How to Build and Manage a Technology Partner Program

Learn how Gorgias scaled their technology partnerships team, built cross-functional trust, launched a successful app marketplace, and achieved million-dollar ARR.
Written by
Elizabeth Garcia
Published on
August 9, 2023

Chris Lavoie is the Technology Partnerships Lead at Gorgias. Almost 2 years ago, Chris was the only Technology Partnerships Manager at Gorgias. Since then, Gorgias' technology partner team has grown to a team of 6, launched an app marketplace with 75+ integrations, and become a million-dollar ARR channel.

In this interview with Liz Garcia, the Community Manager of the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance, he shares advice for growing a partnerships team, what he looks for when hiring tech partner managers, metrics and tools for measuring the success of tech partnerships, and how he audits his investment in new and existing partners.

This conversation is transcribed from our latest episode of the Between Product and Partnerships Podcast, presented by our group The SaaS Ecosystem Alliance. If you're interested in watching or listening to this conversation, you can access the video here and listen on podcast platforms here.

Intro

Chris: Thanks, Liz, and thanks to the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance for having me as one of your podcast guests. I lead the technology partner program at Gorgias, which is a customer support help desk software used by direct-to-consumer brands to power customer communications both pre and post-purchase. Dealing with issues like, “Where's my order?” or  “I'd like to issue a return or an exchange”. We power that for brands. My experience related to tech partnerships is short, but intense.

I've been at Gorgias for almost two years now. Since that time, we've gone from a team of one to a team of six. We've become a million dollar ARR channel. We've launched an app marketplace that now has 75+ apps and integrations in it, several of which are built-in and powered by Pandium. It's been fast and furious, but so far, so good.

Liz: With that introduction, you're one of the perfect people to talk about building out a tech partner program. You just said a year ago, your tech partner program was just you.

Now that you run a team of five, what advice would you give to someone who's just starting to grow out their technology partnerships team?

Chris: When it comes to building out a team, you need to be able to justify that to the leadership team, which always comes down to revenue opportunity, and really measuring the impact. With tech partnerships, specifically, as opposed to say, agency and channel partnerships, the ROI is a little bit trickier to showcase. Obviously, you can track revenue, but that can often be the tip of the iceberg. 

One of my first points of advice, early on, is to make sure that you're accurately tracking and attributing the impact that tech partnerships are having. Of course revenue, but also what is the impact of the integrations on key metrics like churn, NPS, customer satisfaction, and retention? How does it impact your billable mechanism? For us, we're a ticketing based Help Desk.

Certain integrations actually positively impact our billing mechanisms and we're generating more revenue per user through certain integrations. I'd advise to decide early to keep it simple. Identify a few technology partners where there is enough revenue opportunity and enough product marketability opportunity. Meaning, is there's high usage of an integration and is there's a great story to tell? Really nailing the playbook with a few of those partners first, and then starting to expand to take on more partners. That'll allow you to justify expanding your headcount.

Liz: That's a really great framework.

Once you decided that the team is going to grow, what is some advice that you have for hiring for a technology partner manager?

Chris: In terms of looking for a tech partner manager, they're a bit of a unique role. They need to be curious and excited from the product perspective. You want them to be excited to get into the product, to be excited about integrations, and the transformative effect that integrations can have on a company's growth. They also need to have some level of business savvy, and need to be comfortable in client and partner facing environments. They also have to be open to travel. 

It's a difficult role to fulfill, as anyone who's hired tech partner managers can attest to. Really, the biggest thing I'm looking for in general, is this eagerness to learn and really being able to humble yourself. Understanding there's so much you don't know, but there's so much you do want to know. You’re scrappy, and you have the energy needed to learn what you need to know.

I’m typically looking for people who exhibit extreme ownership - people who don't make excuses, people who become the CEO of their book of business, people who really are as creative as possible to to unlock growth, and people who are great teammates. A lot of this isn't necessarily specific to the tech partner role itself, and are just general attributes, but you definitely want someone in a tech partner type role to have a marketing type mindset.

It can be a real advantage. Anyone in tech partnerships knows that it's basically a product marketing channel. It's how well you can tell the story of an integration. We find that tech partner managers who have that marketing background or marketing curiosity tend to do really well. They're able to articulate that story, both through content, but also through public speaking engagements.

