Between Product and Partnerships is a podcast brought to you by our group the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance, and it’s focused on bringing together product, partnerships and engineering leaders to discuss how to build support and scale SaaS ecosystems. If you're interested in watching or listening in on this conversation, you can access the video here and a link to listen on podcast platforms here.
Our former Director of Marketing, Kelly Sarabyn, interviewed Ian Cugniere, the Program Manager for the App Marketplace at Aircall, a cloud-based call center and phone system that integrates seamlessly with popular productivity and helpdesk tools.
Ian talks about his transition into technology partnerships and shares features of app marketplaces that are attractive to customers and partners and ways to provide a good partner experience at scale for long-tail partners and partner developers who are building integrations.
For context, app marketplaces are a catalog of integrations that can be public or available in-app to SaaS customers. Public integration (app) marketplaces allow customers, prospect, and partners to discover and learn more about all the integrations SaaS companies offer. In-app marketplaces offer the same ability, but they also enable customers to install integrations, and give partners the opportunity to be featured in front of customers. You can learn more about app marketplaces here.
Ian's role at Aircall
Ian: My role today at Aircall is Program Manager for the App Marketplace. This means making sure that we have a partner program that aligns with our partners needs, ramping up the long-tail of partners as well, and making sure they become the next big partners of ours. In a nutshell, that's what I do at Aircall.
I'm pretty new to partnerships. Right before this role I was a Senior Relationship Manager for a network of founders and top execs. I was also the head of a SaaS club there. I got to interact and interview with many people in the industry for example, Blake Bartlett, the founder of the term “Product Lead Growth” and Elias Torres, the CTO and Co-founder of Drift.
That got me thinking and inspired, and this is also part of the reason why I wanted to work on partnerships. Before that role I was the Head of Community at an Incubator, and I was also an IT consultant. That experience of being customer facing and technical helped me go into partnerships. I was interested in where Aircall was at, I was super interested by how pivotal the partnerships role was. That's why I'm here today.
Kelly: The connection between partnerships and community is really important and key. We see in marketing departments this idea of community-led growth. You see SaaS companies acquiring communities and acquiring publications; it aligns with partnerships in that way because the way businesses are buying is changing, and people want it to be more relationship-based.
I definitely see that connection of building communities, and having that as a role, and then transitioning into building ecosystems out. I'm familiar with the Aircall team and your journey. You guys have really grown a lot in the last few years.
Just so people in the audience can understand, what does your marketplace and app partner landscape look like today? How big is it? How many partners do you have?
Ian: For sure, I can talk about the tech partners, mostly because those are the partners I address, not channel partners. We have more than 100 integrations today on our marketplace, which is a great starting point for me. Historically, integrations have been at the center of Aircall from the start, especially because we're really focused on bringing value to your customers, understanding where they were coming from, and how we could improve their experience.
Most of our customers, if not all of them, were using CRMs. We started there with the big names, such as Salesforce and HubSpot. We've come a long way since then. We were the ones who started to build those integrations, making sure to be featured on those marketplaces.
Today with HubSpot, for example, we’re number one in telephony. They even recently invested in us. I take no credit for that at all. I arrived after that. But that really shows how much that bet has paid off and how far we've grown.
We're now in the position where smaller partners come to us and they are willing to build the integrations themselves, which is a pretty great place to be in. When I say small I don't necessarily mean by the size of the company, headcount or revenue. I mean in terms of the size of their partner program.
We share our our story with them and show them how it's helped us. To give you another number, in North America today more than 50% of our revenue is driven by partnerships.
Kelly: That's so interesting, Aircall is like a lot of growing companies in the position where they still have bigger partners, like Salesforce, where they're the smaller partner in the relationship. But you also have all these other partners that now you're the bigger fish in the relationship; you start to have to think about that long-tail motion on optimizing that experience.
How does your marketplace work? Do you have an in-app marketplace and a public marketplace?
Kelly: What I've seen in the market is that many earlier stage startups will put up a public marketplace. Technically, it's much more challenging to do an in-app marketplace because you have to connect to the customer's account, show them what they've already installed, and allow them to actually install. That usually comes in later stage companies. I'm wondering where are you at now?
Ian: Most of the public marketplace, I would say there's a cross between, but the short answer would be public marketplace. All the features that you would expect, and Pandium is doing a great job with that so, I don't know if I can teach you a lot about this.
