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Partnerships 101: ISVs, VARs, SIs, MSPs, and the Glue that Holds them Together

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Note: this is the latest in our Partnerships 101 series. You can read the others below:

If you’ve landed here, you know the language of partnerships is a tricky one (but one well worth knowing). Maybe you’ve heard someone use the phrase “channel partners” interchangeably with “go-to-market partners”. Or you’re dipping your toes into the differences (and similarities) between MSPs, SIs, and VARs. 

Keeping up with industry jargon, terminology, tools, and tactics can make all the difference between influencing your company’s ability to grow and hitting a plateau. You’ve got the power, and we’re here to help you forge onwards with confidence. 

Learn these acronyms, and you’re on your way to building a dynamic partner ecosystem (we’ll get to “ecosystems” in a bit!). 

Jump Ahead: 

Partner Ecosystems and Why They Matter

In order to think critically about partnerships and their projected impact on your company’s revenue, you’ll need to understand the concepts of “the ecosystem” and “a partner ecosystem.

Let’s get started.

When we talk about “a partner ecosystem,” we’re referring to a single company’s partner network. Salesforce’s partner ecosystem consists of Freshdesk, Slack, Amazon Web Services, and 4,796 (and counting) other companies. 

Within that network, many of Salesforce’s partners have also partnered with each other. Slack has partnered with Zapier, for example, Stripe has partnered with ShipStation, and so on. These connections create a sticky network; if you think there’s a reason that Salesforce’s partners have partnered with each other, you’re right! 

  • For one, Salesforce has proven that its customers find value in the integrations they’ve developed. That means, their partners can look to the Salesforce ecosystem when they’re building out their own ecosystems to meet similar customer needs.
  • Secondly, Salesforce has weight in the market (with 150,000+ companies using the platform). When the Salesforce team announces a partnership, they’re essentially bringing another company under their wing—like the “cool kid” bringing another kid into their circle (and suddenly their reputation sky-rockets). It’s about Salesforce’s influence in the ecosystem.
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Salesforce’s tech ecosystem on Partnerbase

Now, let’s talk about “the ecosystem.” 

The ecosystem can be described as the entire network of businesses (whether existing within a single vertical or across all verticals) that are actively and publicly engaging in partnerships with at least one other company. 

The ecosystem is made up of thousands of partner ecosystems all connected.

Our visual mapping of the e-commerce ecosystem (below) displays all existing partnerships within a vertical and draws correlations among their direct or indirect relationships in or adjacent to their partner’s ecosystem. Basically, it’s one big web of connections (and a whole lot of opportunity).

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the e-commerce partner ecosystem in 2020.

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Let’s get a closer look at Shopify’s partner ecosystem. Shopify is a “Supernode” in the ecosystem. Shopify has more than 1,200 partners (or “nodes”).

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Shopify’s tech ecosystem on Partnerbase

Shopify has partnered with Stripe to sync their payment processing data from sales with Stripe (which supports payments like standard credit card transactions, ACH, Google Pay, and more) with their online marketplace platform. They’ve partnered with Zapier to funnel their accounting data from Shopify to Google Sheets, Wave, and other tools that are popular with sellers. (And the list goes on.) 

Because Shopify has partnered with so many companies that complement the functionality of its platform, Shopify has become a “stickier” technology in the B2B world—meaning, many vendors look to Shopify as their preferred e-commerce marketplace because of the company’s seamless integrations with other products or services they love. 

As Shopify’s partner count grows, its influence within the greater ecosystem and the market grows, too. Shopify’s partner team has curated a massive ecosystem that increases the brand’s stickiness and expands its market reach. 

Why are partner ecosystems important?

Partner ecosystems are created because (1) no one company can expect to control a customer’s entire technology stack; and (2) no one company (think: internal sales team) can realistically reach all of its target customers alone. 