Liz: I like how you focus a lot on the soft skills needed rather than just the hard skills.

Would you look for someone who embodies all these qualities in one person? Do you hire specific people on the partnership team to own the technical aspects, the more GTM marketing aspect?

Chris: Good Question. So the question is: do I try to hire people who are one-size-fits-all or do I try to diversify and leverage people's skill sets and unique talents? It’s definitely the latter, in our case. The five people on the team are all incredibly different and have different skill sets, different natural abilities, and different interests and passions. 

One role on the team involves a heavy amount of partner calls, and meetings with partners and sales and success reps. Really evangelizing and being an advocate to get them excited to pitch and sell on our behalf. That's an incredibly exhausting role. It's very similar to an account executive, but she's just geared for this. She was literally built for this playbook and she has just become a champion at it. 

I have other people on my team, where that's not something that they necessarily want to do. They're more process and program building oriented. They want to be in the lab, mixing things up and seeing how they can work, not necessarily in a public-facing type of role. They thrive in that. I'm big on trying to not force people into a role, but really trying to adapt roles to both cater to our company's goals and aligned to what someone's naturally excited about and gifted at.

Liz: That totally makes sense. Now that we've talked about establishing a team, let's talk about how you measure success.

What KPIs do you think tech partner managers should have?

Chris: That’s definitely a heated debate in the industry. When I was at Crossbeam’s Supernode conference in Philadelphia. Cristina Flaschen, Pandium’s CEO, was there and gave a great talk. There's a lot of conversations about KPIs. Typical KPIs, for those who may not be super familiar, would be sourced revenue, basically sales qualified opportunities.

It’s the amount of pipeline that you're generating in a given period. This could be a month or a quarter. That's one typical KPI at Gorgias. We are compensated and measured by closed one revenue source from partners in a given period. We're going the extra step. We're not just getting KPI on revenue opportunity generated, it's actually closed. We like that model, because it keeps you involved in the sales cycle longer, all the way to the finish line. It really forces you to be strategic and how you source deals and the quality of those deals. 

If you're just focused on opportunity generated, maybe you don't care as much about getting qualified opportunities as long as they enter the pipeline. This model, it's a little bit unorthodox and not used by all, but we like it. It keeps partners involved longer. Imagine at a late stage and a big deal comes back to us and says, “Hey, you know, this partner referred us to this deal, it's gone cold, can you re-engage with this partner to see if they can help us?”. Partner managers are now incentivized to be cooperative in that scenario, because they're not compensated until the deal is closed. 

Other KPIs you might see tech partner managers specifically measured on are things like the number of integrations added to their marketplace, maybe ones that hit a certain install threshold. There's other slightly unique KPIs for tech partner managers, but most of the ones that we see have some revenue attribute to it, whether it's created opportunity or closed opportunity.

Can you talk to some of the metrics that you use to track whether or not you're meeting some of the KPIs that you mentioned?

Chris: We use HubSpot as our CRM for instance. We use this tool, Sisense, as our BI tool. It used to be called Periscope, now it's called Sisense. It gives us this advanced look at all of our pipeline metrics. One thing I'm training partners on my team early on to do is to have a manager level understanding of the pipeline. It's not enough to say, “Oh, look, I'm on track to hit my goals this month”.  You need to have that foresight to look ahead.

For example, did you exhaust all of your pipeline for this month, and now you're really vulnerable to a poor following month? Where's your pipeline at now? Where do you expect it to be heading into the next period or next month? 

Metrics that we're looking at are deals added coming from partners, the average deal size, the average close rate, the average sales cycle length, etc. We’re looking for trends month over month to see if anything drastic has changed. Those metrics typically will give us a good sense of what we can expect this month and heading into future months.

We're there any other metrics that you wanted to bring up to show the value of tech partnerships specifically to the business?

Chris: One thing we're not doing a good enough job of just yet, but it's something that we're focusing on now, is how integrations, specifically, can add value beyond just close revenue. What's the impact it has on our marketing goals? There's a tremendous SEO boost when we're listed on some of the biggest app marketplaces in the space.

Klaviyo is one of the biggest partners in our ecosystem with 100,000+ customers, and we were featured on their app marketplace. At one point, we were actually one of the four featured apps for an entire month. There's this tremendous ancillary, organic style marketing boost we're getting from something like that. 

