Insights from a Decade of Technology Partnerships with Atlassian's Head of Partner Growth

Learn valuable insights from the Head of Partner Growth at Atlassian on assessing new technology partnerships, structuring with competitors, and common challenges.
Written by
Elizabeth Garcia
Published on
August 7, 2023

This conversation is transcribed from the podcast Between Product and Partnerships, and sponsored by Pandium an integration and app marketplace platform for SaaS companies and their technology partners.

In this episode we spoke with Richard O'Connell, The Head of Partner Growth at Atlassian, a SaaS company likely best known for their team collaboration software like Jira, Confluence and Trello and more. 

Richard been working on product partnerships for a little over a decade, and in this interview he discusses: 

  • How to objectively assess new partnerships to get ahead of potential red flags.
  • How to structure partnerships with competitors.
  • Why lack of executive alignment shouldn't be a deal breaker for new partnerships.
  • Best practices for communicating needs to executives
  • And where partner relationships tend to struggle the most.

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.

Transcript

Start

Liz: Today, I'm speaking with Rich O'Connell, who is the Head of Partner Growth at Atlassian, and who has been working on product partnerships at Atlassian for a little over a decade. So, I'm really excited to hear about his experience and learn more from him. Thanks for taking the time, Rich.

Can you share a little bit about Atlassian, yourself, and your background in tech and product partnerships?

Rich: Yeah, happy to, and thanks for the invite to come and talk today. 

So yeah, I work on the product partnerships team here and have been at Atlassian for about five years, working on strategic and integration partnerships.

For folks who aren't familiar with Atlassian, we build products that help folks kind of plan, organize, and deliver their work. We're likely best known for Jira Software and Confluence, but we've launched a number of shiny new products recently. 

So, I highly recommend folks check out JIRA Service Management and Atlas, which were launched recently and are pretty cool.

Liz: Awesome. So, you've been working in the product partnership space for a really long time. 

What are some things that you've noticed have changed over the years and others that have remained constant or consistent?

Rich: Yeah, I feel older when we started talking about decades in this particular industry. I think some of the interesting things that have changed over the past couple of years are kind of the move from single products to platforms. 

You know, it's a more complicated operating environment, but also, it allows for much more powerful integrations. 

You're looking at things like identity and how you can kind of salt, and pepper integrations across your products, as opposed to just a small part of maybe one or two screens. 

So, I think that's really interesting. I think also just the consumerization of b2b software. Users' expectations are a lot higher now.

Users' expectations are a lot higher now.

“Just Okay” is not good enough. Things need to have a good user experience. They need to be fast, they need to be intuitive. That's been a big change. 

And then also, I think, you know, what is often called the Cambrian explosion of SaaS apps, or just the fact there are so many b2b SaaS apps out there being adopted.

Now, it's not just one or two or three people in an ecosystem that you need to have relationships and integrations with, there's a much larger palette of folks to work with now, which is great for folks who work in the partnerships area broadly. 

I think things that have stayed the same is the need to focus on customers. They need to be front and center at all points.

The currency that we all work in is trust.

That focus really helps cut through a lot of that noise in partnerships. And then, you know, the currency that we all work in is trust, you know, so how do you keep customer trust? 

How do you keep trust between your partners? How do you keep trust with the internal teams that you're working with? Those are two things that I see staying consistent for the next, you know, forever, effectively. 

Liz: I definitely agree with your point about the consumers and integrations now. They're not just a nice-to-have, they’re a need to have when it comes to the buying decisions of SaaS users.

That was all a great segue into the conversation that we're going to have today.

So, starting with building product partnerships, there can be a lot of excitement around a new potential partnership. 

What do you suggest partner managers objectively assess before going into a partnership to get ahead of potential problems?

Rich: Yeah, I mean, new partnerships are awesome. They're one of my favorite parts of this job. It often involves a lot of brainstorming, and that's when you get to be creative and throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. 

I think it's important to not get too carried away and come back to your motivations for the partnership. 

What customer problem are you trying to solve? What customer needs have been flagged that the partnership can help with? It's important to shape some of those discussions.

Evaluating structural differences between potential partners is helpful. Do you go-to-market in the same way? Do you use different channels? Is one of you very enterprise-focused and the other more focused on smaller customer segments? 

These are all things to double click on early in the relationship. Are there differences in how you develop your products? Are you both going to be working towards an integration MVP? Is there an expectation that it's far more feature-rich and closer to a gold master before you release to customers? 

These are all things to consider to avoid future challenges. Additionally, it's important to consider if your products are actually complimentary. 

It can be tempting to partner with larger companies in a particular area, but if your users aren't going to use both of your products simultaneously or in a way that makes sense for integration, a partnership or product partnership might not be the right way to go. 

It's also crucial to evaluate the teams on both sides. Are there gaps in skill sets? Is one group very mature and the other just finding their feet? Looking at things like this can be helpful early on, and everything can be managed and mitigated if you get ahead of it.