Partner ecosystem development has become a critical way to leverage competitive advantage and drive growth by:

  • Increasing market power and viability
  • Accessing new markets and business opportunities 
  • Innovation via new technology or services acquisition
  • Improving stickiness: it becomes harder to pull your product from the tech stack 
  • Attractiveness to investors (Sarah Wang at Andreessen Horowitz says investors are more likely to bet on companies that prioritize partner generated revenue.)

While some partnership types and categories may interchange depending on who you’re speaking with (or even overlap in their meaning), partnerships are generally grouped like so:

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If you’re more of a visual learner, we’ve put together an explainer of the three main categories of partnerships through our video series, “Crossbeam Explains.” For a deeper understanding of the partnership types within each category and real-world examples of each, read on.

Partnership Types and Categories: A Breakdown

Tech Partners or Independent Software Vendors (ISVs)

Broadly speaking, if a partnership involves your tech product integrating with your partner’s tech product, you have a technology partnership on your hands. This is also referred to as an “integration partnership”. These partners are known as “tech partners” or Independent Software Vendors (ISVs).

While companies in the technology industry develop software to solve a specific problem, they simply can’t address every need for their customers. If they do, they may sacrifice quality in their search to become an all-in-one solution, and they may lose customers who prefer best-in-breed tools in their tech stack. This is where tech partners come in. 

Generally, a platform becomes more valuable to the end user or customer with the more applications it supports. ISVs integrate some of the functionality or features of their own software within their partner’s platform, thus making the platform a more well-rounded, comprehensive solution. 

Tech partnerships can be critical to a company’s growth because they enable both partners to enter new, adjacent markets without investing heavily in new product developments. Just take a look at these stats that show the business impact of tech partnerships

Census saw a 34% higher annual contract value (ACV) on deals with tech partners. Census’s team has observed that starting the sales conversation with a tech partner’s customer shortly after the tech partner has converted the customer results in better conversions and ACV for Census.

Freshworks has a 50% faster time to close by getting introductions from tech partners. Freshworks works with its CSMs to determine which customers would be most likely to need their integration with a given tech partner, and then they offer to introduce the tech partner to their customers. Their partner then does the same for them.

Partnerships account for nearly 50% of Gorgias’s revenue. Gorgias initiates a referral relationship with its new tech partners. Gorgias’s team uses Crossbeam to map accounts with its new tech partners and then offers to make introductions to select customers who overlap with their tech partner’s prospects list. Then their partner offers to do the same for them. Each partner may narrow down their target list by a set of criteria, like gross merchandise value (GMV), number of Instagram followers, geographic location, and more.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of tech partnerships. 

Spotify and Amazon Alexa

The ability to use a simple voice command to listen to Spotify on any Amazon Alexa device increases the value of Spotify and Amazon Alexa. 

Here’s how Amazon Alexa benefits from the partnership. 

  • The ability to listen to music on demand taps into a widely popular experience (Who doesn’t listen to music?) that’s marketable to a massive, global audience. Previously, consumers turned to Alexa for one-off recipe searches or the occasional fact-checking. Now, there’s a more universal reason to purchase and use Alexa devices — listening to music anywhere (inside or by the pool), anytime (just say the words), and without needing a screen (no need to switch between your cake recipe and your Spotify). 

In fact, listening to music via Spotify also became a major focal point in Amazon Alexa’s marketing campaigns.

And here’s how Spotify benefits from the partnership.

  • Paid Spotify subscribers are less likely to cancel their subscriptions since they’re using their accounts more frequently and easily with Alexa (and many people received free Alexa devices through global campaigns, upping Spotify usage even more!). 
  • Free Spotify subscribers are more likely to upgrade to a paid subscription if they have an Alexa, because they’re a) using their Spotify accounts more frequently and b) have a greater desire to prevent ads from playing between songs. 
  • People who purchase Alexa are more likely to purchase a Spotify subscription if they didn’t have a subscription previously or if they were subscribers of a different streaming platform. 

