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.
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:
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.
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..
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:
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:
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.