**Learn more from Richard about getting ahead of potential partnership red flags here**

Liz: That's a really framework to think through. One thing I'm also thinking about is partnering with competitors. It's important to not automatically count them out as potential product partners.

What are your thoughts on partnering with competitors? 

Liz: How do you suggest beginning to even establish that relationship, and maybe some of the differences between structuring this type of partnership versus others?

Rich: Yeah, it's a great topic. There's a quote I like here by someone called Jim Barksdale, who used to run Netscape. He once said, "The only way to make money in business or software is bundling and unbundling." And I think that's really true in SaaS. 

In SaaS, there's constant M&A and the constant release of features.If you look at a company like Microsoft, they have Office, Teams, GitHub, LinkedIn, Minecraft, and Dynamics. 

They're not an outlier; many companies now have a product that serves multiple segments. The modern reality is that you're going to have to partner with folks that you're competitive with.

Assume good intent.

To help keep that process moving forward, focusing on shared customers is crucial. Focus on the things that are similar instead of the areas that you might be competitive in. Also, assume good intent. 

People want to do good work, do the right thing for their customers, and make their products more attractive for those customers.

Focusing on the data can help cut through pushback.

So try to focus on what you're both trying to do, while your joint North Star is and how you can help each other. Also, use more data in the process. Really go deep on how many customers you share, what segments they are, and what kind of feedback you have had around demand for this integration or partnership. 

Focusing on the data can help cut through any more qualitative pushback or questions or concerns you might get from either side or internal teams.

Be creative, start small, and don't think that it needs to be a big bang that changes the industry. 

Maybe just start by going to each other's events and building some relationships with folks. Sometimes from those small initial steps, more interesting things can develop.

Liz: So really focusing on the data and the customers. You touched on this a little bit towards the end, but what can one do if there is some internal resistance to partnering with a competitor

What are some ways that you would suggest building relationships or trust internally, and with the competitor you're looking to partner with?

Rich: Another good topic. I think being open and transparent as much as possible and being radically candid, to use a  buzzword. 

Don't shy away from talking about the areas you're competitive in; note them so that people know that maybe there are areas that you won't be able to collaborate or areas that are out of bounds for discussion.

And that's okay; sometimes naming it can take the power out of it. I think leading by example is important. Be willing to make the first step and share what you're trying to do. 

Be consistent in the messages you're conveying to all of the different parties. It can also be helpful to point to previous partnerships that have happened in this space.

So you can go to one of these folks and say, "Hey, I love what you did with X, Y, and Z. How would we go about doing something like that?" 

Using analogous examples can help people get their head around things that might be less tangible initially and point to what you're trying to do and how you're trying to do it.

Liz: That's great advice for starting to establish that trust or rapport. 

When it comes to building trust in a partnership, where do you tend to see partner relationships struggle the most?

Rich: The currency partnerships teams work in is trust. And the partnership is going to struggle when any of that trust is eroded in any way. Common things that may happen are when you're not able to execute on a commitment. 

Unfortunately, sometimes you can get carried away and over-promise and under-deliver, and that can be challenging. I think the regular kind of run-a-business stuff, people understand that things change, such as roadmaps changing, people leaving or having vacation, or something else planned.

As long as there's a reason for things to have changed, everyone can understand it.

I think it's more in those areas where either you haven't done your own due diligence and you don't know your own business and your own business cycles well enough, or you've over-committed to something, maybe with the best of intentions, but it's always better to try and under-promise and over-deliver. 

These are the common reasons for things going wrong. But again, if someone hasn't done their own internal due diligence, that can cause issues.

Liz: I had my last interview with a partner manager at Ryder E-Commerce, and they actually have this health audit score for all of their partnerships. The relationships section was the one that's weighted the most out of all of them. Because, to your point, that responsiveness, trust with the partner is the foundation of all the other work.

Rich: Maybe to build on that as well, it's always good to have a few people at a partner that you have relationships with. Obviously, if you're only working very closely with one person, whether it's their BD team or their partnerships team, if they leave, and you have to effectively rebuild a relationship, that can really slow things down. 

So it's always good to have two or three folks that you're chatting to.

Liz: I'm going to shift gears a little bit. I saw something really interesting in one of your blog posts about where you had mentioned having executive alignment when building a new partnership is nice to have, but shouldn't be a deal-breaker to move forward in a partnership. 

I thought that was interesting because I feel like I've often heard of the struggles that partner managers or partnerships teams have with getting executive alignment and investment. 

Why shouldn't lack of executive alignment be a deal-breaker for a new partnership and how can product partnership leaders work around this?

Rich: I think it comes down to understanding how your company likes their executives to function. Some companies are a little more top-down in that they want the execs brought in early, and they kind of bless the partnership, and then everyone else goes and executes. 

Other companies are more bottoms up, where the partnership teams effectively get to make a lot of their own decisions. And in that case, execs are usually only brought in if there's an escalation or a challenge, or maybe a relationship that needs to be repaired somehow.

So, it comes down to how your company operates. Then there's obviously the other side of the house, which is how your partner's company likes to operate. 