Notion and Slack

Teams using Notion, a project management software, can easily view Slack messages in individual project pages in Notion. Prior to the integration, teams collaborating in Slack would need to manually copy messages relevant to existing projects into their project pages. Now, they can paste a link to the message in the project page to generate a preview, and any team member can click into the Slack message to retrieve context around the message. 

For example: A team member can click a preview of a Slack message saying, “Let’s publish an article on API documentation” to find the rest of the conversation, including a message that says, “Bill is an expert in this area — Let’s have Tim and Bill work together on the first draft.” This seamless workflow and easy access of data creates the feeling of working in one place, when really you’re leveraging the two tools together. Teams can have an easier time finding information across tools and can enjoy better efficiency and transparency between team members (No need to check in on Tim and Bill—they’re on it!).

Speaking of APIs (“Application programming interface”), Notion announced that its API came out of beta in March 2022. As more tools enter the market and tech stacks continue to grow to include a variety of best-in-breed solutions, Notion is ready to integrate with tools where collaboration happens most.

Okta and Workday

HR software Workday needed a solution for enabling IT departments to efficiently sync employee record data with tools in the cloud. For example: IT departments need the ability to create, modify, and remove logins for employees across a variety of tools (especially as their company and tech stack grows). Workday’s integration with Okta, an identity and access management platform, syncs Workday data to a variety of IT systems. 

The partnership enables both companies to remain attractive to their customers as they scale. Things often begin to break at the 100-employee mark, but Okta and Workday’s integration helps to prevent their customers from needing other tools to fill their individual product gaps.

Slack and Giphy

Alone, Giphy provides a niche offering—silly animated or static images that can make light of any situation. Within Slack, Giphy is an everyday part of online communications between employees at many companies. It can even support a stronger company culture. 

Celebrating the launch of a new partnership in Slack? Or the launch of your first tech ecosystem? Get ready for a slew of warm-and-fuzzy gifs from your colleagues. In short, people love using gifs. With the bump in Giphy users through Slack, those users begin to look for gifs (and Giphy) wherever they communicate online—Facebook, text messaging, WhatsApp, or elsewhere.

In fact, Facebook parent company Meta bought Giphy for $400 million in 2020 with plans to integrate it with Instagram (Caveat: They have since been asked to sell Giphy). It’s likely that Giphy’s strategic partnership with several online communication platforms fueled Facebook’s interest and primed them for the acquisition.

DocuSign and Salesforce 

DocuSign developed an integration for the Salesforce platform to enable companies of all sizes and across industries to “go paperless” and sync their document management processes with their CRM (customer relationship management) data. 

The integration with DocuSign has supported use cases like streamlining document processes for IT, HR, partnership development, sales, and more. It’s become an invaluable part of the Salesforce platform—internally as well as for Salesforce customers. Their invaluable partnership even led Salesforce to invest in DocuSign

Salesforce customers can benefit from unifying their contracts and other documentation with their CRM data—thus, making Salesforce a more complete solution for their business needs. Meanwhile, DocuSign benefits by gaining access to Salesforce’s 150,000+ customer base. 

A great place to find more examples of tech partnerships is on a company’s partner page, the “App Store,” or the “Integration Marketplace” of large tech platforms. The Salesforce AppExchange, Shopify App Store, and Zapier Integration List are treasure troves of tech partnerships.

Channel Partners 

Channel partners include all go-to-market (GTM) partners that market or sell a partner’s product or service. A GTM partner leverages a “go-to-market strategy” that defines how each partner will help the other reach their respective target customers. 

Depending on the type of channel partnership, the vendor may sell their partner’s product or service in its original form (Reseller), as a bundle with a sum greater than its parts (Value-Added Reseller or VAR), as a new, combined system (System Integrator or SI), or as an ongoing service that complements a partner’s product or service (Managed Service Provider or MSP). Additionally, any channel partner that provides professional/technical services to their clients may also be referred to as a “services partner” or a “solutions partner”.