How we measure that and give it an attribute is a little bit tricky. More concisely, things like, how is integration adoption impacting your churn? We know internally, that once we get our customers to five and a half integrations, on average, churn just seems to drop precipitously. How can we get more information like that to showcase churn mitigation? How does the number of integrations used by our merchants track and correlate with our NPS? That's something that we need to have a better understanding of. 

Going a step further, not just integrations in general, but on a per integration basis. So we want to look at which specific integrations are having the biggest impact on our churn rate, NPS, and customer satisfaction? Our average deal size? Are we actually generating more revenue per customer when they're coming from a specific integration? What's the sales cycle length look like? It might be 30 days on average for our deals, and now suddenly they're 24 days when they're coming from a technology partner referral. Those are some of the major metrics that we see other companies are tracking, but we're not quite there yet.

Liz: A lot of what you're saying has come up in a lot of the other panels that we've hosted, creating those trend trend lines between all those metrics that you mentioned. Transitioning a little bit here, we talked about partnerships being a really multifaceted role, and so, cross functional collaboration is a given.

What are some processes or frameworks that you can share for successfully working with product and engineering teams?

Chris: Cross team functionality is a huge aspect for any successful technology partner program. We are incredibly reliant on them. One of the first keys is establishing a great relationship, as high up as you possibly can within those organizations. Whether it's the Chief Product or Chief Technical Officer, the head of a department, or even a director of a specific department, making sure that you have an open line of communication, you clearly understand their goals, how they're measured, what their one to two year vision is, and then articulating what your goals and your vision is. Ultimately getting them excited to be a key contributor.

For instance, with our product and engineering team, if we want them to prioritize building a native integration that we're going to own, we need to obviously come with a business case to get buy-in in the first place to get it inserted in our roadmap. We need to get them excited about how it’s going to extend their product.

How is this going to transform the value that we're delivering to our customers? We make that crystal clear to them to get excited. Once the actual work is done, and we're seeing the impact that we had hoped for we come back to them and scream from the rooftops about how amazing the impact actually was. Not just convincing them to do the work. but actually going back to share their successes and make them feel like a true stakeholder who contributed to those successes.

Having regular communication, getting buy-in early on, understanding what motivates the team, how to get buy-in, how they like to communicate, and then ultimately celebrating the successes when they happen. Those are some of the key ingredients to successful alignment with other teams.

Liz: That makes sense. Tech partner engagement requires supporting go-to-market and technical teams.

How do you ensure both sides of the house have a good experience and are engaged?

Chris: Definitely have some form of cadence with these teams. On the technical support side, we have a great integration QA team. The two support specialists on our team, Maria and Tina, are fantastic. When someone wants to join our app marketplace, they can submit an application for an app that they build, it'll get triaged to our integration QA team, and they'll go through this process that we've built to essentially set up the integration on our test environment to make sure that it works, that there's no edge cases, and then ultimately approve it. That allows the partner to get onto our marketplace.

We have a regular cadence with that team. If there are any anomalies, any issues, any trends, or if we're getting inundated with incomplete applications, for instance, that's an alarm to me that we need to clarify or simplify how we're describing the application process. We have an open line of communication with the product marketing team, for instance, on the go-to-market side.

They're not necessarily in the know of which specific apps or integrations we should focus on in terms of marketing and go-to-market. That's where my team will come in and provide important context. The best thing I can say is having a regular cadence. It could be monthly with a certain sub team, it could be bi-weekly with another sub team, but just establishing that and having a clear agenda for those meetings.

Liz: I want to get some of your ideas on prioritizing partners.

How do you prioritize your tech partners and decide which partners to invest more resources in? How do you decide who to invest in at the beginning and who to invest in more after you've already established partnerships?

Chris: Good question, I'll start with how we make decisions and make bets at the beginning of a potential new partnership. Then I'll talk about how we audit and update who we're going to focus on the most.

At the beginning of the relationship, in deciding whether or not it's going to be a good fit for us or how big of an opportunity it’s going to be, we'll use a tool like Crossbeam, which allows us to essentially engage in a very secure account mapping exchange. Some of the key data points that I'm looking for when doing a Crossbeam exercise with a potential new partner are our mutual customer base, which tells us that we are playing in the same sandbox.

