E-commerce Partnerships: An Interview with Casey Armstrong, CMO of ShipBob
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.
Casey Armstrong is the CMO of ShipBob, and he previously led marketing and operations for BigCommerce. We talked to him about trends in e-commerce, the growing importance of tech partnerships, and his strategic advice for other partnership teams.
Are there trends you are seeing in e-commerce partnerships?
There are two things that I would highlight. As e-commerce continues to evolve, sellers’ needs from their tech partners continue to intertwine at an extremely fast clip.
Shopify, WooCommerce, and BigCommerce have democratized selling online. The competition across e-commerce brands has ramped up greatly, and so people have to get more sophisticated in how they operate - in how they are selling, how they are shipping, how they are marketing, and what they are selling.
It is paramount that all the technologies they are using talk to each other seamlessly.
In order to compete, merchants and retail stores need the most accurate and clean data in real-time in order to make the right decisions for their business.
From the side of the tech vendors who are servicing the merchants, the market opportunity size around integrating software has continued to grow. This is true of all different tech solutions, whether marketing, shipping, sales or customer management tech. I don’t see this slowing down in the foreseeable future, both in the United States and around the world.
For efficient customer acquisition and retention, these technology partnerships are more important than ever. Offering an integrated experience where all the tech is integrated increases product stickiness and customer satisfaction.
In addition, often, it can also be a dealbreaker if your tech doesn’t integrate to core technologies. For example, at ShipBob, like many others, we use Salesforce as our CRM, and if a marketing or sales technology does not integrate with Salesforce, it is immediately off the table.
What do you consider best practices when choosing whom to partner with?
This is something people often look at too late. Many companies just take a spray and pray approach, or pick partners based on how much they like them.
It should all start with your customer base and their ideal profile. Ask yourself, “What are my customers’ biggest pain points and how can I find partners who alleviate those pain points?”
I have made this mistake before, but as with most things, start by going deep with your customers and their needs.
To be effective, tech partnerships often require partnerships, marketing, product, and engineering teams to work together. How does this play out in practice?
Generally, coordination across teams is not set up properly. This is to no fault of any specific team, but for startups and fast-growing companies, processes change quickly and at different speeds across each respective team. This is where a data-driven approach to partnerships becomes even more valuable. You have to be able to judge what has the best impact for your current partners, and what is driving new business.
I would recommend getting the product and engineering teams involved early. Once they get the first integration done and if you can prove out the ROI, everybody will start to see the benefits.
Product and engineering teams want to build solutions that customers are actually using, so it’s on the partner team or the team leading the integration to drive the adoption.
Partnership teams sit in different places in organizations. Do you have thoughts on the best way to structure the team and whom it should report to?
There is definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. It depends heavily on the skill set or experience of the leadership team. Partnerships should sit with whoever is going to be able to best run the team effectively.
What do you consider best practices for tracking ROI on partnerships?
I would treat it similar to how you would treat another marketing or outbound sales channel. You can utilize a similar approach in tracking partnerships. You want your partners to drive net-new revenue and customers, plus assist in expansion and closing efforts.
Do you have any marketing advice specific to partnerships?
There is no silver bullet to partnership marketing. First, look at your business and your business model. For example, if you have a lower average customer value with a large customer base and self-serve sales model, your approach is going to be very different than what you would do if you have very high average customer value with a smaller customer base and more hands-on sales process.
Partnership marketing should take a well-rounded approach. From the digital side, such as webinars or content, to in-person events. Everything should be coordinated together with a shared goal and shared message.
And this is extremely important, get one-to-one intros through account mapping or account management. This enables you to find those larger customers, and it is equally, if not more important, than the more scalable marketing activities.
What’s your advice for companies trying to get more attention and marketing resources from larger partners like BigCommerce, Slack, or Salesforce?
You should try to provide as much upfront value as possible before you ask for anything, just like with any effective sales or marketing. Once you do ask for something, make it as easy as possible for the larger partner to deliver.
For example, for a huge partner, we were able to get something off the ground quickly only because we provided the copy, design work, the tracking, and the emails. We asked them what potential blockers or hurdles there would be internally on their side, so we did nearly everything. All they had to do was upload and hit send. Had we not done that, it would have taken months or even quarters to launch it.
The partnership world is a very interesting space. A lot of people get into these roles and stay in them for a good chunk of their career. They need to be good at sales and they know the product, but fundamentally they are people people. The best way to start with a larger partner is offering value to their customers, but then build the relationships. That will help your company and it will help you for the long term.
Plus, honestly, it can be a lot of fun.
As a company scales, how does a partnership program have to change?
From a technical and product standpoint, your API and integration infrastructure needs to be uniform and easy to use. Whether you build that in-house or by utilizing a solution like Pandium, it has to be done. Otherwise, when you scale, you will create a lot of headaches for your team and for your customers.
Think through what it costs to build the integrations, and how much do you offset that, and see what that payback period is so you can make decisions more holistically.
Have you tracked revenue on tech partnerships at companies you have worked for?
Yes, we did track the revenue. This looked different at ShipBob and BigCommerce, but at both companies, we saw a huge ROI from certain partnerships.
Any other strategic advice for partnership leaders?
Ruthlessly prioritize and review what you are doing because there are seemingly endless partners. You are going to have to say no a lot when you want to say yes. Your partners should understand you have to put your customers first.
Be careful not to over promise. We have partners who have promised or committed to certain things. We shared this with customers, and then it never happened or got greatly delayed. Sometimes that can happen for extraneous reasons, but you have to communicate and be careful not to commit to what you can’t deliver.
We all can make this mistake, but it can hurt the relationship, whether it’s with the customer or partner.
On the flip side, when you do get wins, you should highlight your partners and celebrate them. Send pizza to their office, or something fun as a thank you.
If you'd like to learn more about how ShipBob transformed their ROI on tech partnerships and integrations by using Pandium, you can read their story here.