Channel partners can play a critical role in helping their ISV partners generate revenue and even expand to new markets. Below are a few examples of the business impact of channel partnerships:

A third of Atlassian’s business involves partners. Atlassian relies on its services partners to implement their software (like Jira and Trello) for customers. They’ve seen so much success with their services partners that they built an in-house services team on top of investing in their channel partner program.

As of 2019, 95% of Microsoft’s revenue flows through its partners. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, attributes the company’s $32 billion in revenue during Q2 of 2019 to partnerships. Microsoft’s investment in its partner ecosystem includes a shift from working with resellers to working with VARs (more on VARs in a bit!), which enable its services partners to provide more value to their shared customers using Microsoft’s products. 

Let’s take a look at some examples of channel partnerships:

Resellers

Partner managers sometimes use the term resellers as a general umbrella term for channel partnerships. However, as a standalone partnership type, a “reseller” is a vendor that sells a product or service on behalf of its partner. The reseller invoices the customer and sends some of the revenue back to the ISV partner.

Let’s check out a couple of SaaS reseller examples. 

Bluehost & WordPress

Bluehost and WordPress market and resell one another’s product to prospects and customers. 

  • WordPress recommends Bluehost as its preferred web hosting partner and promotes the hosting site’s functionality within the backend of its CMS (content management system).
  • Meanwhile, Bluehost offers bundled WordPress hosting plans. 

Bluehost taps into the customer base of the most popular CMS, comprising 38% of the web. At the same time, WordPress benefits from Bluehost selling their product to millions of Bluehost customers and prospects. 

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Ingram Micro is a reseller for a variety of software, including Microsoft 365. They developed a custom Microsoft 365 integration for an MSP customer, F1 Computer Solutions. Through the custom integration, the MSP improved its cloud billing speed by 75%. In this example, the reseller sold the software and provided professional services in integration development.

A Brief Mention of Affiliate Programs

On a peer-to-peer level, Bluehost also has an affiliate program that offers consumers monetary rewards for bringing in referrals. You’ll see a lot of examples of affiliate programs on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, where content creators share their work and promote the equipment they use, like Nikon cameras, and software, like Adobe Lightroom, for a referral fee from the partner. This is an example of a reseller in a broader sense of the term, but not a GTM reseller.

Value-Added Resellers (VARs)

Value-added resellers work with partners to develop a modified version of their partner’s product or service in order to add more value for customers. VARs tend to function on a transactional basis.

For example, someone who’s looking for a computer with custom capabilities for video or photo editing may purchase the product from a VAR. Rather than figuring out who else they need to talk to or how to integrate the features themselves, the VAR may offer a simpler, all-in-one solution. 

Alternatively, a business looking into cloud storage for their employees may need additional assistance with installation, support, and system training. A VAR can provide a more comprehensive solution, on top of the core cloud storage offering, at a higher price point. 

The most well-known VARs are large technology consulting firms, such as Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, and PwC, or smaller upstarts like Slalom—all of which are Supernodes in the ecosystem. In 2014, for example, Deloitte Global announced a VAR agreement with SAP AG to round out Deloitte’s core services, such as financial advisory and technology consulting, through the resale of SAP software and maintenance in an all-in-one “package.”

System Integrators (SIs)

The distinction between VARs and System Integrators can get blurry as each type of reseller increasingly performs the other’s function. SIs combine the hardware and/or software components of third-party vendors (think: their tech partners) to build a custom system that meets a customer’s needs. Centric and Atos are two well-known system integrators. SIs are often referred to as “solutions” or “consulting” partners. There are three types: 

Global System Integrators (GSIs) have global offices and hundreds of thousands of employees. They can generate millions of dollars annually with a single client. An ISV partner that gets on a GSI’s good side can earn a significant amount of partner-sourced revenue from its SI partner.

However, it’s often difficult for ISVs to get the attention of a GSI. The ISV needs to have a solid product-market fit with a proven value proposition, and its software needs to work well with other software the GSI implements for their clients. Invest in your tech ecosystem, and it will help you earn the respect of a target GSI. (Read “Confessions of a GSI” to learn more about the dos and don’ts.)