It's a marketplace where you can find almost all of our integrations. Of course, we have some integrations that are not referenced on our marketplace, if, for example, they don't follow the requirements we have such as OAuth. Our API is still public and open, so some integrations exist without living on the marketplace, but most of them are public and available on the marketplace.
Kelly: If an existing customer wants to browse your integrations and then install, are they looking at that public marketplace? And then they go elsewhere to install it?
Kelly: Obviously, at Pandium, we have thought a lot about integration marketplaces. A lot of people are in the process of building an integration marketplace out and even just building out the public one.
They're trying to figure out which features are important. The interesting thing about integration marketplaces is how much alike they look. You don't see a lot of variation out there. There's some that look like they were built in 1990. But for the most part, they have the same layout in terms of tiles and categories. Since this is something like squarely in your purview.
What are important features to have as part of an integration marketplace? Are search categories or reviews important?
Ian: Yeah, definitely. I ask internally quite often about what's important, where we're at, and what could be better. I even have an example of what another partner of ours is doing that we're not and I think would be great. Among the nice things to have is the company statement, so that users understand the mission of the company and the purpose of a marketplace. You also want a section for developers to make access to that easier.
App categories are super important for several reasons. It makes it easier for customers and potential customers to find the kind of tools they're looking for. It's also a way, once you grow, to highlight the new apps, so not only at the beginning on the main page, but per category, which is also something important in that it brings value to new partners as well. You could also have some kind of chat tool, and maybe some documentation to the marketplace.
Down the road it is also really nice to have a quick video on how to integrate with each and every partner. There's almost always in documentation, but there's not always a video. As silly as it sounds, it makes a huge difference.
Ours partner Alloy has a feature on their marketplace I think would be great that we don't have. When you click on an integration on their marketplace they display other integrations that would pair well with that integration and see what are going to be the features available between those integrations, how they communicate, and what kind of calls you're going to be able to make. It's pretty amazing. I was looking at it this morning, they’re a new partner of ours, and I was pretty impressed by that.
Kelly: You're saying it's just much more detailed in terms of what information you're going to be able to move between your product and your partner's product?
Ian: Yeah, they might not have all the documentation, the same way we do, but it's very easy to understand exactly how you interact with a partner product from the main page on the integration.
Kelly: That's so important. Customers, and even just prospects, really have become more sophisticated when it comes to integration. They want to know, not just that it exists, but actually, what it does. Is this going to actually help me in my job?
Are you tracking the traffic from your marketplace to your partner pages? Are you utilizing UTM codes or using other links so they see what they're getting from you guys?
Ian: Yeah, we're doing that both ways and we're getting better at it. This wasn't the case before. It's super important to be able to see deals that are sourced through partnerships or influenced by partnerships. It’s something we’ll always track internally and that we encourage partners to to track as well. This enables us to get concrete data that we can discuss when it comes to the value we're bringing to each other.
Kelly: I agree, because I see a lot of marketplaces where that's not happening. I think about the tech partnership people and the real value they're sending via quality traffic to partners.
Ian: One way is obviously UTM links. Another way that is more analog is to have your sales team ask first thing on a call, “How did you hear about our company?” Make sure that you know where the customer prospect is coming from.
Kelly: Yeah, I agree. If you have a system like Gong or Avoma in place where they're recording the sales call, you can put tags of your tech partners so that you're able to see whenever they're mentioned. The least you need to rely on sales to log something manually, the better off and easier everybody's job is.
You said earlier that one of the parts of your job is really to enable the long-tail partner, which is a real struggle. In terms of even getting to who's a long-tail partner and who's not, most companies, at scale, end up having a partner tier system. What thoughts do you have on whether or not that's the best way? I really haven't seen a scale other than the typical three tiers.
As someone who thinks about the long-tail partners, how can you engage them to make their experience better? Do you think that programming here is a good approach?
Ian: It's great that you mentioned that. I'm actually in the process of revamping our tiers. There's still going to be tiers, full disclosure. I think it really depends on the stage your company is at. Sometimes, it's a bit overblown and you don't necessarily need tiers. I was listening to a podcast today from another company, and they don't divide their partners between tiers.
They basically have two main categories, partners they interact with and partners they don't really interact with. At an early stage, this makes sense. Once you see traction and more partners in your marketplace, I think tiers are really important. Even though, like you said, we all have tiers and we're pretty much usings similar tiering.
