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Partnerships 101: Sandboxes (And Why You Should Consider Building One)

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This post is part of the “Tech Ecosystem Maturity” series, exploring the 30+ criteria of Crossbeam’s Tech Ecosystem Maturity Diagnostic. The diagnostic helps you understand how your partner program stacks up against others in the B2B SaaS industry, what you’re doing well, and how you can advance to the next level of maturity. To learn more and take the tech ecosystem maturity diagnostic, click here. Read the rest of the Tech Ecosystem Maturity series here.

Building a tech ecosystem can be competitive. While a large number of potential tech partners can expand and strengthen your company’s tech ecosystem, it can also make it more difficult to get and hold the attention of your target partners. 

So, how do you stand out from the crowd of partnership options? Make things as easy as possible for your potential partners. Get their attention by offering them something they most likely aren’t used to seeing.

And there’s no need to consult a magic crystal ball to know which features you should focus on — we have the data. 

According to our Tech Ecosystem Maturity Diagnostic, only 16% of maturity respondents have a full-featured sandbox environment for their partners with scalable methods to deploy, track, and manage partner activity. A “sandbox” is an instance of your product that gives your partners access without compromising your data. It allows them to play around with different potential integrations and get familiar with your product on a technical level.

The more access your partners have to your product, the better they can understand how it works. This helps… 

  1. Empower partners to accelerate sales conversations before you have to get involved. A sandbox gives them deep product understanding and the ability to demo your integrations for potential customers. 
  2. Give partners the access to quickly assess and build integrations with your product without creating a lift for your team (and avoiding bottlenecks in the process).
  3. Accelerate your partner enablement timeline by providing new partners with a hands-on learning experience that doesn’t require one-on-one coaching.

Mary Vue is the Head of Partnerships and Alliances at data automation platform Syncari. When she first joined the Syncari team, her top priority was giving each Syncari partner access to the Syncari product through a partner sandbox. 

“Your partners can be an extended part of your team [if you give them the right tools],” she shared. “Partners are very capable…and they can certainly accelerate the adoption of our product for our customers. And as you’re trying to grow adoption and revenue, you have to make your product accessible to those who are gonna help you expand the adoption.”

Vue attributes much of her partner program’s success to the creation of a partner sandbox, including

  • Conversion rates for partner-influenced deals are 2X higher.
  • The time to close of partner-influenced deals is faster than any non-partnership deal. 
  • Partners are empowered to pitch, scope, and demo Syncari. 

Jump ahead to learn:

What is a partner sandbox? 

A partner sandbox is an account that gives a partner team-member access to your product that lets them evaluate it in its entirety. However, because it’s a sandbox account and not a “live” or “production” account, nothing your partners do in the sandbox will impact real data.

Like an actual sandbox that allows children to make a mess without damaging the rest of the playground, a product sandbox gives your partners all the toys without risking your existing data and functionality.

A partner sandbox is primarily intended for partners to demo or present your product to their customers and build integrations between your two products. The scope of a sandbox can differ depending on the available resources. Some differences between a robust and no-frills sandbox include

  • Full vs limited feature product access
  • Manual vs automated rollout of the sandbox
  • Expansive vs limited or no tracking capabilities

The Syncari partner sandbox is robust, with full-featured product access for the user. Vue can set criteria (i.e. someone is moved from active partner status to non-partner status) that automatically trigger an action (i.e. a non-partner loses their sandbox access). She works with her customer success team that oversees the provisioning of licenses to track and manage active sandbox accounts.

Syncari partners can build and demo integrations and use the platform in its entirety through their sandbox access, without affecting real production data. 

“Our particular platform does require some interaction,” Vue shared. “We review the code to protect our mutual customers and we respond with any needed changes. After those have been addressed, the integration becomes fully usable.”

Why should you consider building one? 

Providing your partners with a full-featured sandbox is a great way to stand out from your peers. However, the benefits run deeper than that.

It’s a recruiting tool for new partners

Use a partner sandbox to…attract partners by letting them test your product before committing to building an integration.

Given the option, would you rather buy a car sight unseen or a car that you’ve taken for a test drive? If you prefer the former, I have a 2004 Toyota Corolla you might be interested in. If you prefer the latter, you fall into the much more pragmatic majority. The same logic applies to partnerships — committing your integration-building resources to a tech partnership after having the chance to really familiarize yourself with your potential partner’s product can help you prioritize the order in which you build your integrations.