I've seen instances in the past where a partner team won't really engage unless there's been a short exec briefing or even just a handshake-type session. And if you feel like there's enough value in the partnership to make that happen, then fine, go and make it happen.

I think what I have found in working with executive teams is that they are more than happy to help in any way they can, as long as you can show the value that will be delivered by engaging them. 

I have never seen a partnership fail because of a lack of executive relationship or even alignment at an executive level.

So, all of these ways can work, and it's just about learning what your team likes to be engaged in and what your partner's team needs to be engaged in.

Liz: You have written about communicating with executives on your blog. 

When a partnership does need help from executives, what approaches have you found successful or helpful when communicating to executives?

Rich: I'm far from an expert here, but a couple of thoughts. First, executives context switch a lot and tend to be deep in the details. 

Assume that the leader you're working with doesn't remember the last conversation you've had about this, and give them lots of context upfront. Give them a briefing to introduce whatever topic you might be covering with them and provide a refresher.

Be clear on what you need from them upfront. If this is just an FYI, be clear about that. If you need them to unlock funding, be clear about that. Don't bury the lead, be clear upfront on what you want to get as an outcome.

Try to be neutral and use neutral language. Don't get too carried away with your own emotions. Executives try to maintain neutrality so they can be objective in their decision-making. Going in with too strong of an emotional perspective can be jarring for them.

Remember, they want to help. Folks can get worried from time to time if they have an executive briefing, especially if it's not something that happens all the time. 

But these folks want your company to be successful, and that happens by you being successful. Just remember, they're on your side.

Liz: Could you share an example of an experience like this in your personal experience at Atlassian, where you didn't necessarily have executive alignment, but you worked around to still go for the partnership?

Rich: I've had a couple of meetings where, you know, some of the leadership team might not have really understood the long-term rationale for some of the work that we were doing. But thankfully, here, teams are given a lot of freedom to operate, so we were still able to proceed and eventually show the value that we knew was there.

So you might get some questions like that from time to time, which are more like, "I don't really know why you're doing this, but I'm going to trust you to make the right decision." So again, going into those sessions, you really have to be well-prepared and make sure you've gone deep into the data and thought about other options that you should have considered. 

So, doing your homework before those sessions can be very helpful.

Liz: Looking at the current macro-environment of technology and SaaS in general, it's been a challenge and a change for many companies and employees recently. 

What impact do you think the current macro-environment of SaaS will have on the partnership community?

Rich: A couple of things. I think projects across the board, not just in partnerships, will get more scrutiny around the return on investment. 

Partnerships will get more scrutiny around the return on investment. 

We'll be asked to think about whether we need to invest upfront or space it out, and whether we're clear on the return and whether there are other ways to do it with a higher ROI. 

So those conversations will probably happen more frequently.

We might be asked to do more with less, so if you thought you were going to hire more developer experience people, partner marketing, or product management, depending on how your partner teams are structured, maybe that won't happen. 

So we'll probably have to get better at doing things like prioritization or sequencing things differently. 

That's something that I could see happening across the board. 

Ultimately, though, our customers will still have needs and requests, so we'll still have a lot on our plates in terms of projects and programs that we want to ship for them.

What’s your argument for continued investment in partnerships even in these uncertain times?

Rich: Yeah, if you think of the value partnerships teams provide, they're all things that are very important to customers. Integrations can improve the customer experience, ideally make our products more sticky, and ultimately reduce churn or unlock new features, which can help with revenue or even an upsell. 

All of our work can materially contribute to the goals and KPIs that are getting even more important now. So anything that links to customer satisfaction, churn reduction, and stickiness is really important. 

These are all areas that would be helpful to consider in prioritization or roadmap planning sessions.

Liz: Yeah, and I understand from many of the interviews that I've done that sometimes tracking the attribution to partnerships is a challenge to show really the result of that investment. 

Is there anything that you've learned in your time about some of the best ways to make sure that that attribution is happening?

Liz: I know, this is a loaded topic haha.

Rich: Yeah, we never have enough data. I would say, involve as many teams that have some kind of data competency at your organization as you can. 

You know, sometimes that's a growth team. Sometimes that's the product team that can kind of instrument some of this tracking.

Sometimes it's a marketing team. Or, if you're very lucky, you have some kind of data science support. But kind of, you know, hunt around inside your organization, and maybe even chat to teams that are doing something tangential.

Like in the past, if you've worked with a team that kind of does SEO for some of your own marketing content, maybe they can help with some of your partner marketing content. 

So, if there are kind of sister teams at the company that you can leverage, if you haven't got dedicated support, then, you know, they're usually great places to start.

Liz: Thank you for sharing. That was actually my last question. Thank you so much Rich for taking the time and sharing your experience. Where can our audience connect with you?

Rich: Yeah, if they have Atlassian questions, they can get me at roconnell@atlassian.com. And if they're interested in reading more about what I spoke about today and other product partnerships related topics, they can have a look at Apipartnerships.com.

End

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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 Richard working on this at SaaSecosystemalliance.com.

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