The E-Commerce Ecosystem: Industry Trends and Best Practices
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.
Over at the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance, we hosted a discussion with partnerships leaders at Rapyd Payments, Forter, Recharge Payments, and Constructor.io. We wanted to share some of the insights from the discussion, which included frameworks for prioritizing tech partnerships, trends in e-commerce partnerships, and advice for scaling a tech partner program in the e-commerce space.
Our CEO Cristina Flaschen talked with Claudia Raigoza (Director of Strategic Partnerships at Rapyd), Ernesto R Tey (VP of Global Strategic Alliances at Forter), Tyler Murdock (Platform Partnerships Manager at Recharge), and Lee Barber (Head of Partnerships at Constructor).
Some of the big platforms are shifting towards consolidating their solutions to offer more of their own features versus partnering. Others are taking a more open approach. Where do you see the industry moving?
Lee shared that he believes ecosystems are 100% the future, and cited a study by Accenture where 76% of CEOs said that in five years their business model will no longer be recognizable. He went on to explain that ecosystems will be the primary driver of this, and how some organizations are appointing Chief Ecosystem Officers now because there are so many moving parts to keep track of.
Claudia agreed and furthered this point by sharing that every company has 3 potential paths to expansion: building, buying, and partnering.
“Building is time intensive, it's costly, and it can be really disruptive to your roadmap,” Claudia added. “Buying a company is costly as well, and you have to integrate a whole other ecosystem into your company. When you partner, and have the right partner, this helps make sure that you are both expanding your functionality, as well as, offering your customers the best that's out there.”
When it comes to deciding whether to consolidate or partner, Ernesto then brought up the struggle with hiring engineering talent and allocating engineering resources. There is often a choice to be made between having engineers build something that is complementary through a partnership or having them work on the core product.
He went on to share that merchants want the best commerce solution, shopping cart, inventory, fraud tech, and other functionality, however, no one solution has enough resources to provide the best experience for all of these.
“Merchants don't want someone that does it all because no one can do it as well as individuals can. It's ultimately our job to have the best integrations so that merchants have choices." - Ernesto Tey, VP, Global Strategic Alliances at Forter
Tyler built on Ernesto’s point, stating that it all comes down to the variety that a given solution can offer. He made the comparison to the success of Walmart or Target vs. more niche clothing stores due to the variety that they offer.
Cristina then pointed out how in the current market there are now so many highly specialized SaaS products. For example, instead of companies solely offering payments or search services, there are now companies that offer payments or search services only for specific niches.
“The idea of being all things to all people, which was maybe a 15 to 20-year-old monolithic concept, is starting to age out as we see so much more really highly specialized solutions.” - Cristina Flaschen, CEO and Co-Founder of Pandium
There are a lot of different types of partnerships including tech, agencies, influencer, and channel. How do you see the roles of different partner types currently shifting in the industry?
Tyler stated that he is seeing a dwindling out of merchants going to agencies to custom-build solutions. He mentioned that having a marketplace and system where merchants can see the best solutions available in comparison to others is a more common trend that he has noticed.
“Having a marketplace and system where merchants can go, compare solutions, and discover up-in-comers, is a trend that I don't think is going anywhere.” - Tyler Murdock, Platform Partnerships Manager at Recharge Payments.
He further added that agencies have recommendations and partners now as well, stating that about five years ago a lot of agencies didn't have a tech stack they would recommend. Now they have top partners as well.
Claudia made the point that each partnership structure brings a unique value proposition and client persona to the table. She also added that speed to partnerships is something that's under-discussed and should be a big decision point. She shared that some of Rapyd’s most successful partners have started as a referral before growing into full-fledged integrations.
Lee shared that he has noticed less of an emphasis on channel sales and resellers, and believes that co-sell motions are becoming much more common. He added that Constructor.io for example is part of the Mach Alliance, which is a one-stop-shop for any online retailer going through digital transformation and looking for best-in-breed tools.
He mentioned that in instances like these, there might be deals where four or five partners are all involved and selling different tools, but because there’s an open-source API it is a plug-and-play situation. He shared that these types of situations blur where the lines are between companies and products.
Ernesto added that in the past companies would take a year to develop a product and then go to market together, whereas the co-sell and tech partnerships model now enables companies to validate solutions sooner.
