This post by Dan Nguyen-Huu is part of our series on Product-Led Growth and Marketing Playbooks. There, we share insights and advice from leaders who have built successful PLG businesses marketing and selling technical products to technical audiences.
Tony Li, current VP Partners & Alliances at Starburst Data, knows the power a strong partner ecosystem can have on both its commercial impact and marketing reach. He has seen that first-hand heading up Partner Alliances at Thoughtspot and Medallia and played an active role in scaling both. Starburst being an open source company based on the project Presto already had tremendous developer love, however translating this into consistent larger enterprise deployments needed a different engagement model.
I sat down with Tony to discuss what steps he recommends one takes to create a modern Partner Program that can be successful in an open source company. He shares his key insights he learned across the many companies he’s worked at, studied, and advised, from small startups to post-IPO companies.
Building Modern Partner Programs
There’s a lot of chatter about building the perfect, modern Sales team but not much talk about the power of a strong Partner team. In Tony’s experience across Medallia, ThoughtSpot to Starburst Data, building an effective Partner team has now become a tremendous advantage as some start-ups are seeing 30% or more of their wins coming from or because of their partnerships.
Here are the three primary drivers of that stellar statistic:
- Customer Knowledge: Regardless of the target market for the start-up, many companies will have supported and sold to your target customers before and at a much larger scale. By building a cohesive strategy with other technology and services providers that your customers already adopt and trust, you enable a more integrated and seamless customer journey, a better experience, fewer internal approvals and quicker time-to-value and lands and expands for the start-up.
- Credibility: Tony remembers his conversation with the CIO of one of the biggest banks in Asia which said it all: “I need to know that you will still be around in 5 years. So what if you have $250M cash in the bank? I spend that in a year, and you could too in a few years.” Having a reputable third party like Amazon, Google or Accenture, Deloitte etc. give you the proverbial nod, can make all the difference for customer executives to approve large spending decisions for your emerging tech.
- Influence the Buying Decision: Technology adoption is often driven and accelerated by trends and new concepts. Not the buzzword fly-by-night trends, but the industry-changing, paradigm-shifting ones.
- Own The Technology Transition with Partners: These transformations for enterprises are usually led by well-known services firms like Accenture, Deloitte, Slalom, and others who help to make sense of multiple technologies, how they intersect, and why the average company should embrace that change. They also illustrate the people and processes an organization needs to unlock that change. By working with partners, you proactively frame your technology as a key component of an emerging trend. Then, you can follow up with a prescriptive approach to the customer, explaining to them how your product fits into this sea-change, and how it can benefit their business specifically. Additionally, many organizations have made large financial commitments with specific cloud service providers. By being part of the cloud marketplace programs start-ups can tap into existing funding.
How to structure a modern Partner team and Partner program
Tony knew his partner program was starting to take off when his partners started to promote his company’s offerings to their customer base. One big moment was when AWS wrote about Starburst in a best practices blog. The momentum continued when Accenture invited Starburst on to their AI Leaders Podcast to share their perspective. These opportunities to evangelize Starburst’s product and approach through their partner network and to their customers’ audiences are invaluable. But, they only work if you have the right team structure in place.
- Cloud Alliance Lead: The Cloud has become fundamental to every organization (cloud infra spend surpassed non-cloud in 2022 and is growing at 2x the pace: A good majority of customers have their core business built on cloud and have likely also made financial commitments to one of the major providers for volume discounts. This role is responsible for setting up partnerships with the right CSP(s) so that your customers can easily adopt your software within their cloud environment and also speed up the procurement cycle for your technology through the Cloud marketplaces like AWS, GCP, Azure and others.
- Cloud Service Provider (CSP) knowledge - this person should have experience working with the CSP(s) (ie AWS, GCP, Azure) that your target customer base most commonly uses. They need to know the in-n-outs of their co-sell and Marketplace programs i.e. the requirements to get set up, the steps and shortcuts, and various levels and benefits. For example, AWS has technology competencies with discreet requirements. Starting these requirements early can be valuable as competencies are tied to funding from AWS or customer credits which are direct boosts to your top line.