“The first thing in recruiting [new tech partners] is being able to show your product to a technical champion inside a prospective partner organization,” Vue explained. “And the first thing the technical champion is going to say is, ‘Hey, I wanna take it for a test drive. Can I try it? I want to work on products that are enjoyable.’” 

While better-together stories help give insight into whether or not a partnership makes sense on a business level, a partner sandbox helps those responsible for the actual tech part of the partnership answer

  1. Does it make sense on a technical level to build an integration? 
  2. Is my partner’s product enjoyable to use? Would I feel confident recommending the product to my customers via co-selling a potential integration? 

Director of App Ecosystem at SugarCRM Matt Marum shared that a partner sandbox is the number one ask that he gets from folks working on the product side of a partnership. 

“I’ll get connected when people are reaching out wanting to build an integration. 50% of the time it’s a partnership person. The other 50% of the time it’s a product manager or an engineer, even just the developer, and all they want is a sandbox,” he told us. 

It accelerates partner enablement 

Use a partner sandbox to…cut down on time dedicated to partner training sessions and speed up the adoption of your product into partner workflows.

When a partner has access to a sandbox, they get a much more personalized experience familiarizing themselves with your product without having to worry about messing up real data during trial and error learning. 

“We could do as many one-on-one sessions as possible, many coaching sessions as possible, but it’s really never like being able to put hands on keys as an enablement tool,” she shared. “So the enablement piece is essentially an accelerator. We’ll go through our technical sessions and will teach them the product, but it doesn’t really stick unless they touch the product.”

Not only does this take the lift of walking each partner through your product off of your team, but it can decrease the amount of time it takes your partners to establish their workflows around your product. 

“By giving them a sandbox, they can accelerate their enablement,” Vue says. “[It benefits your team, your partner’s team, and your product team] because it speeds up the adoption of your product. [Your partner] is able to scale from nothing to having a practice around your product without your assistance.” 

It can help increase partner-impacted revenue 

Use a partner sandbox to…empower your partners to spot and execute co-selling opportunities for your product on your behalf.

“When you enable partners to have full access to [your] product, those partners can essentially help amplify the value or product without requiring you to be there,” Vue shared. Not only do partners with sandbox access understand the product, but they can use their sandbox to actually demo integrations for potential customers. This is especially helpful for partnerships folks who struggle with getting buy-in from their sales team or lack the headcount to scale co-selling motions. 

Vue has found this to be true with re-seller partners as well as tech partners.

“[Our reseller partner’s] customers come to them and ask, ‘Hey, I need to do X, what technologies are out there? What kind of products are out there that can help me?” she shared. “And what we find is that the more access a partner has to the product, the more they understand the value of our platform in its entirety. This is so important because they’re the first in line to field those questions. They can essentially say, ‘Hey, you know what? There is a platform called Syncari and that platform can do these things. Let me show you.’

This can get customers across the finish line quicker because they have twice the support from you and your partner. 

“One customer described it as ‘multi-tracking’. [Our customer] doesn’t have to wait for a specific member of our team to do something,” Vue explained. “I can add a partner who has all of the technical insight and if I need additional things they are fully capable to help me multi-track.”

As a result, Vue says that giving partners sandbox access has led to partner-influenced deals closing at two times the rate of non-partnerships deals as well as keeping the age of those partner-influenced deals below the average age of non-partnerships deals. 

The crawl-walk-run approach to building sandboxes

Get the necessary people onboard

As any Avenger will tell you, assembling your team is a key step to saving the world (or in this case, building a partner sandbox). 

The product team

Vue recommends starting with the product team to get a full-picture understanding of how difficult creating a partner sandbox will be. Do you have the engineering capabilities and resources to make changes to your product? What would those changes look like? 

Why they should help you: A partner sandbox can enable your partners to demo and co-sell your integrations without support from your team. This can help your product team hit KPIs around integration adoption. Partner sandboxes also let your partners play around in and test your product out, creating a pipeline for helpful product feedback. 

The engineering team

After your product team has laid out the scope of launching a partner sandbox, your engineering team would be the ones to help you with any building that needs to be done. They would also make sure your API documentation accommodates the functions of your sandbox. 