He further added that this allows companies tosequence the release of different features based on the customer's need. For example, if merchants have a specific need like increasing their brand awareness, integration partnerships can enable an organization to fulfill that need in a much shorter time period. Then, if it makes sense, they can build in-house solutions later.
“Before co-selling and partnerships, companies had to decide everything up front,” Ernesto stated. “By the time they got to deployment and went live, maybe six months had gone by, and by then, there's another set of technologies that have come along.”
What framework do you use to decide which technology partnerships to invest the most in?
Lee mentioned the importance of first putting a strategy in place using a company’s objectives, and Claudia suggested identifying partnerships where they can get quick wins for their clients based on feedback they have received.
At Rapyd, Claudia also shared that they take time to look into the future and identify partnerships that are going to expand the scope of what Rapyd can provide. For example, this scope of expansion can be geographical or vertically oriented.
Tyler then brought up the point that every ecosystem has a core set of integrations that its customers need to have. He mentioned that companies should first invest in those integrations and figure out from a marketing perspective how they can get access and co-brand.
Ernesto then added to Claudia’s earlier point about regional partnerships, citing that there are significant technology partners that have large market share in other regions that don't have a presence in the United States. Given this, he mentioned that being able to work with these types of partners can give companies a head start in those regions. He added that there are many opportunities here for companies to get a relatively large ROI for a very small investment, and presence in regions on behalf and through partners.
Tyler then shared that Recharge Payments had reinvented its technology partner program, focusing on its scoping abilities and the verticalization. In their attempt to go after some more niche markets, their framework for prioritization has been to first define what their company is going after, who are the partners to have involved when going after that market, and what can Recharge do to add value to those partners as well.
To Ernesto’s earlier point about regionalization, Tyler mentioned that Recharge is looking to expand into different areas as well. They are thinking about what they can learn from partners in regions where e-commerce is growing in different ways, and how they can help them get into the North American space as well.
Lastly, Lee advised the audience to guard against not properly evaluating the true value proposition of a partnership, stating that they should be able to define to a customer in a concise, one or two-sentence story why a partnership is going to be beneficial to everyone involved.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see to growing a successful partner program in e-commerce?
One of the biggest challenges Lee mentioned he has faced stems from ecosystems being extremely complex with a lot of moving parts.
“Every day It seems like there are 50 new companies offering a solution to a problem that you didn't even know you had,” he said. “It could be foreboding to both learn about these other products and your place in the ecosystem. This is why having a very clear strategy is important because otherwise, it's easy to get overwhelmed.”
Tyler built on this point, adding that it can be challenging to stay top-of-mind in a constantly changing ecosystem with new vendors coming in every day. He added, however, that working to stay top of mind isn't enough, and that companies should continue to think about how they can innovate, be true to what they’re building, and make sure they’re staying ahead of the curve of other solutions.
He explained that there are many examples of companies that were successful in building great brands but crumbled fast. Tyler suggested that the audience look at some of the common trends of those instances and learn from their mistakes.
"Getting good representation as an ecosystem is about having a story and strategy and then continuing to iterate on top of it to stay valuable and solve more problems as they come up." - Tyler Murdock, Platform Partnerships Manager at Recharge Payments
Claudia then brought up the challenge of making sure goals are aligned at the beginning of a partnership. To avoid this, she again pointed to the importance of partnership teams having a strategy in place to make sure that they are going for the right pool of partners. She also reminded the audience to align this strategy with the other cross-functional strategies within the company.
“None of us operate in a silo,” Claudia said. "We work very closely with our marketers, product teams, and sales teams to ensure that all of that aligns with the partnerships that we're going after to make the company successful and ultimately our partners and our clients successful.”
Ernesto then brought up a challenge that stems from the partnerships model shifting to APIs and webhooks. He mentioned that companies now not only need to consider who they are building into, but also who they are building for when it comes to creating a platform that makes it easier for other products to integrate into them.
Ernesto also admitted that all of this requires a robust internal ecosystem with product and engineering teams to move these partnerships forward and decide which investments to make.
The panelist then continued the conversation to talk about how companies should think about the decision to monetize, staffing for tech partnerships, and the data they collect on their tech partnerships.
If you're interested in hearing the full discussion, join the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance to gain access to members-only resources and a recording of this event.
You can also register for more upcoming roundtables on interdisciplinary topics relevant to those working in technology partnerships.