- Partner Empathy - this person needs to be really strong in understanding what’s in it for the CSP Sellers and Product Teams. There are thousands of start-ups and established companies pitching to these CSPs. For example, to become relevant as a start-up, you have to be well-versed in the strategic initiatives/gaps for the GCP Product Team in order to get their attention and become part of their offerings.
- Program mindset - Adoption is key so it’ll be important to have a program mindset to make the program simple and a natural part of your sales process
For example, the Cloud Lead should put together simple one-pagers on the Cloud Marketplace co-sell or Marketplace program, detailing what’s in it for the start-up seller, the CSP Seller and the customer. This way, your sales team understands how to pitch the partnership with their partner and client.
- Partner Program / Operations Lead: This role will work with you to structure your partner program and the incentives and build out sales and technical tools for your partners. They will also work on data to inform on partnering benefits for the business and your partners, and KPIs to help you iterate on the partner strategy.
- Industry knowledge - This person needs to have good instincts for what types of partners to go after. Prior experience with the industry is needed here as different industries have very different makeup of what makes a productive partner. For example, Data and Analytics is a complex initiative for many large enterprises today. Successful execution involves strategy and the implementation of various technologies; as such GSIs (global system integrators like Accenture, Deloitte etc.) are very important partners for this problem. By contrast, Customer Experience Management is primarily an approach issue, thus boutique agencies and management consultants like Bain and McKinsey would make good partners.
- Data-driven - A key challenge for building an effective partner motion is educating both internal employees and external partners on why we should be working together. Data wins the tough conversations. Having strong data / the right set of KPIs tracked will help to promote good behaviors. You can dive into the key KPIs below.
- Program-driven - the partner program will be adopted by external partners en masse, so it’s very important that it’s simple and straightforward to adopt, and provides predictable and consistent value to your partners
- Partner Sales Lead: To win over partner support at an opportunity level; typically regional to start to be peers with regional sales counterparts. This role will recruit and sell to partners who can provide sales coaching & support for your solution i.e. services / GTM partners who are strategic on specific trends or immersed in the customer account you are trying to penetrate or expand.
- Partner empathy - similar to working with the CSPs, you’ll most definitely be competing for mindshare when trying to work with strategic sales / services partners. Knowing how to work with these partners and how to sell to them is critical
- Sales experience with Services / GTM Partner - getting to joint sales wins with the partner is incredibly important, as these GTM relationships are all about what’s working and how to replicate those wins. Getting to the first win quickly will dramatically shorten your partner ramp and make them productive much quicker. For example, you may want to proactively pull in Deloitte via subcontracting to help with your implementation so they can start to build hands-on experience and learn to recognise your customer value and apply that to 3 other business lines or 5 other similar customers.
- Motor - Partner Sales Lead needs to have great motors as they are the lynchpin between your sales team and the Partners’ sales teams. They need to constantly sell and educate partner sellers on your technology vs. incumbents, and also educate the internal Sales team on working with partners. It takes a lot of energy.
- Partner Engineer: technical evangelist for your solution with partners; need to answer any and all technical questions as to how the solution works and why/where/how it’s better than existing solutions today. Enable partners on your benefits and specific use-cases.
- Evangelist - partners need to first get excited about your technology before they can sell it; being a great evangelist is critical for this role as this person will be tasked with building partner technical champions amongst your go-to-market relationships
- Technically superior - A partner engineer will interface with all levels of a partner’s technical staff and will need to be able to answer any and all technical questions. Partners touch a lot of different technologies so breadth of knowledge is important to be able to tie your technology to the current market; depth as well, as this role needs to explain why your technology is superior.
