The modern Partner/Ecosystem organization has been in existence for less than two decades and has only been recognized as a critical component of most SaaS companies’ growth very recently. Where “partner” was once synonymous with “channel” in the corporate lexicon, the rapid move to a cloud-based world gave rise to an entirely new fundamental necessity: the need for interconnectivity between disparate platforms and datasets.
As the number of platforms in the marketing/ad/revenue technology space exploded from 150 eleven years ago to over 10,000 today, and the total number of “business software applications” tracked (by G2) is up to a mind-blowing 103,528 solutions today, demand for interconnectivity blossomed into a full-blown critical necessity. But, just like everything else in the hypersonic universe of SaaS, the structures, systems, roles, and, most importantly, skillsets lagged behind the need.
Even though the demand for “partner” roles has exploded, a significant degree of ambiguity continues to linger around what a partner organization is, what it should do, how it’s measured, and most importantly, how to define success is no surprise. The confusion is amplified by the fact that the terms “channel” and “partner” continue to be conflated (I’ve written more on this here), resulting in what I’ve begun to call the “vending machine” mentality.
Partnerships are for the long-game
I’ve started using the “vending machine” term because of the idea that leads and revenue will materialize overnight simply because a company decided to create a partner function. Creating effective partnerships is a long game that, done right, makes exponential growth across an organization. Done wrong, well, let’s say there’s a long and storied history of people getting crushed by vending machines.
Fortunately, the corporate mindset is beginning to grasp the reality of what partnerships are and, more importantly, are not. What’s still missing is a standard set of philosophical understandings that can be (generally) agreed upon, discussed, debated, and expanded so that we might achieve a common schema upon which great Partner teams can be built.
What follows are a pair of philosophical ideas we can use as a jumping-off point. I’ve used, applied, and discussed these principles for several years now, so I’m confident they’ll resonate. At the end of this article, I hope my readers will take these philosophical ideas and use them as a standard frame of reference when starting, scaling, or joining a partner team…enjoy!
Navy Seals vs Green Berets
Regardless of your background or where you’re from, there’s a good chance you know about the Navy SEALS and the Army’s Green Berets. Between the numerous movies and TV shows Hollywood churned out, the twenty-four-hour news cycle reporting on some of their more high-profile exploits, and the various “Operators” (the term used to describe the individual team members), there aren’t many people who don’t have at least some passing knowledge of these two, elite military units.
What most people don’t know is how the two differ other than that one’s attached to the US Army and the other to the US Navy. In fact, despite being an Army veteran myself, it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I heard former UFC Fighter and former Army Green Beret Tim Kennedy describe how incredibly different their missions are, that I understood the distinction.
Before I go on, I’ll ask that we set aside any political opinions about these organizations and focus on the analogy, as I have yet to find another one that crystalizes the point I’m trying to get across as well as the one I’m about to share. Also, if you are/were a part of one of these units and I get something wrong, please feel free to help me correct my errors.
I’m not sure where the ubiquitous term “military precision” originated, but there is no better example than the Navy SEALs. They are the pointy end of the spear and the people who are called on when surgical precision is required to eliminate a specific threat or extract a target asset (could be a person or thing) quickly and effectively, typically without anyone knowing they were ever there. While they have other components of their broader mission, their ability to operate so surgically within hostile environments has earned such a legendary reputation.
Find your Green Berets
The Green Berets, on the other hand, are also highly trained surgical Operators capable of a lot of general badassery (that’s a technical term). Still, their primary mission is that of “force multipliers.” That means that the Green Berets spend countless hours learning everything they can about a local populace to become seamlessly embedded within a group or groups in the area.
When they deploy to their mission area, they do so not with a massive force but with strategically selected resources needed/wanted by the group they’re embedding. With the resources they bring to the table, they endear themselves to key individuals who can positively influence others and begin the process of building a profound level of mutual trust.
Building trust first
Once that trust has been established, the Green Berets can begin training the group’s members to accomplish a much larger and typically more long-term objective than any Operators would ever be able to achieve on their own. Those objectives range from gathering intelligence to advocating for a particular cause to executing large-scale military operations. The success of these missions isn’t measured by the minute wins they achieve along the way but by the practical ability to perform something much more significant than even a group of highly trained individuals can achieve on their own.
The keys to their success are building trust, listening to what the group members are sharing with them, and using that knowledge to adapt to an ever-changing environment. They must also effectively communicate what they’re hearing back up the chain of command to ensure strategic alignment in all directions.
