Winning SaaS partnerships: The nine commandments of ecosystem building

This one is going to be interesting. Over the last months, I spoke with over a hundred CEOs, VPs of Partnerships, and partner managers. Each and every one of them was well aware of the value of thinking at the ecosystem level. Even so, not all of them were getting the most out of their partnership function.

I asked myself (and them): why? The same issues kept coming up, and I realized that we were onto something. I compiled these common themes and patterns into a list of Nine Commandments for partnership teams.

Before we get to them, I’ll kick this all off with a confession of sorts. Many of the mistakes I’ll be discussing are things that I did myself, when I first started out with partner networks. I hope that by sharing my insights, I can help others to avoid making the same mistakes. It’s continuous learning like this that will lead us all to better, stronger ecosystems. 

#1: Ideal Partner Profiles: They shall be known (and well!).

Knowing which partnerships will bring the most value starts with understanding your IPP. Without a thorough grasp of what your ideal partner looks like, your partnership strategy will lack direction. As a result, you may end up just taking what you get: opportunistic partnerships that don’t really bring value, or that spread you too thin and dilute your focus. 

Take it from me: being a “jack of all trades” is not as cool as it sounds. Before I knew better, I tried to launch tech, reselling and agency partnerships all at once. These are, of course, totally different verticals, and each one calls for its own, tailored messaging. The shotgun approach just doesn’t work. What I should have done instead is invest time in getting to grips with each vertical, one by one. 

Making it stick: salespeople are good at keeping their Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) top of mind. As partner managers, we should take a page out of their book. It’s just one of the many ways that we can learn from our peers in other departments.

#2: Lead generation: Thou shalt not murder long-term potential just because you’re not seeing leads right now.

It always saddens me to see early stage companies cut their partnership teams because they’re not seeing enough leads come through fast enough. I understand why they do it: leads are important. But it’s a strategic mistake, and here’s why:

A partnership is a relationship. And like any relationship, it requires input. You need to keep the flame going by bringing energy and showing value. That’s the only way to get your partners excited and earn their trust. Once you’ve done that, then the leads will come, but not before. The agreement you sign is not what motivates partners to send leads your way: it’s the trust that you’ve established through a long process of relationship building. Cutting your partnership teams before that point is an all-too-common case of putting an impatient horse before a very valuable cart. 

My advice: use 12 - 18 months as a baseline. That’s how much time you should expect to invest in a relationship before it matures to the point where leads begin to flow. Stick it out - it’s definitely worth it in the end. 

#3: Mutual partnership: Remember thy partners’ business goals, because this isn’t a solo sport.

A true partner understands your needs and goals, and spends time thinking about how they can help you win. To make a real contribution to your partner’s success, you need a deep understanding of their business. Once you have that, you can align successfully with their interests.

And knowing their business means knowing their people, down to the individual level. Each person within a partner organization has aspirations, challenges, and needs. You want their account executives to save you a seat at the table when deals are being struck: why should they? You can only answer that if you know what makes them tick.

Keep this in mind: time that you spend deepening your knowledge of your partner’s business is time well spent. Don’t cut corners.

#4: Partner alignment: Partners who set goals together, win together.

Winning partnership teams share a common set of goals. That’s what keeps them moving in the same direction. And the only way to delineate those goals is through open communication. 

Make sure that both parties feel free to communicate their expectations and make suggestions. The world of partnership management definitely needs more of that. And it’s just the first step: once you get communication right, you need to agree on outcomes: what do we need to achieve? Who will do what? When will this all happen?

How I learned this: when you specify roles clearly, everyone becomes accountable for a part of the whole. In my previous company, we were shown how vital this is by the Salesforce team. They really took this seriously, and it produced results.  

#5: Thou shalt not succumb to Lead Mania: leads matter, but there’s more to the story.

Earlier, I mentioned that early stage companies often neglect partnership development because it takes time to generate leads. But it’s not just them. Many CEOs tend to measure the value of a partnership program solely in terms of leads. The problem is that leads are not the only metric of success. In fact, they aren’t even the most important one.

In many cases, influence is actually more important. Speaking from experience, I’ve been in roles where 100% of the top deals came about through partner influence. Reputable tech platforms vouched for us, and that was enough to sway enterprise giants in our favor. These partners helped us to punch far above our weight with Global Systems Integrators (GSIs) who were, for all intents and purposes, way out of our league.

Yet another success metric that is impacted by partnerships is customer churn. Your partners can give you a heads up when an important customer is about to leave. That gives you a critical window of opportunity to course-correct and keep the customer. 

Rethink partnerships: start thinking of partnership as more than (just) a lead generation function. It’s actually a strategic function, and it can boost almost every other function within your business.

#6: Stakeholder mapping: Explore every level of your partner’s organization.

Let’s say you have a great relationship with a particular account executive. She brings you into deals because she trusts you and she knows what you bring to the table.

That’s great, and it’s something you must maintain. But you can’t afford to stop there. There are so many people to engage with, beyond your counterparts. Don’t limit your partner strategy to managers. For example, have you brought their sales and customer success teams on board? Things get really interesting once you do that. 

My recommendation: map the stakeholders in your partner’s structure. Identify the influencers and decision makers, at all levels. They are your next port of call. 

#7: Focus on individuals. Relationships happen between people, not companies.

You might have a strong relationship with your partner’s current Customer Success Manager. But you need to be prepared to put in the legwork to rebuild it all again if she leaves or is replaced.

You can’t assume that all the momentum you’ve built with her predecessor will automatically transfer to the new manager. That’s because this new relationship is at a totally different stage in the partner lifecycle, and you need to adapt your approach accordingly. A new employee needs onboarding and enablement. That’s different to existing employees, who need nurturing and support. And people who have forgotten about you need to be reactivated. Yes, it’s work. But it’s work that needs to be done, and nobody can do it for you (although tools like Superglue can make it much easier, and more scalable). 

Here’s my take: treat a new appointment as an opportunity, not a crisis. This new person could become your biggest advocate after all!

#8: Partnership tech: it may take you far, but getting all the way to the promised land is on you.

As the founder of a partner tech SaaS company, I understand the value of technology. It has enormous potential as an enabler, but it’s not a silver bullet. Some partnership teams make the mistake of thinking that simply introducing a new portal will boost their reselling numbers. The reality is that it won’t, unless it’s accompanied with strategic thinking.

Practical tip: figure out which parts of your process aren’t scaling, and fix them. Then - and only then - you’ll be ready to make the most of partner management software. 

#9: People development: Thou shalt not hire in haste.

I was quite surprised to find that many CEOs don’t hire carefully enough when it comes to their partnership function. This really matters, because successful partnership management is a huge challenge. It takes experience and training. 

If you hand this over to a newcomer, or someone whose knowledge and experience don’t cover partnerships, you’re setting yourself up for failure. 

The way forward: come up with robust hiring guidelines to vet candidates. Make sure that you can offer personal development and an attractive career path.

Which Way to the Promised Land?

It’s closer than you might think. Young and ambitious partnership managers now have a range of incredible resources at their disposal. You’re reading one of them right now. 

But in addition to this blog, you should subscribe your people to the Partner Hacker Daily, send them to Catalyst, Supernode, or SaaS Connect. Have them join Partnership Leaders. Connect them with other leaders and make sure they have mentors. That’s how we will give a new generation of professionals the tools they need to succeed in a future shaped by complex partner ecosystems while avoiding all the mistakes I made!).

Note: A slightly different version of this blog post was first published as a PartnerHacker op-ed. I highly recommend you sign up to their newsletter and check out their blog! 

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