- Enablement Mindset - ultimately the Partner Engineer role is to create technical champions within your partners who can sell and push your technology without you being there; you can only do that at scale through enablement
Conclusion: How to Set up the Partner team
The most effective Partner team is set up with both corporate and field functions and is further supported by dedicated resources from key cross-functional organizations like Marketing, Product, and CS / Enablement. Effective Partnering is a company-wide effort. Referring to the roles above, the Cloud Alliance and Partner Operation roles are Corporate functions that are foundational to building the ecosystem; Partner Sales and Partner Engineering are Field functions aligned to drive sales acceleration and to support effective partnering in the field.
Cross-functional support from Product / Engineering should empower your solution working with the CSPs. , Marketing (to develop joint campaigns with Partners), and the Customer Success / Enablement team (to train and support customer success with Partners) are also important for setting up an effective partner ecosystem and making your partners feel supported.
Setting up a vibrant partner network around your company doesn’t happen overnight and takes time and is a constant part of growing your community. When done right, it should feel integrated with your business. Using Starburst Data as an example, customers can deploy and try the Starburst for free through all the major clouds without having to speak with a sales person. Customers can attend a partner-led local meet-up to learn more about the open-source project and underlying technology, or consume partner-led thought leadership around the technology to help with their adoption journey ie Data Products Master Class, eBook, ROI study, etc..
How to Operate Effectively
Align on strategy and goals
Make sure your team has a clear vision and mission on how partners will accelerate customer adoption and sales productivity. Especially as a start-up, the goal should be to build a partner strategy that’s fit for purpose rather than a volume business.
Align with cross-functional teams on key objectives
Figure out how you want Partners contributing to the overall business; align with cross-functional leaders on actionable objectives:
- Sales: sales plays, target customers, and addressable customer challenges
- Marketing: thought leadership, events, and joint campaigns
- CS + Enablement: training, customer support model
- Product + Eng: capability coverage, marketplace support + customer experience
Agree on KPIs
While partnering takes a village, the KPIs should be very clear and owned by the Partner team - sales acceleration and customer experience. Here are the common KPIs to think about:
- Opportunities Sourced (ACV, #)
- Opportunities Supported by Partners (ACV, #)
- Customer NPS with partners (when you start to have Partners provide customer service)
- # of partner individuals sales trained
- # of partner individuals technically trained
- # Leads / MQLs / traffic generated from marketing campaign with Partners
- # of solutions with partners
Commons Lessons for Building a Partner Ecosystem
Focus on Partner Sellers
One of the common mistakes with starting up a partner ecosystem is not enough focus on partner sellers. While it’s important to get partner agreements signed and to work on other foundational pieces for the partnership, the primary goal of partnering is sales acceleration thus the team needs to prioritize working with individuals that drive sales. Who drives sales? Sellers. That is true for all partner types, ie technology or services partners alike - get to the sellers.
Technology partners provide coverage, GTM partners drive sales
It’s important to understand what each partner type is good for - technology and cloud partners provide capability coverage and a better customer experience for your customers (which translates to faster lands and larger deals / TAMs) but they do not drive your pipeline as first and most technology sellers need to sell their own technology. Services and other gtm partners on the other hand sell services or packaged solutions to address specific business challenges for the customer, that is consulting and services on top of technologies. If you can convince gtm partner of your role in these business-led projects, they can and will start to create drag for your pipeline in a meaningful way.
Joint Business Planning
Joint business planning with your strategic partners (ie through QBRs, Partner Councils, etc.) is critical to hitting your goals with partners. As mentioned earlier, a strong partner ecosystem relies on cross-functional support. These meetings are important to bring together two companies and their respective cross-functional leaders to align on a joint mission, actionable goals, and the tactical plans to achieve those goals. Without it, it’s very difficult for two companies who each have their own day-to-day business to make meaningful commitments and adjustments to improve on the partnership.
Don’t make assumptions and experiment
Partnering is dynamic as customers, prospective partners, and the broader market are constantly changing. Companies that used to make great partners may no longer be relevant (e.g. pure resellers are less relevant these days as procurement is dramatically simplified and consolidated onto the clouds). It’s important to constantly experiment and find partners who work well with your culture and can translate to results.