not sell short-term revenue, and try not to get distracted by it. We were lucky in that a co-marketing effort drove a lead through the entire funnel and to a close without us even knowing until a UTM report was done by our marketing team at the end of the quarter. It was a great feeling and unexpected early validation for our company’s leadership. The co-marketing partner that drove that lead and the eventual sale was a partner worth prioritizing.
Tip: Validation feels good, but focusing too much on it (revenue) too early can steer you away from the bigger picture long-term. Focus on the building blocks first, prioritize your partners’ success, and find ways to prove the value of partnerships to your internal teams. Once you can get this flywheel turning, leads and revenue will flow back naturally without forcing them.
Six months into the role, there were quantitative and qualitative signs that showed we were on the right path. Not everything is trackable, some of it you can feel and hear in your calls and interactions with others in the space. In our case, that was:
- 1-2 co-marketing initiatives per month with established processes for launching new partnerships (not all hosted and driven by our team)
- One to two dozen leads in the pipeline and a few that have converted into opportunities with real dollar amounts
- 30+ leads to our partners from current customers or prospects
- Inquiries for partnerships start to come in more and more frequently
- My LinkedIn inbox started to become unmanageable
- Crossbeam became the bible for our team and we had sales banging on our doors for more overlap data
Tip: Persistence and diversification are key. If you have the resources, test out various co-marketing and enablement activities to start to see what resonates with your partners, your internal teams, and KPIs you can track against like inbound/outbound leads. Keep iterating until traction builds and then double down.
By now, we have a healthy list of 30 partners and a long list of integrations on the roadmap. Some of these have been well-received by our teams and are being pitched in our team conversations turning into leads for them, and they’ve been able to send a few our way as well thanks to various enablement sessions.
They can’t all be winners though, especially without the resources, so there are quite a few that aren’t moving much at all and need some time and attention — but I can’t be everything to everyone by myself. Even with a program only six months old, it was clear that the integration partners needed the most attention and support to maximize value creation for everyone involved (including customers), so this is where we made our first partner manager (PM) hire.
Tip: Before hiring a PM to take on a specific subset of partners, make sure you’ve spent some time doing those tasks yourself. I’ve seen many managers hire for something they have no experience in and it’s not the best recipe for success. Knowing what it’s like to walk in their shoes is critical to setting the right expectations and supporting this role sufficiently.
Our partner-sourced pipeline has quickly grown to 4x what we need to close for the year to hit our targets. However, I’m still very much starting to think through the ways we can better measure our value as a department. And that means building out our sales influence attribution model in our CRM as well as ways to uncover integration data. This model is designed to tag any opportunities a partner was involved in the sale, whether they gave an endorsement, were active in the opportunity, or were a key integration that helped win the deal. This shows leadership how we can add value even if partnerships isn’t the source of an opportunity.
Our phase one influence model consists of an influence “object” that can be added to an opportunity in our CRM. This object is tagged to a partner and requires a selection of the type of influence:
- An integration requirement, where a prospect mentioned this partner integration was key in moving forward with us
- Active in sale, where a partner supported us through the sale co-selling or behind-the-scenes backchanneling
- Endorsement, after a partner sang our praises to a prospect of ours to help position us in the best light
Tip: Think through and start to build ways to measure the various attributes of partnerships value outside of closed revenue; total opportunity pipeline, sales influence, Average Sales Price (ASP) and deal velocity, integration data, customer retention or churn, NPS, brand reach and traffic, etc. Revenue doesn’t come quickly, and you will want to back up your progress in other ways to other teams while showing you’re more than just a revenue channel.
It was evident for several months that co-marketing was taking up a ton of time (and resources) once 75% of the marketing calendar was partner-specific content and events, but we still needed to kick our efforts up a notch. Furthermore, we needed to improve and scale our enablement processes for our partners and internal teams and I felt that this should live under partner marketing. With my marketing team’s buy-in, we set up a role that was split between both teams in structure but completely driven by the goals of the partnerships team.
Tip: Co-marketing is so much more than blogs and webinars. Internal co-marketing is just as valuable if not more to properly supporting your teams and your partners’ teams to know the value you/your partners bring and how they can play a role in creating value for your customers and each other.
With 40+ partners, a dozen integrations on the roadmap, and metrics of success shared with leadership and every key division of the company, we have no intention of slowing down so that we can continue to show our value and hit big numbers.
Reflecting on the first year has been tremendously helpful in analyzing what we’ve done right and where we’ve missed the mark. I can confidently say that a few key learnings have really helped us show such strong signs of progress in a short amount of time:
- Laser focus on internal alignment and buy-in from the very start. Show each and every team member that you have common goals and are determined to help them succeed. Lack of alignment is like playing the game with a hand tied behind your back. This allows you to scale your partnerships superpowers from one to many people.
- Leading with value for a small, focused group of partners. You can’t be everything to everyone, and the more partners you have, the less time and resources you have to offer each partner. Having had 600 partners in my last role, I was dead-focused on keeping a tight-knit program where I could live up to my promises while not overwhelming internal teams with too many partners to remember.
- Build for the long-term and stay focused on your goals and metrics. It’s very easy to get distracted by shiny objects in this role where there is potential everywhere you look. But true exponential growth and multimillion-dollar revenue channels don’t happen when you’re constantly changing focus and de-prioritizing investments for the future. Set clear goals, build systems to measure them, say no, and keep your eye on the prize.
With that said, I definitely missed the mark in a few areas and not everything went as planned. Many partners I had in mind coming into the role didn’t materialize and others I hadn’t thought of have scaled quickly. Integration readiness was an assumption that proved to not be so ready, and I’ve over-commited on several of them to customers. We’ve had to iterate our internal enablement activities countless times to find out what people cared about and what mediums they preferred, and we’re still toying with these every month. And one of the biggest lessons of them all, happy hours rarely result in lead gen.
To continue our momentum and trajectory, we’re going to have to hire more Partner Managers to make sure our partners are feeling loved and to continue to enable them and our teams consistently. Partner Marketing will be scaling quickly, and as these arms grow we will have to double down on Partner Operations to continue to support the growth and more powerful engine. With every hire, we do our best to weave them into the fabric of our teams to ensure we’re all working collaboratively as best as we can and identifying areas of opportunity.
Partnerships can feel like you’re on an island when you don’t fit into the mold of the more traditional teams in an organization. Exposure and alignment within your company and with your partners is the best recipe for success in partnerships. Mix that with an unwavering passion for doing right by your partners and your customers and success will follow — even if it’s not exactly as you planned.
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