Now it’s time for you to think of your partner team in the same terms. Our job is to accomplish broader objectives by leveraging external resources to amplify our ability to achieve goals. An effective partner team will be excellent at building profound levels of trust with key people at outside organizations.
They will be great at paying attention to external signals, trends, and chatter that may impact their company. They will develop subject-matter expertise in the areas they are assigned (Salesforce, integrations, consultants, etc.) so they can communicate internally and externally. They will be internal coalition builders because the only way to accomplish the goals that surround great partnerships is to keep other key business groups (sales, marketing, product, etc.) well-informed about every part of the strategy that may impact their teams.
Working behind the scenes
Finally, like the largely unknown Operators of the Green Berets, the partner team must be comfortable operating predominantly behind the scenes. We exist to amplify, enhance, and enable the success of others by recognizing patterns and opportunities facilitating success in virtually every functional area of a SaaS company. We are your organization’s force multipliers.
Give to get mentality
This principle’s a bit easier to explain, but I’d like to refer to the previous section to have you reconsider one of the crucial components of the Green Beret’s strategy. If you recall, the Green Berets don’t show up empty-handed; they show up with something the target group wants or needs. Whether that’s money, supplies, food, weapons, or training (typically, it’s “all of the above”), they know they’re not getting anything from that group if they don’t give them something of value first.
The same thing applies to your partner program. If you show up empty-handed and don’t offer anything of tangible value, what incentive do they have to dedicate their precious time and resources to your cause? You may have the best product in the world, but if you don’t give people a reason to keep you top of mind, guess what? You won’t be.
Borrowing a line from one of my favorite books, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, drives home the reason you need to give people a reason to keep your organization top of mind:
You’ll stop worrying about what other people think of you when you realize how little they do.
This is especially true for larger partnerships where you must maintain a constant but measured drumbeat to gain a meaningful share of mind with the teams and individuals who will provide the most significant impact.
What you can give
Each organization’s different, but here are a few things you can give, even if this is your first foray into building an ecosystem of partners:
- Defined benefits for your partners by partner type. One size does not fit all. Whether you’re dealing with agencies, SIs, individual consultants, ISVs, etc., you need to give your partners a tangible reason to engage.
- Put yourself in the partner’s shoes and learn what motivates each group or target partner. Once you’ve done that, craft your partner messaging to speak to those motivations and plainly articulate how partnering with you will help them achieve their goals. It’s not enough to recycle your marketing messaging. Instead, you must ask, “If I were [insert partner name here], what would make me want to not only go to market with this company/product, and how would doing so help me win more business?” Once you answer that question, create messaging that speaks directly to that answer, and always keep that answer in mind when dealing with that organization.
- The final “give” is the easiest and hardest item on this list: time. If you’re trying to attract partners, you must show them you’re invested in them. Take the time to learn about their business, get to know their goals, and get to know the right people. Once you’ve engaged, follow up regularly, share new information, and figure out novel ways to market together. Create mutual action plans and set goals to track progress. Develop joint messaging and value propositions, and here’s the most challenging part, be willing to do most of the work in the beginning. The more you can do for the partner, the greater their desire to reciprocate will be.
The preceding points are meant to be a jumping-off point and a way of creating a shared understanding of the broader purpose of a partner organization. Suppose we start with these two points as a foundation when building or scaling a partner team. In that case, we can ensure that company executives, partner leaders, and everyone else in the organization have the same strategic understanding. Once that collective schema is established, specific strategies, goals, and objectives become much easier to agree upon, and successful outcomes become significantly more likely.
For those of you who like a bite-sized summary of what you just read, here are the main takeaways:
- Partners aren’t vending machines that magically create leads. Ecosystem building requires investment, profound trust, a long-term strategic approach, a robust philosophical consensus, and patience.
- Your partner/ecosystem team is your company’s “Force Multipliers.” They leverage external resources to amplify messaging, accelerate opportunities, gather market and competitive intelligence, identify new problem/solution sets, and build goodwill across a broad group of outside organizations.
- Always remember that the more value you give, the more you’ll get in return. Clearly define benefits that speak very specifically to the long-term advantage of partnering with your company. Learn what your partners want/need and proceed with a foundational “give to get” mentality.
Text-to-speech provided by our partner Voicemaker.in.