Why they should help you: Although there might be a lift when initially creating your partner sandbox, a partner sandbox can decrease the engineering work needed for building integrations and assisting partners in the future.

The partner ops team (or sales/rev ops)

Your partner ops team would be the ones to help you with the logistics of implementing your partner sandbox. This could include tracking the status of license provisions or setting up automated functions that change partner sandbox access on an account level.

Why they should help you: A sandbox can help save resources by accelerating the partner enablement process and increase your partner-influenced revenue by empowering partners to sell your product on your behalf. They also can help prevent bottlenecks, increasing the efficiency of your team.

The partner success team

Your partner success team would be the ones responsible for helping your partners activate and use the sandbox.

Why they should help you: A sandbox can help increase your partner’s product knowledge at a more time-effective rate. This can help you serve more partners in a shorter period of time. 

The legal team

Your legal team could let you know what the legal constraints around the sandbox need to be and draft up language to add to a partner agreement that outlines what they can and cannot do with your sandbox.

Why they should help you: By providing clear legal guidelines for how partners can use your sandbox, you can protect your company and customers from any misuse of data.

The crawl-walk-run approach

For partnerships professionals who are worried about not having the time, resources, or support to execute a high-level sandbox, Vue recommends starting small and then working your way up from there. “[Partner people] are really busy. Everybody runs really lean. And that’s where I’d say take a crawl, walk, run approach,” she told us. 

Crawl 

Vue suggests a “crawl” approach for folks that 

  • Don’t have the resources or engineering support to build a sandbox that can actually be pushed to production.
  • Don’t have high automation capabilities and instead want a manual rollout that requires minimal changes to the partner onboarding process. 

To start at a crawl, Vue recommends asking your partner or RevOps team to create a product subscription type that is labeled “partners” or “sandbox”. The subscription should give the user visibility into the technical behind-the-scenes of your product but doesn’t actually allow for them to do anything with your real data. 

“You can build stuff, but you can’t publish,” she explained. “Think of it like it’s a car. You can sit in it, but you can’t drive.” 

Because of this, no changes to the product are necessary and no engineering support is required to set up the sandbox. Partners can test out and demo new integrations, but need to work with your team to actually build them. 

You start with manually provisioning and de-provisioning sandbox access into your partner onboarding workflow. This could look like your ops team licensing sandbox account access to a new partner after they sign a partner agreement and/or an NDA, and taking that access away if the partnership formally comes to an end.

Above all, Vue says that starting with a crawl approach can help you prove the initial impacts of a sandbox without having to ask your higher-ups for much buy-in. 

“It doesn’t require actual code changes. It doesn’t require massive projects and timelines. It’s essentially just building in the operations to track what you’re handing out and de-provisioning, and what you’re getting back from it. [This can help show] leadership that a sandbox is important.”

Walk

Vue suggests a “walk” approach for folks that

  • Want to upgrade from a manual to an automated rollout.
  • Still want to keep the sandbox from being able to push to production

When you are ready to move from a crawl to a walk sandbox approach, Vue suggests focusing your efforts on automating your process. She suggests shifting from requiring partners to go through several manual, individual steps before getting sandbox access to a one-click process that automatically brings the required NDAs, sandbox licensing, and partnership agreements into one location for your new partners to access. 

This saves your team time by operationalizing the sandbox process and not requiring them to re-create the same experience each time a new partner is brought on. It also streamlines your partner’s onboarding process and gives them the information they need without having to interface with multiple members of your team.

Run

Vue suggests a run approach for folks that

  • Have buy-in from the engineering and product teams
  • Have a budget for sandboxes
  • Want partners to be able to build real integrations in the sandbox and push to production once approval has been granted

If a “crawl” sandbox experience is like sitting in a car without being able to drive it, a “run” experience is like being able to drive a car with a learner’s permit. You can actually drive the car, but you need supervision while you do it.

According to Vue, moving from a walk to a run sandbox approach mainly involves actually connecting sandbox access to production: “You can do real things, you can move real things, and you could build real things in these types of sandboxes,” she shared. “It does require more product, technology, and executive alignment.” 

However, Vue also pointed out, that the initial engineering work and the financial investment pay for themselves long-term. The more similar a sandbox is to real team member product access, the more your partner can do on your behalf.

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