A Product Leader on How to Build Out a SaaS Platform: Interview with David Grabner
Nikita Zhitkevich lives in the world of partnerships. He leads partnerships and alliances for PartnerStack, which is a leading PRM and partner marketplace.
Nikita shared his insights on when you need a PRM, identifying your ideal partners, strategies to avoid channel conflict, and how he sees the partnership landscape evolving over the next 5 years.
Can you tell me about PartnerStack and what makes it different from other PRMs?
As a graduate of Y-Combinator, PartnerStack has been rooted in helping some of the world’s fastest growing SaaS companies scale. Companies like Asana, Monday.com, Unbounce, Intercom, and Intuit all use PartnerStack to manage and scale their partner programs, and onboard thousands of partners into our platform.
There are a few unique aspects to PartnerStack, which has led us to becoming the #1 platform on G2.
PartnerStack is the only solution that has both the PRM and a B2B focused marketplace that connects vendors with partners. On average, our marketplace drives a 30%+ lift in revenue for customers.
We are extremely focused on partner experience, which is a big distinction for us. Most PRMs are focused solely on the vendor experience. But if both sides of this equation are not having a good experience, then it becomes a problem.
And with PartnerStack, all of your channels can be managed from a single platform - affiliate, referral, reseller and ambassador. We see a lot of companies, agencies, and resellers choosing our platform to help them consolidate their channels into a single view.
How is your partnership team structured at PartnerStack?
Our team is still relatively young, as we launched it in April. The majority of this year has been building relationships and working with both agencies and resellers.
I lead the team, and we have an incredible Account Manager that works closely with our partners, as well as a partner marketing manager that works on any co-marketing efforts we run with partners.
Our partnership team is currently focused on two core areas:
First, working with agencies and resellers that are currently reselling SaaS vendors, bringing those vendors onto PartnerStack.
Secondly, working with agencies and resellers that are looking to shift their existing customers onto a modern partner management solution.
We often work with sales when one of their SaaS prospects wants to launch PartnerStack right away but doesn’t have the internal bandwidth. In those cases, we connect them with an agency partner who we know can do it right away and do it well.
Technology partnerships are also on our radar. We have recently built a number of integrations. One of our goals in 2021 and going into 2022 will be to further build out our technology partner program and our own integration marketplace.
We also plan to enter the app marketplaces of other SaaS vendors, especially CRMs like SugarCRM or Hubspot. CRMs are good partners for us because, with the exception of Salesforce, no CRM has a PRM as part of their product offering. So our software is complementary rather than competitive. And it benefits our customers to have those systems integrated.
“If you’re planning to scale your partnerships at all, you need the infrastructure in place to do this.”
What advice would you give for organizations trying to think through who their ideal partners are?
Ultimately, everything has to come down to revenue. Whether you’re pursuing referral, reseller, or technology partnerships, you have to tie them back to driving revenue.
Especially since you need the support of other departments in your organization, whether it is collaboration with the sales team or the product team to help build integrations, the benefit to the business needs to be very clear.
For agency and reseller partners, I would advise looking to see if they power similar products to yours. I’d also think about whether the partner will continue to evolve over time in the direction you are going and whether they truly understand your product and space.
David Grabner is the Product Lead for Apps and Integrations at Miro, a leading collaboration platform with over 100 integrations. He shares the importance of developer relations, why you need a good testing suite and a process for continually updating integrations, and north star metrics for product partnerships and integrations.
What does Miro’s platform look like today?
We operate between B2C to B2B and have a very nice mixture of users. Our co-founder and CEO Andrey Khusid saw pretty early on that the only way to become truly collaborative is to allow others to build experiences on our platform.
We have put a heavy investment into becoming a product platform, where third parties can extend our functionality. We have a whole platform organization that caters to the needs of third party developers. They not only provide support, but they continue to improve our API and SDK offerings.
We also provide support for the developers of our enterprise customers, who like to customize our product even further to their user needs.
What is your advice for companies looking to support their third party developers?
Tech partners need the right support.
Just having API documents and available support isn’t enough when you want to scale. You have to create a developer experience and have people in your organization focused on developer relations.
Miro has always been dedicated to supporting third party developers and we are continually investing in these functions.
It’s very important to create a developer community and be close to their feedback. What exactly this looks like will depend on your product.
Companies that are able to tap into the open source community have a good headstart on creating that developer community.
But you need a person who is in conversation with third party developers and is the internal advocate who is telling their story. By doing that, they can build this support layer and trust over time. This can be a tough position to recruit for, especially outside the US.
Do you or your partners build more integrations? How do you decide which integrations to build?
Miro offers a marketplace where partners can submit their integrations. We also have strategic integrations that we build ourselves.
When we are figuring out what to build, we look closely at what systems our users are using, and ask how we can make their lives easier?
With these types of strategic investments, we build product partnerships where we co-innovate to shape the future of collaboration.
Instead of just looking at the existing products and figuring out how to move data from A to B, we study how users could use these systems together and investigate whether we can come up with some joint solution that is truly innovative.
What is the structure of your team internally?
Miro has different product organizations that focus on different needs of our product, like scalability for enterprise and our self-serve offering. We also have a Platform Organization that focuses on the needs of partners and third party developers.