Regional System Integrators (RSIs) specialize in particular business functions, verticals, and regions. While a GSI is bigger in size and scope, an RSI may be a stronger partner depending on the ISV company’s business goals. GSIs tend to offer a wider variety of services globally compared to RSIs. 

Boutique System Integrators are highly specialized in their offerings (e.g. focusing on marketing performance). They’re like the best-in-breed companies within the SI category—specializing in a limited number of areas. Since they’re often smaller than GSIs and RSIs, they’re often more capable of having a closer working relationship with their tech partners.

For example: An ISV company may wants to be involved in a particular project with their existing GSI partner, but due to the size of the company, the number of projects they’re working on globally, and a lack of access to GSI stakeholders in different departments, their efforts may be fruitless. However, an ISV company is more likely to get dedicated attention and collaboration throughout the customer lifecycle from their boutique SI partner.

Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

MSPs offer technology services on top of a partner’s product or service for a recurring fee. MSPs generate a consistent revenue stream by supplementing their partner’s initial offering through ongoing technical support. 

MSP offerings typically include network maintenance, hardware repair, help-desk support, email management, and any other function that requires a day-to-day administrator to keep processes, workflows, and systems running smoothly. They often serve as completely outsourced IT department solutions. Compared to VARs, which typically operate on a transactional basis, MSPs operate on longer-term contracts. An SI may also offer managed services once the initial upfront work for a client is complete.

Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM)

There’s more than one way to think about OEMs.

In the manufacturing world, OEMs can manufacture parts for other technology companies. For example, Foxconn, originally based in Taiwan, serves as a supplier to Apple in China. According to Investopedia, while Foxconn has many of its locations in China, they were also able to support Apple’s entry into India’s market due to the supplier’s presence in the country.

In the SaaS world, OEMs can behave like a tech partner. The OEM develops software that lives inside its tech partner’s software and adds a particular functionality they wouldn’t have otherwise. The end-user might not see any evidence of the OEM partner, but they are using the OEM partner’s technology. OEM partners can help fill a gap in a tech company’s software and provide custom functionality and white-labeled branding. 

A couple of examples of OEMs in B2B SaaS: 

Docebo, a learning management software company, develops training software for customers, employees, partners, and more that lives inside their tech partner’s site. The end-user completing the training does not need to visit Docebo’s site to take the courses.

Typeform, a survey-building platform, adopted Tray.io as its iPaaS vendor (“integration platform as a service”).

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The integrations page on Typeform’s site

The visitor clicks “Connect” for a particular integration and then sees the following pages (below), which are powered by Tray.io.

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Strategic Partnerships 

Strategic partnerships, also known as “strategic alliances,” are the big kahunas of partnerships. They can encompass any of the above partnerships but do so with long-term, big-picture planning and intention. Companies that share resources and/or collaborate on a new endeavor to leverage each other’s expertise, relationships, distribution channels, and/or competitive market reach for mutual benefit are engaging in strategic partnerships. 

Strategic partnerships can enable one or more of the partners in the agreement to: 

  • Expand to new verticals and markets
  • Access a large number of new customers in their existing ICP
  • Lay the foundation for a future acquisition (like how PayPal acquired Honey for $4 billion)
  • Box out the competition (like how PayPal got a leg up on competitors like Amazon Pay by engaging customers with Honey’s web browser extension) 

A couple of examples of strategic alliances: 

ActiveCampaign and Salesforce

ActiveCampaign embarked on a strategic partnership with Salesforce in 2018, ultimately getting the #1 spot for marketing automation apps in Salesforce’s AppExchange. The partnership involved integration development, teaming up at global and regional events, extensive co-marketing, and more.

Google and HubSpot

Google and HubSpot teamed up to develop a high-value integration for their mutual customers, which resulted in a 232% increase in feature adoption just five months post launch. The partnerships, product, marketing, and CS teams needed to align on the value of the integration and their GTM strategy in the months leading up to and following the launch. 