That number is very telling. We look at how many of our customers match up with our partner’s prospects. That paints the opportunity for them and the TAM from their perspective. Then, vice versa, we look at how many of their customers match up against our prospect population, and that shows us what the revenue opportunity might be.

Those three numbers alone can tell me quite a bit about how likely a specific specific partnership is to be successful. There are definitely other considerations such as, is there an integration that exists already? That's always a strong indicator. What's the usage? What's the feedback? What's the value of that integration?

Those are all strong clusters of strong revenue opportunity. We also look at if the potential partner has a partner program in place, and if they have a dedicated partnership person to speak with. Instead of dealing with the head of marketing or a C-level executive, we'll actually be dealing with someone in a partnership role. 

All of that conspires to give us a very strong signal that this is a good partner to really make a strong bet on. If they don't have a partnership function, the revenue opportunity is not as big. If there's not an integration in place, then it's very difficult for them to break into our priority list. They would go into our non-managed bucket where you're a certified partner, but it's basically to get resources as available by invitation.

In terms of existing partners, we're very data reliant at Gorgias. Our mantra is “decide fast using data”. I work closely with my team to audit the performance of partners, month over month, quarter over quarter, to really understand which partners are over-performing, why is that, and how we can throw more gasoline to accelerate that even further.

We also look at which partners are underperforming relative to expectation, and whether this is a longer-term trend. Has something fundamentally changed with their company? Have they deprioritized partnerships? Have they moved into a different segment that's less overlapping with our ICP, meaning we maybe need to deprioritize that relationship, because we don't expect it to be resurrected?

Maybe an underperforming partner isn't performing because we're not delivering enough value to them. We haven't been close enough with them. Maybe we should try for a quarter to really reengage and see what we can do to get things back on track. 

We lump our partners into three buckets: Who's over performing? How can we keep that going? Who's underperforming? How can we get things back on track? Maybe we need to decide to like cool things off entirely. Then, which partners are on track and can't really expect much of a change either way?

We treat each of those three buckets entirely differently. We’ll make decisions heading into new quarters. We'll typically do quarterly business reviews with our biggest partners. We learn a lot from those meetings, in terms of what we can really expect. Are they actually going to be a good fit for us? We'll make tough decisions to deprioritize and reprioritize certain partners based on that information.

Are co-marketing or co-selling opportunities also involved in your decision to initially invest in a company?

Chris: Increasingly so, that is the case. Transparently, we’re very fixated on the revenue opportunity that we could generate and expect from a potential partner, but as I mentioned earlier on, we're starting to appreciate and focus more on the other benefits that you can get from a partnership. What's the impact on our churn and user satisfaction? What about the marketing boost that we can expect?

Now more than ever, when we're sizing up potential partners, we're asking questions like, what marketing resources do you have to offer as co-marketing opportunities? Are there events, sponsorships, and joint events that we can host together? 

That’s definitely factoring in when we're deciding on new partners. When we're doing our audits quarter over quarter for our existing partners we’re examining how well they’ve done in the marketing front and the events side of things. If they're quite active in hosting in-person and virtual events, we have great data that shows which partners are top performers in terms of driving qualified opportunities and RSVPs to these events.

There are some partners that continuously don't perform and don't live up to what they've promised. They're essentially on a blacklist. I know, it sounds harsh, but at the end of the day it’s reality. We typically will not invite those partners to co-host events with us, because they say one thing, but then they end up not marketing the events. That's why having this level of data is really important.

Liz: Yeah, that's super helpful for making those decisions. To head off to the end of the conversation, we're going to talk about your thoughts on larger trends when it comes to tech partnerships.

How should organizations be thinking about the decision to take a revenue share from their tech partners? What are your thoughts?

Chris: In deciding whether or not to take a revenue share from a partner, you really need to ask yourself if it’s the lever you need to get the results that you want. We don't really engage in many revenue share agreements at all, as opposed to our agency channel partnership program at Gorgias, which is tremendously productive.

They exclusively operate through revenue share agreements, that's the main lever they have to get these agencies and size to source this revenue, because we don't really have the opportunity to send them leads and send them direct revenue. The way we can do that is through revenue share, so that's how they're getting their kickback. 