The developer side focuses on the core integration frameworks and the developer experience to enable developers. The app experience team in the middle, focused on both the end user and the developer experience. And on the integrations side we validate our own platform and build integrated workflows together with our strategic partners.
Do you have advice for tech partnerships managers trying to get more internal resources?
If you don’t have backing from leadership, I’d look closely at what the business opportunity is so that you can present it. Start by building a go-to-market motion with select partners, and show those results. Show that existing in different ecosystems with partners can drive revenue.
People don’t always understand what other systems their customers are using, and getting that information helps. You can also look at product feature requests from customers. If that feature is not being built in house, you might be able to demonstrate that a tech partnership could meet that customer need.
Do you have any advice on approaching building out a product to become a platform?
It definitely comes at a cost and you need to get the backing of the whole organization to do it well.
How you approach it depends on what kind of technical setup you have. Some organizations build a product and then build an API separately, and that is difficult as you grow. It brings flexibility but it also needs to be constantly updated over time so that the product and API stay aligned, which can be a challenge.
If you want to be API-first, the initial developers that build the core services will have to look at it from the perspective of third party developers and take that into account from the beginning. This is a long term strategic investment. If you’re not sure about this, it is more radical to go API first and expose everything you own to a third party from the get go.
Do you have good visibility and analytics on your integrations? Do you share analytics with your tech partners?
Miro is curious about different use cases our external partners are building and we work with them to see what they are building. We have an internal way of tracking the app lifecycle from installation, activation to usage but we don’t have a fully supported dashboard for our partners yet.
Some of these apps exist in other ecosystems, and you can’t always get that data. We are in the process of ramping up our own marketplace to offer partners more data analytics. This part is very manual even for big marketplaces. Only a few marketplaces currently offer those for partners.
How do you communicate with partners? Do you have a partner portal for partners to submit their integrations?
The process is still fairly manual but as we scale, we aim to automate it to make it easier for partners each day.
With the marketplace, we have to look at optimizing for developers and the end user experience, and take both into account for any process we adopt.
For someone working through this, I would advise looking at how long it takes to approve everything manually, how well it is working for end users, and determine whether partners are going to use a portal with a less hands-on process and what the opportunity cost is to not invest into the end user experience to discover apps.
We currently have quarterly reviews with partners to identify how we can close the feedback loop of our joint users and at the same time look forward by sharing each other's roadmaps. These meetings are super valuable and keep us aligned with partners and create future opportunities to collaborate and drive innovation.
What is your north star metric for technology partnerships?
Miro looks at technology partnerships as a way to improve the product experience and as a go-to-market strategy. We are focused on both acquisition and retention.
Miro aims to partner with vendors who provide easy access to new users to trial an experience. This can increase the level of new customer acquisition for us and our partner. Depending on what sector you are in, that model might not work, but we are in collaboration tools so it is a bit more open.
What is your process for keeping apps updated?
Keeping apps updated can be extremely tricky, depending on the space you work in. The more enterprise the customer base, the longer the update cycle is. Salesforce, for example, updates on a quarterly basis and is more predictable for partners to plan. However, the speed of innovation and delivery can be slower.
But even when there is a schedule with notice, you have to take the time and make sure you actually make the changes. For smaller companies, you need to have a proper testing suite setup so that you catch anything. Having a good test suite is super important when you have external dependencies.
In terms of changes that are not breaking, but might impact your use case - say if a partner updates their UI or a particular product feature - then you have to work with your partner closely to understand the change.
You should have a product manager engaged on both sides to understand what is going on. As much as possible, your partners and you should share product roadmaps with each other to ensure integrations are updated in a timely fashion.
How do you advise providing customer support for product integrations?
For customer support, if you have very big, custom-built integrations that you will need to have a team that specifically works on and supports that integration. These are very complex to maintain.
If you are more on the plug n play side, then you need less elaborate support. You should make sure CS has access to the right documentation, and that they are enabled to troubleshoot if the customer is having a problem.
You should have processes in place to educate your CS team on integrations.
Do you monetize your integrations and have advice for thinking through which business model to adopt?
Miro currently does not have a monetization mechanism, but it is definitely something that we think about. You need to consider when the right time to monetize is.
It shouldn’t be right when you launch. You want to create a community of developers and partners who build on your platform first. Understand who is on your platform and when the right moment is. Check in with your community and get feedback on different approaches.
Other factors to consider: the credibility you have acquired from partners and developers; how much they want to build on your product instead of competitors; whether developers believe it is a robust platform to build on top of; and whether you have a developer community that can answer questions for each other.
It also depends on your business strategy. Figure out what the direct monetary impact would be, but remember it also takes time to build and adopt the monetization layer. Leadership should understand that this is a long term investment. You may get ROI in a couple months but it depends on your rollout and adoption.
Do you have any other advice for SaaS companies looking to leverage product integrations?
From the product side, I would say don’t wait for people to come to you. Reach out to talk to people in your ecosystem, including business development, product, and designers from potential partners. Understand what is important to your customers and the other tech companies in your ecosystem.
If you are asked to assess a particular opportunity, be proactive instead of reactive. Don’t be afraid to contact people from different teams as well as users so you can truly understand the nature of the opportunity and how it might be a win-win.