I think beyond compartmentalizing partners, the main aim of partner tiers is also to clearly communicate the benefits you're bringing those partners and share clear path of success with those partners. It also allows them to understand how they can level up and unlock more benefits.
The logic for me is to pay it forward right off the bat so that they have something to start with so that they play ball and will do the same. We will see some traction and that will help them move through those tiers. It’s also a way for us to to prioritize which partners it makes sense to interact with the most. That's why I think tiers are super important.
Hopefully without contradicting myself, I believe it is also important to be super flexible. I'm revamping our partners benefits, but sometimes you will have partners that come with an opportunity that doesn’t fit your partner program at all, but it still makes a lot of sense.
You want to build up that momentum and be opportunistic in the business sense of the term. It might make sense, for example, to do an interview for a podcast, or participate in a partner webinar, even if we're not seeing a lot of customers coming from them just yet.
If it's an angle that's relevant for Aircall, and a way for us to share our expertise and improve SEO, it might be a good partnership and opportunity to jump on whether or not it fits within your whole partner program tiers.
It's a great way as well for small partners to get the attention of the bigger fish in the pond. At the beginning, we were the ones doing all the legwork to get the attention of larger partners. I love it when I see partners coming up to us with tons of ideas of what we could implement and making it easier for us to engage with them.
In a nutshell, I think tiers are important not only as a way to divide partners by how much revenue they bring, but as a way to gauge and encourage them to be more engaged.
Kelly: I love that approach. I think transparency is so important. At scale you need a program that allows you to communicate with longtail partners regarding performance expectations. Transparency is great for leveling expectations. The worst thing is if people come in, they invest in building an integration, and their expectations do not align with reality.
The flexibility you're talking about is so key. There's going to be new companies that either don't fit the model, or they're just up and coming companies. Maybe they have a product feature that's just so amazing to your customers, even though they don't have a large customer base. They might not make it into the program without flexibility.
Having that flexibility on top of tiers is a great way to go and use it. You see a lot of larger companies with “New” and “Noteworthy” sections right in their app store along with accelerators geared toward smaller partners. You get the chance to build that personal relationship with a larger partner; that’s a way to get that flexibility where you're not missing really excellent opportunities.
Diving deeper into the long-tail experience, when you have strategic partners, you can do a lot of hand holding with a personal touch and even quarterly or even monthly business reviews. But once you get to a certain size you can't provide that personal interaction to every partner.
What are some of the ways that you've been able to provide a good partner experience for the long-tail?
Ian: That's a great question, and that's one of my main challenges and objectives in my current position. I’d say to pay it forward as much as possible, and make it as easy as possible for them as well. Ask for feedback; feedback is super important. Sometimes you have an idea of what's important to your partners, and it's not the case at all, so it's great to keep asking for feedback all the time.
Having a clear path so that partners know the hoops they have to go through before they can get started with more resource intensive activities.
To give you a concrete example, we recently launched an event called “Partner Pitch Perfect.” The name might change depending on what legal tells us. The idea is that the partners will come and pitch their integration, they will have 10 minutes to demo their integration, and there will be several partners doing that enablement session to our GTM team.
They get early access to the GTM team that they might not have in our partner program. It's a monthly event and every quarter, we have a vote among the GTM team. They decide what was the best pitch, what was the best company demo, and then we do a webinar that's open to the public with those selected companies.
That's a way to pay it forward, and give them the opportunity to engage with our GTM team. It also gives them more resource intensive benefits depending on their engagement. It's a relationship and it should go both ways because in any relationship, you want reciprocity and engagement.
This also allows you to gauge where everyone is at and to set expectations. I have a terrible metaphor for that but, you don't want to make a proposal on the first date. That's how I'm thinking about all those hoops and steps for partnerships. Ask for feedback, it's important to understand what they need and want.
Do they want marketing? Maybe they just want an SEO boost. Do they want more revenue? Feedback will help drive a conversation forward and make sure that we're going in the right direction instead of trying to provide them with benefits they might not care about.
Again this approach might be more resource intensive; it will really depend on that. We're trying to find the sweet spot that is not too resource intensive while at the same time, bringing a lot of value to those partners.
That's why feedback is super important. Engagement of partners is key and will determine a lot of relationships. When we wanted to be big on HubSpot, we were the one that spent a lot of time talking to customers, understanding their needs, the billing, and the integration. That's how we got on the radar.
