How to Run a Tech Partnership Program: An Interview with Jeff Reekers, CMO at Aircall
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.
We talked to Jeff Reekers, the CMO at Aircall, and he shared his advice on how to build successful tech partnerships and create a powerful ecosystem around a SaaS product.
What is the best way to identify the right tech partners?
You have to develop a thorough understanding of your customers’ experience, and then analyze what types of integrations customers would find extreme value in.
Initially, we map out the impact we can have through different types of integrations from both a usability and a product standpoint. From there, we ask which particular tech products best solve these problems for our customers.
In addition, we look at inbound demand - what our prospects and customers are requesting - as well as how large the customer overlap is with a potential tech partner.
Have you derived value in entering the app marketplaces of larger tech partners?
Today, a lot of B2B buyers purchase through the app marketplaces of larger companies, like Hubspot, Zendesk, and Salesforce. When we first got started, a significant number of our initial customers found us through these exchanges.
They were searching for the phone system that best integrated with the application they were using, and we stood out.
People are largely buying through ecosystems now so it can be a great tool for lead generation. This method can be so effective that you see successful applications built entirely on those platforms. Gorgias, for example, is a cool company that was built entirely on Shopify.
What’s your advice for how to stand out and be successful as an app in a larger marketplace?
The bigger the marketplace, the harder it is to get on the radar of the users. Salesforce, for example, is tougher because it has thousands of apps already competing for users’ attention. If there are already many apps solving the problem your app is trying to solve, it’s going to be a challenge.
The first tactic is to try to find an opportunity that others haven’t seen. Hubspot’s app directory, for example, was younger when we entered it. We were the first company in our category, and so there was an open opportunity to solve a real problem for their users.
When you join a larger marketplace, you should focus on racking up a lot of users as quickly as possible, and making those early users happy. We made sure to provide very hands-on customer service when we first entered a marketplace. We tracked our net promoter score from shared customers and it was very high.
You should also try to engage the partner’s marketing team as much as possible. We did a lot of e-books and webinars with Hubspot and Pipedrive, for example. Our biggest, most successful partnerships have stemmed from active co-marketing and co-selling.
How do you attract tech partners to build integrations on Aircall?
About 20 tech partners built into Aircall last quarter, and that was due, in part, to marketing around our API. Our large and growing user base has also made it more compelling for partners to build on us.
Most of our API marketing has been toward business decision makers and highlighting how it can improve their bottom lines. We are starting to do more marketing to the developer community, though, and I think, in the long-term, that is the strategy that will drive the most results.
Do you have a relationship-based approach to working with your tech partners?
It is still relationship based. We start off by demoing our product to the partners, and we give them sales collateral. We set up Slack channels for specific partners so the Aircall team can easily communicate with the relevant people on our partner’s team about co-marketing and co-selling opportunities.
We have partner relationship managers who handle these accounts, and the bigger and more strategic the partner, the more resources we allocate to the relationship.
As we have grown, we are trying to turn this more into a scalable process with a formula but in a way that still facilitates a real relationship.
How is your team structured in terms of who owns the relationships with the tech partners?
We have partner relationship managers that own anywhere from one to 15 accounts, depending on their size.
Partnership managers report to marketing, though they are their own team. Their ultimate goal is to onboard and train new partners. A smaller side of their role is doing co-marketing, sponsorship of events, and webinars. We have a partnership marketing manager who is responsible for overseeing the marketing of all the partnerships.
The partnership team manages our top integration partners but they don’t necessarily oversee which partners would come in next.
Our ecosystem manager owns the marketing of the API, who comes in next, and building out specific product categories, as well as getting adoption from our customers. They report to marketing as well.
The partnership team and the ecosystem team are really closely connected but independent of one another. Product is also separate but involved as they have to map out the integration configurations for each tech partner, which is key to its success.
Aircall’s marketplace is fairly large at this point. Do you have advice for SaaS companies just starting to build out their own marketplace?
I would recommend avoiding too many cookie-cutter connectors. Just having a connection to another software isn’t enough. Focusing on volume without quality is not a good strategy - such integrations rarely meet the needs of your target customers, and so they will gain little traction.
Integrations are not an assembly line product. You need a good understanding of how and why your customers want to use an integration. It takes a lot of research and customization to make an integration and a partnership successful. It’s better to invest heavily in a few tech partnerships instead of trying to do a ton on the surface level.
Another important consideration is the brand and culture match of a potential partner. You can have a technically compelling integration but it won't be successful if there is a culture clash.
Co-marketing and co-selling efforts tend to falter when brands have different voices and values. And if the brand personality is that different from your own, your customer bases likely differ as well, which would make it difficult to generate leads or drive adoption from their ecosystem.
How important do you think app marketplaces are in the SaaS market?
Companies are looking at ecosystems now. We have reached a commodification of the SaaS market, and users have 50 different logons and no one talks to each other.
Pandium’s motto of “integrate all the things” is what people are looking for. People want apps that are working together. Customers don’t want individual products. They want ecosystems that make their workflows work.