Here’s a little quiz to help you drive all of this knowledge home.

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crossbeam-partnership-types-quiz-answers

Tools You Should Know

Partner Ecosystem Platform (PEP)

A partner ecosystem platform (PEP) like Crossbeam serves as an escrow service that enables partners to share their data securely and validate opportunities for developing integrations, co-selling, and co-marketing with potential partners. PEPs eliminate the need for spreadsheets with real-time account mapping.

For example: If you have a high number of customers in common with your tech partner, that’s a signal that your customers may benefit from an integration. From there, you can select some of your mutual customers to validate the market for the integration and gut check integration use cases. 

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The account mapping matrix in Crossbeam

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The account mapping matrix in Crossbeam

If you have a high number of prospects overlapping with your tech partner’s customers, this may be a good opportunity to sell into your partner’s customer base. Validate this data by confirming your ICPs overlap, and then discuss a potential co-selling partnership. 

Crossbeam’s Partner Cloud enables you to bring partner data into the tools your GTM teams use every day (Watch a webinar on this exact topic here).  

Crossbeam customers on the “Connector Plan” can utilize the Salesforce App, adopt an additional Partner Cloud integration, and more. 

Partnership Relationship Manager (PRM) 

So, now you know about PEPs, but what about Partner Relationship Managers (PRMs)?

While a PEP can help you find the best partnership opportunities, a PRM helps you track the results and is especially useful for channel partnerships. As your partner ecosystem grows, it becomes increasingly important to organize (and at times, automate) all of the data for each moving partnership—from partner contacts, to corresponding leads, to ecosystem-driven revenue gains. 

A PEP and a PRM should work hand in hand. The PEP offers visibility into overlaps between your partner’s data and your own through account mapping and can forecast potential revenue gains. Use your PRM combined with a PEP to track your partner-influenced pipeline and revenue after the partnership launches.

Learn more about the differences between PRMs and PEPs here

Extra Nuggets for Insightful Partner Analysis

Ideal Customer Profile (ICP)

The Ideal Customer Profile is a combined list of factors that your company has determined contributes to a prospect’s likelihood of converting and yielding a high return on investment. 

Creating an ICP helps you narrow in on which prospects your team should prioritize. By collecting and analyzing data on deals won and deals lost, over time, you’ll discover patterns that can help to inform where your sales and marketing teams should focus their efforts. 

While not every prospect will satisfy all of the traits of your ICP, you can create a scoring system to grade your prospects as they fit certain criteria.

How you choose to define your ICP depends on your company’s business goals and conversion factors. Do companies of a certain business size tend to say “no” to your product due to budget restrictions? Does your team have the best conversion rates within a specific region? Are you selling a product that requires a certain level of technological maturity—like SEO maturity? 

HubSpot mentions budget, industry, geography, and legality as some of their top considerations in their post about ICPs and buyer personas. Meanwhile, Terminus defines the ICP as a roundup of a company’s current tech stack, size of their customer base, and technological maturity, in addition to budget and industry. 

Figure out what works for your company and what doesn’t, and use these factors to calculate your ICP.

Ecosystem Qualified Leads (EQLs) 

Ecosystem qualified leads (EQLs) are leads you gain from companies in your partner ecosystem. These leads may present themselves through account mapping in a PEP. In a sense, your partner vets your leads for you. They may have already identified the contact in their pipeline or customer list as an ICP. If you’ve decided this is a valuable partnership for your company, it makes sense that a lead that’s been qualified by your partner would also qualify for you—whether it exists in a market you’re already in or a horizontal market you’re tapping into with your partner. 

Understanding partnership terms is only half the battle—knowing how and why to use them in order to adapt your strategy and drive growth will help you build a rock-solid partner ecosystem. When you’re ready, get proven tactics for co-selling, co-marketing, and developing integrations with partners in our Partner Playbook below.

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