My point is, it's super important to keep investing in long-tail partners and not only the most strategic partners. At the end of the day, they might become the next big partners on our marketplace. Be open to them, provide them with benefits, and bring them value. At the end of the day, they're going to be the ones bringing you more customers and more revenue.
Kelly: I love that idea of a pitch contest. Clio, which is a legal CRM has a similar concept where they had a competition for the best new app. They would announce the winner at a live event, one of their conferences. I think the winner got $100,000. Getting in front of the sales and marketing team is also super valuable, because that's what partners are trying to do. Partners are trying to increase adoption, and get more on the radar; that provides an opportunity.
Events in general can be a way to engage a long-tail without having to invest too much in terms of resources from your side. What about more tactical approaches around how you're communicating?
There's a current problem within the partnership space of 1000 different partner portals. Now, if you're AWS or Salesforce, your partners are going to be logging in to your portal. You're in an interesting position because you do have all these partners coming to you, but they probably also have partnerships with other companies as well.
Are you using a partner portal to manage the relationship with your long-tail partners and is that effective?
Ian: That's a great question, I know there's a whole debate in the industry, about the death of a partner portal that continues to rise back from the ashes. Full disclosure, for tech partners, we don't use a partner portal. We do, however, for channel partners. First off, I use Crossbeam or Reveal to identify overlaps between our data and the potential partners' data in our ecosystem.
I think that’s key and something that should be part of the conversation, even before the integration is built. I know a lot of people don't necessarily do that; they wait for the integration to be built, then they will try to understand the overlaps.
When it comes to our channel of communication, because we don't have a partner portal for tech partners, honestly, I'm pretty flexible, and it really depends on the partner’s preferences. I love Slack Connect, for example, I think it's very easy.
You can add your aides and CSM super quickly whenever there's an app to the channel. Some partners are a bit reluctant to use Slack Connect so we do do emails, it's fine with me as well.
It actually helps me make sure that we don't over communicate, which might be a problem with Slack Connect, because you're always available, you always can see the little green dot, which is very tempting sometimes.
With the whole partner portal debate, to be honest, I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to that. What matters to me is results. I'm all for trying it again. I started my position pretty recently, so I'm trying the way I discussed. If I see other ways to improve, I definitely will.
More than the channels of communication, what matters is transparency, clearly articulating bandwidth on either side, resources, and what's actually feasible. Jared Fuller made a great point when he said that trust is the “new data”, like data used to be the “new oil”. That's also why partnerships are so interesting and so different from traditional sales; Because even with long-tail partners, it's still super important that you have human to human connection whenever possible. We still have the luxury to have only a bit more than 100 partners, so it's still possible to do that.
Another way to communicate, and that's how we met, is in-person events. I think they're great. Like you said, they might not be as resource intensive, just because you can add so many partners at the same event. It's a great way to connect with all of them. It helps build those relationships while allowing them to evolve.
Even over a short period of time, it really eases the business side of things. I've been to several events in one or two months and I've seen some of the same people, which allowed us to start building rapport and trust.
In a nutshell, the best way to communicate with partners, regardless of whether it's through a portal, is to be transparent. Remember, that it is not a zero sum game; that's the beauty of partnership. A channel is just a means.
Kelly: With about 100 partners you are on a threshold where the more manual processes just become unsustainable. You can always scale your internal workforce; you can always just add more partner managers, in which case you can maintain at least some personal touch points; However on the data collection side, once you reach a certain point, you probably need a robust internal integrations where you're piping things into a tracking dashboard, where you're seeing all the results of these partnerships.
It can be an advantage of a sophisticated partnership portal where both you and your partner can see those results, which obviously can be really valuable and motivating. I've seen this in some of the PMs on the market such as Pronto, WorkSpan, etc.; there's a number out there now, but they surface those results to both to you and to your partners.
You see that you're actually making an impact. And that helps but the nice thing is you're saying about the more manual approach is that you do have more opportunities for that personal connection, which, ultimately, allows you to have trust, I think you need that.
I'll be curious how it all unfolds at Aircall, because I don't think it's very challenging, but to have true trust at scale, it's something marketing struggles with too. You want to create a brand that's trustworthy and once you're at that point of scale with your ecosystem and your partnerships.
How are you establishing trusts at a level of scale where you don’t have a personal relationship?