With tech partners, it's challenging. The bigger the partner, the less interested they're going to be in getting revenue share. A partner company of yours that's worth over $100 million or over $1 billion getting say 20% of a smaller deal amount revenue share won't really be that powerful to them. They're going to be demanding direct referral revenue. The main thing I would say is, if it makes sense, it's like the main lever that's going to give you the leverage you need to get a successful partnership off the ground, then by all means, enter into such an agreement.

I don't think it needs to be black or white where you either you do this with all your partners or don't do with any partners. With our program, it's open for negotiation. In most of the partnerships, we just try to figure out how we can add enough value to them where we can incentivize them to deliver enough value in return, specifically focused on co-selling referral driving activities. 

There's two examples of that in our program where just based on where our product sits in a brand's lifecycle, our partners aren't able to really send us leads, because by the time they get a customer, they’ve already helped us, but there's not an opportunity for them to send us leads. It's very one way in terms of we're sending them a ton of leads, they don't really send us any in return.

In a scenario that’s very one-sided referral wise, then a revenue share agreement makes sense.  We're actually getting some meaningful revenue share from them. We also have the opposite, where certain partners send us a ton of leads, but we're not able to send them any leads in return. We'll enter into an agreement with them to pay them back, but in general we try to avoid that and just establish balanced relationships.

What are some of the biggest challenges you're seeing with SaaS tech partnerships right now? And where do you see SaaS tech partnerships going in the next one to three years?

Chris: The biggest challenge is getting more bang for your buck from your app marketplace and your integrations. I've spoken at length today about the commercial opportunity that you can get through these tech partnerships. I think a big challenge that companies need to focus more on is the product marketing story. Don't get too blindsided and focus so much on classic business development and commercialization tactics around driving revenue from your partners. 

You need to go back to the roots and focus on the story you can tell. How can we really understand at a deep level, the impact that integrations are having on our shared merchants, from a really granular level? You’re not just saying, “Oh, this integration with these use cases gives you these benefits.”

Instead of fluffy surface level stories, get down to the nitty gritty and be able to give specific data. “This integration will help you unlock an 18.7% increase in conversion rates by doing XYZ.” Figuring out the story you can tell and then ultimately telling that to the masses both through public marketing efforts, but also evangelizing your customer facing maps internally, both your side and your partner's side. Tell them that story as well, and get them excited to scream from the mountaintops about why customers and brands should be using both of our solutions together.

The main takeaway there is to focus more and more on the product marketing and enablement side, which will then have this beautiful parlay into increased commercialization efforts. If you're doing all of this plastic, top of the funnel activities, you will plateau, and it's not gonna allow you to grow.

Finally, where I see things heading into the future… I think a big shift you're gonna see is increased co-selling, a lot more partner influence, and a lot more joint selling. An OEM white label type of approach where we're literally becoming an embedded solution.  Instead of us having to be as involved to generate revenue from a partner, they're essentially able to sell us on their behalf almost like an add-on.

A partner organization closes a deal, they get into upsell mode, and they say, “Oh, by the way, I think you'd really benefit from our Gorgias add-on, you know, you can just tack this on to your bill.” We can connect our Stripe accounts, for instance, on our partner side, they collect the payment, and then they can back channel that back to us. 

I see that as a trend. Other more mature industries than SaaS do this already. The larger companies in ecommerce already are, but with SaaS, that's not really quite the case yet. That's something that we're looking towards ourselves.

Liz: It definitely seems that way, especially with Crossbeam acquisition of Partnered, that should be pretty interesting. That was my last question. Thanks, Chris, for joining us and sharing your expertise.

Is there anywhere where people who are listening in can connect with you?

Chris: You can connect with me on LinkedIn, you can reach out to me at chris@gorgias.com. I’m happy to chat anytime about all things partnerships related.

Liz: Yeah, I personally follow you on LinkedIn, and I've just come into the SaaS  partnerships world and I feel like I've definitely learned a lot from following you. Definitely recommend.

If you enjoyed this interview, check out our Youtube channel and subscribe for more content on all things technology partnerships, APIs, and integrations. If you're someone who is working on building and scaling SaaS product partnerships, we invite you to apply to be a member of our community and network with other leaders like Chris at SaaSecosystemalliance.com.

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