Scaling Partnerships in HR Tech: Interview with Jonathan Wall
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.
Jonathan Wall was a marketing VP prior to becoming the VP of Strategic Partnerships at PrismHR. They have over 55 tech partners, who primarily build into their software. Jonathan shared his approach to selecting tech partners, advice on building integrations, and why he thinks it's important to be able to say no in partnerships.
You are the VP of Strategic Partnerships but have a background in marketing, and specifically product marketing. How and why did you transition from marketing to partnerships?
I originally started in tech as a BDR, doing outbound.
I fell in love with marketing and product marketing because it is cross functional and is involved in every aspect of the company, from marketing, sales, product all the way to finance. You work with everyone and you have to be thoughtful and diligent and tell a great story that you can bring to market.
I was leading the marketing team at PrismHR, but I did not have full revenue and business responsibility in that role, and I started to realize there was a gap in my ability to have an impact.
I was a VP and, when we brought in a CMO, I was presented the opportunity to lead the partnership team. I saw it as a good opportunity to expand my impact and round out my skills. I had always been involved in partnerships in some form, but I switched into fully owning the relationships and results from partners.
Who does your team report to in the organization and what are the goals of your team?
I report to the President of a business unit, and he reports to the CEO. Even though I report to one business unit, I also work with others.
Right now, I have 5 members of my team. Three focus full time on partnerships, and one spends about half their time working with partners.
We make software that handles payroll and HR functions. We provide software primarily for organizations that help small businesses outsource their HR. So our software is ultimately being used by their small business customers and their employees.
My team’s goal is to identify and implement partnerships that extend the platform and add value to one or more of those audiences. There might be integrations to compliance or time tracking apps, for example, or apps for financial or wellness for employees.
We do not really focus on agency partnerships per se, but you can make the case that our HR Outsourcing customers are similar to agencies. All have customer success account managers, and my team manages the day-to-day operations between our tech partners and internal teams.
We own the overall partner relationship and are measured by the success of each partnership.
How many tech partnerships did you have and how do you decide which companies to partner with?
When I took over the team, we had about 20 technology partnerships in place, and we now have 55 plus.
We have a framework for deciding which partnerships to pursue. The framework has many different categories, including evaluating what the need is, what the customers are saying, what the business market is, the health of the business, and how many customers they have.
Over the last 18 months, we got the bulk of the partners from our framework onboarded and now we are moving into ancillary categories and deeper into categories where we already have partners.
My advice is to remember any framework you use is just a framework. Often, when embarking on a partnership, you will have really high hopes based on what you hear and what you understand. But the reality can be different.
Sometimes it can be harder to build an integration than you thought or sometimes an integration does not happen to fly as you thought it would.
Remember partnerships are a long game. You have to build the integration the right way and educate your audiences on using it.
In our case, we have had tech partnerships that took 12-18 months to hit their stride.
Overall, if you have good first principles and are solving a real problem for your customers, then you are going to be successful.
Do you have advice on the integration building process?
We have mostly partner built integrations. We can be very strategic in our partner decisions because we have many potential partners coming to us. We share our API and our docs, and we validate and prove out the integrations our partners built. Then we help bring it to market.
One thing to remember is the integration building and launch process never goes as fast one would hope.
Sometimes a partner needs something from our platform to be changed for their integration to work as intended, for example. You might think 3 weeks but that often becomes 3 months.
It can be hard to coordinate with other departments in your organization and with multiple partner teams. You should always plan for more time. Early on, we were very optimistic about timelines, and we realized we should build in a cushion.
When we started, we did not have any consistent processes in place with our product and engineering teams. We would select a partner that we thought that would build an integration well.
But now, we won’t go to contract until we have a technical meeting of the minds.
We have our tech team validate that this will work and offer any feedback on elements that need improvement. We delayed a launch once, for example, because the integration needed improved security and the partner went back and fixed it.
I would recommend having consistency in your process, and since companies are trying to move fast, the more you can set context for tech teams who are not 100 percent dedicated to partnerships, the more quickly you will get what you need.
Make sure that each engineering team knows, very clearly, what problem the integration will solve, and what the other partner app does. People can read API documentation but they need to understand the use case and user story. There can be real value when you exchange data, but if you can’t find common ground in solving a real customer problem, other teams are not going to invest.
What are some changes you made as your tech partner program got larger?
We had to build a more consistent structure around onboarding, go-to-market motions, communications, and getting partners the right connections and technical support, like a sandbox. We also implemented a process to share data with our partners in terms of how everything is working.
How do you track results and what are your goals?
Ultimately, the result we are going for is revenue. Since we are a keystone system in our niche, we refer leads to our partners and we take a revenue share from those leads. Though we also get leads from our partners, leads are mostly going to our partners.
We also look at the employee per month added to our contracts, and if that is attributed to a partnership.
Revenue coming from partnerships is growing faster than other areas of the business, though it is also a smaller percentage of the total.
Outside of revenue, we have 3 overarching principles to measure success.
One, is this partnership good for every stakeholder in some way? A partnership should benefit us, the partner, customers, and our customers’ customers. This value doesn’t have to be revenue. It could be time savings or improved job performance, for example. But unless there is some benefit for all sides, it is not worth doing.
Two, we look to see if a partnership is simplifying something. This could be go-to-market activities, the product, or the customer experience. But integrations should simplify some process.
Three, is this resulting in innovation? We like to see integrations that are bringing something new and better to market.
Do you also measure integration usage and the impact on retention?
Revenue is the north star metric but we also look into adoption and see who is using which integration. We try to look at trends over time, and for the more mature integrations, we have that data. This data enables us to find customers who we think could grow by adopting more integrations, and we reach out to them.
We have a pretty high retention rate already and so we are more focused on getting contract expansion with our integrations than retention increase.
Do you have an integration marketplace in your software?
Right now, adoption of integrations occurs through our sales team. We plan to build a true marketplace concept where customers could discover integrations on their own, and decide which ones to offer their customers. That way they can have a "choose your own adventure" experience, and just click and go.
Do you have any advice for other SaaS partnership leaders?
It really comes down to finding the right partners and building the integrations that have the most value overall. Saying yes is as important as saying no. In our case, ry to say no because we don’t want to overwhelm our customers with too many choices in any particular category.
In partnerships, being able to say no is really important. Be really thoughtful with whom you partner.
You need to provide ongoing care and foster customer awareness of integrations, and this requires having people involved.
So much of partnerships is about just finding common ground and good. You need to align around what you’re doing for common customers, and build an integration that works well and meets their needs.
Beyond that, you have to get along with people. Otherwise it is not going to work well. There are so many moving parts to partnerships that you need a personal connection to hold them all together.
Technology, business value, and relationships are all important. You have to find people you can trust. Our most successful partnerships are those based in very strong relationships where we work well together.