Ian: 100%, and I totally agree. Let's touch base in six months, and I might tell you something totally different. I'm all for automation, whenever it's possible. Like I said, I love to template and automate as many things as possible.
To give you a concrete example, whenever I have a new partner, I will share with them some self-serve marketing tools, so that they can showcase our partnership on social media. A lot of partners find this super valuable, because what they're looking for is to attach their name to our brand, which is the same thing we're looking for at the beginning. Doing that takes very little of my time but creates a personal touch through templates and automation.
Whenever possible, I will try to automate and template things, but I still believe that that human touch is super important. I agree with you that it's a tough balance to maintain. It's going to be more and more difficult, because we're going to keep growing. When we reach 1000 partners, for example, it’s going to be a totally different ballgame for sure.
Kelly: Tech partnerships people we really have to think not just about our partners from a GTM side, but also our partner developers. What does that look like at Aircall? Do you have a separate developer relations team embedded within the tech partnerships?
How do you work within your organization to make sure that partner developers enjoy the experience of building an integration and working with your team?
Ian: The first thing that is key is having a clear API documentation. That allows our partners to know what they’re looking at and how it works, even before they start talking with us. In terms of at least the main functionalities and what you expect.
We put a lot of emphasis on tutorials about the different functions. For example, we have tutorials about how to get started with Aircall, basic authentication, and how to create a webhook. We also have tutorials for features that are more specific to Aircall such as automatic callback, routing calls, storing calls on servers, etc.
It's the same thing with web developers and with partners, we bring value when we make things as easy as possible for them. Documentation is key, and is really a first step. We'll keep improving on that. It's never perfect; there's always a v1, v2, v3 of the app. You have to keep your documentation up to date. In addition to that, we have technical support, to help them build the integration.
Again, like we talked about at the very beginning, we make sure that they follow our technical requirements. This allows our partners to be featured on our marketplace, otherwise, they're not. It's a mix of creating good documentation, spending time with them to make sure that everything's working, and testing your integration to make sure that we're releasing something that's bringing valued guests over and not an additional number in the marketplace.
What do you do internally to stay aligned with product and engineering from the perspective of being on the tech partner team?
Kelly: How do you stay aligned with them to make sure there's open lines of communication and the support you need?
Ian: There’s several levels to that. We have a weekly enablement session with engineering to keep us in the loop with exactly what they're working on. We also have different Slack channels, so that we can let them know about the issues we might be encountering. It's pretty organic, just because I'm in the New York office with a lot of the product and engineering folks as well.
We know each other by name, of course, and we see each other every day. It's pretty organic and easy for us. Even without all those channels of communication, which are again, mostly Slack and those weekly meetings we have with them.
Since you're relatively new to partnerships, how would you advise those thinking about moving into tech partnerships?
Kelly: Do you have advice for personality traits that might be a good fit? What should people's interests be if they're going to move into this role?
Ian: It's a bit humbling to give advice, when you're so new. More seriously, being a people lover is number one, you have to generally like people, otherwise, you're not going to like that job. If you don't like your job, your performance is going to be affected by it and you're not going to stay long in that position.
Number two, it's cliche, but I believe you should be be curious about tech and SaaS in general, where it's going, and what the new trends are. You should be interested in what is fluff and what is actually making a difference. Bringing that to your day to day and sharing your ideas and being creative as well.
In partnerships, you're going to work in tension with a lot of different interests. There's your partner's interest, there's your interest and your position, and there's the interests of the other internal teams. You’ll work cross-functionally with so many teams. You have to interact with each and every one be it sales and marketing or product and engineering.
It's one of the best, if not the best role, because you get to understand how an organization works.
It's great having that high level perspective, and at the same time not being afraid of sometimes deep diving. Technical understanding is not a requirement, but I believe it's definitely a plus. I'm advocating for myself here, but I do believe it makes a difference. It’s helpful to understand how an API works. It gives you the ability to jump in whether or not someone from engineering is available.
Kelly: Great advice. I've never really thought about that before in terms of being a great place if you're in tech or interested in being in tech as a way to get exposure to the whole organization. It really is, and you really have to want to do that.
Is there a place that people can reach you?
Ian: They can reach out to me on LinkedIn. We're also still hiring and creating new partnerships, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. You can also call me on my Aircall phone number or send me a text at 929-209-3313.
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